At the dark nadir of the year, burly raccoons feast past midnight on the dead-ripe fruit of autumn. Overhead, Orionid meteor showers leave no trace across an onyx sky. November wind scours the world. Early in the morning toward the end of the season, I plant a solitary Yellow Bellflower apple tree at our local community college in the cold ground.
I have been tending this maiden tree for almost a year, ever since a celebratory gathering held last October, dedicated to the propagation and preservation of rare and endangered heirloom fruit. The apple is an ancient member of the extended rose family, radiating out from a parental matrix that includes wild strawberries, blackberries, tiny currants, and quince, as well as pears, plums, peaches, cherries, nectarines, and apricots.
The rose-apple family is rooted in a long, winding story; just as the Zen tradition is transmitted in narrative, so the tale of the natural world is told. Authentic flavor matters. It lingers in every story, urging open fresh ground. To grow the apples of antiquity and to savor the storied taste of persistent culture is my dharma farming practice in this season.
Apples originated in an earthly paradise, far in the Tien Shan, or Heavenly Mountains, of western China and old Russia. They carry a fossil record dating back to 2500 B.C.E. and remain one of the oldest and least domesticated fruits on earth. In North America, apples have been grown since 1600, when they arrived with the first European settlers. Since then some 16,000 distinct varieties of apples have been bred and developed on this continent. Today a scant 3,000 varieties remain, representing an 80 percent loss of biological diversity caused by global climate change and disease, forfeit of available agricultural land, and the steady demise of small, local apple nurseries and traditional knowledge associated with growing heritage rose-apple fruit.
The Yellow Bellflower is a distinctive apple, grown since colonial times for its fragrant crisp flavor. Grafted Bellflower apple trees were transported west by covered wagon in the 1800s, and today these trees perfume the maritime Pacific coast from Washington to Mexico. Bellflower apples bear large, lopsided bright lemon-yellow fruit, their outer skin flecked with dots of russet and rose. This apple has characteristic raised bumps surrounding its calyx basin and cream-colored flesh that explodes with flavor in late autumn. So it was absolutely simple when my Zen friend Linda called me a year ago to identify the gnarled old apple tree laden with misshapen lemon-yellow apples that she had discovered growing on an abandoned farmstead at Volunteer Canyon on the shores of Bolinas Lagoon, just six miles from Green Gulch. “Sounds like a classic Bellflower to me,” I confirmed, listening to her reverent description of the old being. She promised to bring images of the tree and some apples to our heritage fruit gathering a few days later.
I will long remember the auspicious occasion of that gathering hosted by the California Rare Fruit Growers. During the proceedings a quiet woman named Judith Mader slipped into the one empty seat in the room, which happened to be next to me. A slide of the Volunteer Canyon apple tree flashed across the screen. With a sharp intake of breath, Judith asked me where that tree was growing. I answered her in a whisper, attentive to her curiosity. When the lights came up, Judith modestly addressed the assembly. From the image and fruit of the venerable Bellflower apple she had recognized the exact birthplace of her beloved grandfather, Baba Walter Samuel Runckel, born on January 24, 1896, in Volunteer Canyon, a place that Judith and her sister had only visited once in their lives with their grandfather when they were children. The crowd stirred, gathering around her. Linda sliced the Bellflower apples, the sharp scent of memory suffusing the room. Judith wept to taste the fruit. She was not alone. Together we celebrated Baba Runckel, who had lost his home during the Great Depression, to return only that once with his granddaughters. Soft-spoken and subtle, a lifelong fisherman, hunter, and public servant, Baba Runckel was also the probable planter of the 100-year-old heirloom Bellflower apple of Volunteer Canyon.
Our relationship with Judith Mader and her family did not end that day. This February, Judith and her sister Marijane joined us at the community college organic farm to graft strong scion wood from their grandfather’s tree onto nine strapping new maiden trees, all related to the same healthy Bellflower tree that I just planted in the college orchard.
In this dark season a robust affection for apples, story, and kinship among all beings conjures up mythical Jambudvipa, the “rose-apple island” of Buddhist cosmology. Here humankind inhabits an earthly paradise where dharma is taught, practiced, and realized in the wide shade of a venerable rose-apple tree with fruit enough to feed a hungry world.
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