Examining Life Thoreau-ly

written by: Jess Geary - Eagle Hill School
This was by far the best year for apples that I can remember. The apple trees on our campus in central Massachusetts were heavy under the weight of the sweet fruits, and I took advantage of them personally, as a parent, and as a teacher, as often as I could. With my borrowed 10-foot fruit picker, my children and my “Thoreau” students and I collected well over a hundred pounds of apples from September to December. We fulfilled our “apple a day” requirement; read about the historical and literary importance of apples; closely observed and journaled about an apple’s texture, appearance, flavor, smell, and eventual decay; took a tree-core sample; collected and organized fruit from each tree; and enlisted the help of professionals to identify the varieties and age of the trees on our school’s campus. This gastronomical and pomological gluttony had a profound effect on me.

Aside from the cliché’ references to apples—apples for teachers, “the apple of my eye,” “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”—I had not really given much thought to the significant contribution and influence of apples, that is, until I stumbled upon Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Wild Apples,” part of his “Wild Fruits” manuscript that was published posthumously. During the summer of 2015, while creating the curriculum for our inaugural Examining Life Thoreau-ly: A Thoreau Overview class, I read this essay. Mind you, this was before I had any idea of the apple boon that awaited my taste buds come September. It was simply one of the many essays, journal entries, and speeches I read during this process. I found myself swept up in Thoreau’s elaborate explanation of the significance of apples in folklore, native cultures, religious texts, ceremonies and celebrations, and the writings of Pliny the Elder. While he does differentiate between the wild, native apples and the cultivated apples, preferring the former to the latter, Thoreau praises both for having an ambrosia-like quality that feeds humans and animals alike with god-worthy sustenance:

Some gnarly apple which I pick up in the road reminds me by its fragrance of all the wealth of Pomona…are these not still Iduna’s apples, the taste of which keeps the gods young forever…surely the apple is the noblest of fruits. (Thoreau 589-91)

I decided that I could use apples to cover most of the major topics I wanted to cover in this Thoreau overview class: curiosity, close observation, sense of self and place, and mindfulness. Each of these aspects of Thoreau’s writings I believe aligns with the profile of a twenty-first-century learner.

On the first day of my classes, the students closely observed, wrote about, mindfully tasted, smelled, and drew an apple that I had picked that morning. The students’ descriptions were very interesting and insightful, and even those who claimed they were not artistic were able to sketch out very detailed observations of the apple’s color, shape, and size. We then put the cut apple into a clear, plastic baseball display case and sat it on a shelf, where the students had the opportunity to view it for the next 22 days. Its existence led to many interesting discussions about decomposition and the cycle of life and death, and I referred to it during our readings of Thoreau’s writings on life, death, beauty, and the cycles of nature:

At the same time we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees…we are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast. (Thoreau 258)

Painted by the frosts, some a uniform clear bright yellow, or red, or crimson, as if their spheres had regularly revolved, and enjoyed the influence of the sun on all sides alike,—some with the faintest pink blush imaginable,—some brindled with deep red streaks like a cow, or with hundreds of fine blood-red rays running regularly from the stem-dimple to the blossom end, like meridional lines…and others gnarly, and freckled or peppered all over on the stem side with fine crimson spots…as if accidentally sprinkled from the brush of Him who paints the autumn leaves. Others, again, are sometimes red inside…fairy food, too beautiful to eat,—apples of the Hesperides, apple of the evening sky. (Owens 608-9)

On day 22, the students and I revisited the apple, examining it just as closely as the first time through words and images in our journals, and discussing how our class was bookended by this process of decay. We were lucky enough to have a visiting artist, Rebecca Buglio, displaying her works at our school at this time as well, and her works focused on incorporating mold, fungus, and decay in art. I took the students to see her work, and they wrote about their responses in their journals.

In addition to observing natural processes, and taking part in mindful-eating exercises, we used the apples as a basis for discovering the concept of sense of place and sense of self. We were blessed with a bountiful harvest of apples right outside my classroom, but the origins of the apple trees, and the varietal information, was unknown. The next project was to conduct research on the history of our town, Hardwick, and on our Eagle Hill campus. We read articles about the Mixter family, whose members owned many homes and businesses in town in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, including the land on which we are situated. The students collected and labeled three samples from each of our six trees, which I delivered to the UMASS Amherst Orchard in Belchertown, Massachusetts, where a pomologist, Dr. Duane Greene of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, identified our varieties. We also had a local forestry expert assist us in taking core samples from the trees, and another to help with counting the rings to date the trees. In the spring, we will be adding markers to the trees, and a plaque that explains more of the campus history so that future students, teachers, and visitors will know more about this shared place.

During this project, the students also wrote about and conducted research on their own family histories, and the significant events in their hometowns. This broadened their understanding of the importance of knowing the history of the land around them and their familial roots as a way to help them feel a connection to place and self no matter where they may end up in life.

Finding Thoreau’s “Wild Apples” was a gift for me, and I believe, based on the responses many of my students wrote during my class, it was an opportunity that opened their eyes to being more curious about the world around them, and seeing a connection between the past and present in a tangible way. They requested to pick and eat apples each day, they read journals and excerpts from a man who died 153 years ago and made connections to their lives and society today, and they engaged in fascinating philosophical discussions on each of the topics set forth. Through this fruit, we were able to dive into many aspects of character education that may have otherwise been too personal to approach. In a sense, it was the vessel, which, once time and outside forces got to it, began to soften and release its seeds. As Thoreau said, "I have great faith in a seed…convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders” (Cramer 268).

As a culmination to this year’s Thoreau project, the whole school will be taking part in a “Walden Day” event at the end of April, with the cooperation of Mother Nature, of course. The intended day will include multiple activities, inspired by various Thoreauvian concepts: mindfulness, art and music in nature, environmentalism, close observation, minimalistic living. Students and teachers will engage in all sorts of “experiments” that challenge their expectations, push their imaginations, and help them to advance confidently in the direction of their dreams.

Works Cited:
Cramer, Jeffrey S. The Quotable Thoreau. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.
Owens, Lily, ed. Works of Henry David Thoreau, Illustrated. New York: Avenel Books, 1981. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, Inc. 2012. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Wild Apples.” Walden.org. Walden Woods Project. Web.
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