Stacie McCall Whitaker - Stone Coast, Maine

For the Love of Apples

Written By: Michael Bendzela

Note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay, titled “The Killer Organism.”

2015 was a memorable year in our little apple grove. A massacre. One for the books. The delayed spring kept the trees in dormancy longer, so the blossoms—prolific after last year’s off-season—didn’t open until after all danger of freezing had passed. A long, dry spell in May permitted the bumblebees to dawdle in the blooms for days, while also inhibiting the spore-forming bodies of scab fungus (Venturia inaequalis), an organism as horrible as its name suggests. It is the chief slayer of young apples in the Northeast, defoliating whole trees if left unchecked.

Then, a long-awaited, soaking rain came just in time to expand the profligate little fruits. The trees suffered under the weight of too many apples, which could doom them to broken branches, or an unfruitful next year. So, with summer upon us, I set about murdering three-quarters of the apples on our trees.

 

Most years, after the blooms (and the bees) have departed, I spray an insecticide, called carbaryl that wipes out a loathsome weevil and shocks the trees into shedding many of their apples. This method doesn’t work on all our heritage varieties, though, so a week later I have to climb a ladder every day to remove the apples manually. One by one, I shear them from their clusters, leaving behind just the “king,” the biggest fruit, which develops from the central blossom of a cluster.

But once in a while, I have to decapitate even the king, because of a small, crescent-shaped scar on its skin that signals its doom. This is the bite mark of the weevil, which poaches baby apples to serve as makeshift uteri for its eggs and larvae.

I once heard that pests have as much a right to live as farmers do. Would that the pests returned such fine sentiment. Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, a Swiss botanist, declared that “all nature is at war, one organism with another.” Scab fungi and plum curculios kill their thousands, and the farmers their tens of thousands. De Candolle’s war is no less intense in the microcosm. I know an organic farmer who stomps woodchucks to death in his kale patch.

 

By the end of August, we already have some heritage apples for sale (Yellow Transparent, Red Astrakhan, Chenango Strawberry), plenty of vegetables, and eggs, but business is, as usual, spotty. The bitterest lesson a small grower learns is that volume matters. Those who deliver, win.

I sit at a table behind my boxes of produce, ticking off what I’ve sold, wishing I had grown more of this, less of that, vowing never to grow kale again (though I always do), when a browsing customer aims a lacquered talon at my Red Pontiac potatoes and says, “Have those been sprayed?”

When one considers the hours it takes to lay out, plant, water, cultivate, mulch, pick, wash, package, schlep, unpack, display, and sell fruits and vegetables, the time we spend at the farmers market every weekend turns out not to be worth a whole hell of a lot. And we still end up feeding unsold kale to the cows.

I answer the customer this way: “Well, yes and no. The tubers grow below ground where spray can’t reach them. I spray the leaves above ground with insecticide and copper fungicide to keep the beetles and the blight off them, because if I don’t, they’ll eat the leaves down to stubs and the tubers won’t grow.”

She goes, “Oh,” and retracts the talon. In effect, she has heard me say: “Yes. I spray the shit out of them.”

Scientists can genetically engineer potatoes to resist both blight and beetle. Will I ever be able to get my hands on them, and will that placate customers such as this one?

“I’ll try some of those Yellow Transparent apples,” she says.

I simply get a bag, shake it open, and say, “How many?”

She chooses four, I drop them into the bag, and she leaves. I have bitten my tongue nearly in half. She can’t hurry away fast enough to suit me.

What I have not told this customer is that while most of our crops don’t need to be sprayed, of those that do, nothing gets sprayed as much as apples. I spray petroleum-derived oil in early spring to smother pestilent mite eggs. And when the green buds begin expanding and showing themselves, I spray captan fungicide to keep the scab spores from germinating on the young tissues. If I see buds with holes in them from pests, I’ll add some malathion insecticide to the mix. As the flowers bloom, I spray only the fungicide again, so I won’t harm the bees. Fungus never sleeps. Then, after the petals fall, I’ll spray a tank mix (called a “cocktail,” by activists) of perhaps two fungicides and two insecticides…and the real culling begins.

 

In large orchards, they haul sprayers behind tractors between their rows of trees. Our tiny orchard isn’t large enough to justify the expense of one of these air-blast sprayers, so I practice an aggressive form of Integrated Pest Management to cut my spraying in half. I prune hard in the spring to open the trees to cleansing sunlight and air circulation. I rake every scab-infected leaf out of the orchard and burn it. I keep the grass mowed golf-course-short to harass the bark-chewing voles. And I keep obsessive track of the weather and pest forecasts put out by the state university extension.

In spite of all this “sanitation,” I still have to walk tree-to-tree wearing a raincoat, gloves, and a face shield, while carrying a spray nozzle on the end of a long hose. The hose is powered by a pump connected to the power take-off of a tractor running nearby. I walk beside and under each tree, spraying leaves and fruit, hoping to get good coverage, hoping my timing is right, hoping it doesn’t rain too hard tomorrow and wash the fungicide off.

One morning on the way to my eight o’clock writing class (the way I actually earn a living), I’m driving past the local commercial orchard—a relatively large and successful operation—when I see the farmer out in his tractor, spraying. I pull over to the shoulder and watch.

The skinny tractor, with its bullet-shaped sprayer, wends its way between neatly planted rows of McIntosh and Cortland apple trees. I marvel at the beauty and economy of it all—the farmer safely encapsulated in his well-maintained equipment; all those branches breaking into dance in the invigorating anti-fungal breeze propagated by the air-blast fan; the billions of organisms falling to their obscure deaths.

It has taken about two minutes for the tractor to proceed up one row, turn around, and come back down the other. I calculate that the farmer has sprayed more trees in two minutes than I can spray in an hour and a half by hand. Mechanization wins. Commercial orchards like this one will continue spraying right through the summer to control sooty blotch and flyspeck and apple maggot and whitefly. But by the end of July, I’m done.

Scab season is long over, the worst of the pests have gone, and I’ve had too much of orchard spraying. There are other things to be done—harvesting potatoes, trellising tomatoes, renovating strawberry beds—so I just hope that I’ve slapped back the fungi and insects sufficiently enough to get some decent fruit to customers.

 

Ideas, like pests, grow, evolve, and die. Such was the notion of “organic” growing for me. I don’t want my orchard to live “in harmony” with nature. I want an orchard that obeys my rule, not nature’s, because nature’s rule is a house of horrors. With nature, it’s just eat, shit, and die. And, of course, multiply. Fruitfully. No matter the methods we choose, nature continues in its implacable, inscrutable, indifferent dance.

Everyone, especially the consumer, needs to know this: Farmers kill. We abort, tear out, grind up, and poison a thousand entities for each entity we tend. We have to wipe the earth clean for our crops and plow it and roto-till it, churning up soil and worm alike, exterminating arthropods along with their eggs and larvae, murdering small furry mammals and their pups in their burrows. When I mow an overgrown field to interrupt the natural succession and keep it fit for our cows, I pulverize everything in sight: goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, New England aster. I take down blackberry canes and honeysuckle shrubs. I obliterate bracken fern, sheep laurel, milkweed stalks (along with their pods), and all the insects and other arthropods that participate in such a landscape.

The bees tumble off the goldenrod in clumps. Ground-nesting hornets scatter and buzz the tractor tires, bootlessly stinging them. Lacewings, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, and crickets flit about in the general mayhem of the mower, many of them getting sucked into the radiator grille, or crushed under the tires, or ground up in the blades. A killdeer flees its ground nest and wheels about in panic.

When I stop to clean out the grille to keep the tractor from overheating, it is ghastly. Bees and wasps are hung up in there, along with lady beetles, moths, and the beautiful Argiope spider, a black-and-yellow orb weaver. They tumble out, along with the green dust of the decimated field.

This is the slaughter, the massacre that goes into creating our lunches, and yet the primary worry these days is a few stray molecules of captan and carbaryl on produce. We eat our “contaminated” food, yet continue to grow it in numbers.

 

It’s about time for the porcupines to show up.

I’ll be mowing down grass—that’s “sanitation” in Integrated Pest Management-speak—and notice leaves, branches, and half-chewed fruits all over the ground. Rage ties my stomach in knots. I’ve personally hand-selected each one of those fruits to remain on the cluster, and now the porcupine is knocking them off willy-nilly, not caring in the process of gorging itself how many it wastes or how many branches it damages.

My local animal control officer is kind enough to lend me his “humane” trap. I set this cage, baited with peanut butter and apple slices, under the tree the porcupine has chosen—a Tolman Sweeting apple, which the porcupines return to year after year, because the apples are basically balls of sugar.

Presumably, the porcupine will go to into the cage for a snack, become trapped, and then I can drive it to someone else’s property and release it there to do harm. But I come out every morning to find the cage untouched and the damage to the tree worsened. After a week of this, I graduate to the leg-hold trap. Again, every morning, no porcupine. Now, the next tree over is damaged. Whole branches heavy with immature apples have been gnawed off, and banana-yellow Tolmans lie half-chewed and browning all through the grass. I set two traps that night, one under each tree, and I check them early the next morning only to find them sitting there unsprung, and yet another tree down the row damaged.

The porcupine is winning.

I arise every hour or two during the night and walk out to the orchard with a flashlight and a .22 pistol to check all the trees. Sometime before 4 a.m., the porcupine finally gets its stout, bristly tail caught in a trap. It climbed the tree with the trap still on its tail and pulled the chain from its anchor stake. Then it must have fallen out of the tree, but the chain caught on a limb, interrupting the creature’s fall. Who knows how long it dangled there by its tail, several inches above the grass?

I have to shoot it three times to kill it.

When I untangle the chain from the branch, the porcupine falls with a thud—it is that fat with apples. I turn it over with my boot and am shocked to find an adorable creature—a teated sow, round as a bowling ball, bristling like a hair brush—with awesome claws and an elongated set of yellow incisors that seem to grin at me in death.

With a pang of regret, I dump her into a hole. It feels like I should say a prayer, but to whom? To the carbon, and to the oxygen, and to the hydrogen? Perhaps I should give thanks to the iron, and to the brass, and to the lead. It’s hideous, complicated.

I killed her over the very thing I shared with her, a love of apples.

About the Author

Mike Bendzela / Stonecoast Review / Issue 7 / Summer 2017 / Creative Nonfiction / Killer Organisms

Born in Ohio, Mike Bendzela now teaches creative writing and freshman composition at the University of Southern Maine. His lives with his husband on a small farm, where he raises heritage apples and vegetables for local clientele. In the 1990s, he wrote short fiction that was published in such journals as North American Review and Chicago Review, and in the anthologies Men On Men 7 and The Pushcart Prize XVIII. He stopped writing for about fifteen years to pursue old-time fiddle and banjo, and volunteered locally as an EMT for about a decade. He is currently working on a manuscript of fables and parables on Darwinian themes.