A Theology of Wild Apples

Ralph Austen's Spiritual Use of an Orchard, first published in 1653

Ralph Austen’s Spiritual Use of an Orchard, first published in 1653

In 1653 Oxford horticulturist Ralph Austen published The Spiritual Use of An Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees: Set Forth in Divers Similitudes Between Natural and Spiritual Fruit Trees, According to Scripture and Experience. “Fruit Trees . . . do truly . . . preach the attributes and perfections of God to us,” Austen insisted, “and we may read divine truthes in them, as in a book consisting of words and sentences.” Austen set out to demonstrate this by offering up “100 observations in nature [from the orchard] with similitudes.”

Unsurprisingly, in this age when the ideas of John Calvin loomed large in theological discussions, many of Austen’s “observations in nature” were devoted to the question of election of grace. For Austen the cultivated apple tree, safe within the walls of the husbandmen’s orchard, was a fitting symbol of those God had elected for grace. The cultivated trees of the orchard had been chosen by

A Puritan Brand Apple surely has most of its wild sinful nature under control.

A Puritan Brand Apple surely has most of its wild sinful nature under control.

God (the Husbandman) from amidst all the wild plants beyond the orchard walls. The wild apple trees left behind were, in Austen’s view, a symbol of the “many wicked men and women in the world which were passed by in his decree, and therefore are not brought into his Church, nor engrafted into Christ.” These wicked persons, like wild apple trees, “bring forth sower, bitter, and posynous fruits.” Some of these wild trees might give the appearance of beauty and character, but when tasted, commonly yielded only bitterness. These visually attractive wild apples were Austen declared, much like the Pharisees, “but painted fruits, faire to a carnall eye, without any good taste or relish.” The good Christian, he warned, must not be fooled by them. Austen further declared that even among those trees included within the orchard’s walls resided a wild and corrupt nature, which could only be subdued by grace (and careful pruning and grafting.)

Wild apples

Wild apples

Many pious Englishmen shared Austen’s moral disdain for the “wild” ungrafted apple tree, and in that peculiarly Calvinist way, they believed that they might find in the condition of a man’s orchard evidence of his spiritual fate. While English Puritans and other devout men of wealth and standing carried these moral assumptions across the sea to English colonies in the Americas, many of the poorer immigrants to England’s American colonies had a different set of priorities. Scratching out a living on frontier farms, these colonists could not afford the expense or the labor required to emulate God in their husbandry. Instead they quickly planted, then neglected, disorderly orchards of seed grown trees, so that they might turn their attention to other labors required for their sustenance. These orchards served their short term needs quite well. Their imperfect fruit fattened their hogs, quenched their thirst when converted to cider, flavored their food as vinegar, and the best fruit provided them with a variety of apple dishes for their table. The orchard’s appearance, and the inconsistent quality of its fruit were low priorities for a family focused primarily on sustaining itself with limited financial resources and limited labor.

Yet well-off travelers in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century frequently cast harsh moral judgments on the subsistence-minded farmer and his wild, disorderly orchards. And by the 1820s, many moralists found another reason to condemn the seedling orchard: most of its apples were destined to be converted to demon alcohol.  Temperance societies called for the destruction of wild apple trees as an essential step toward sobering up the nation.

The wild apple had always served the poorest American farmers quite well. But it did not find an articulate defender before Henry David Thoreau. In an essay from his 1850 notebooks, the Concord contrarian celebrated the virtues of New England’s “Wild Apples.” Freed from Calvinistic concern of determining who was and was not among God’s elect, this prophet of individualism celebrated the distinctiveness, and unique potential of every wild apple tree. The wild apple, to Thoreau’s mind, “emulates man’s independence and enterprise,” and was more worthy of attention than its cultivated cousins.

Thoreau had little use for “civilized apple trees,” insisting that he preferred “to go

Henry David Thoreau, champion of the wild apple.

Henry David Thoreau, champion of the wild apple.

through the old orchards of ungrafted apple trees . . . so irregularly planted . . . that you would think that they not only had grown while the owner was sleeping, but had been set out by him in a somnambulic state.” Wherever he spied a ripe apple on some unkempt apple tree tucked in the corner of a cow pasture, Thoreau thrilled at the possibilities it represented. Many of the most highly praised commercial varieties, after all, had first sprung from some chance neglected seedling. As a result, Thoreau offered his own “observation in Nature” underpinned by a philosophy quite different from Ralph Austen’s. Wildness was not a sinful nature which needed to be suppressed, but the place from which true genius arose.  “Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What lesson to man! So are human beings, referred to the highest standard, the celestial fruit which they suggest and aspire to bear, browsed on by fate; and only the most persistent and strongest genius defends itself and prevails, sends a tender scion upward at last, and drops its perfect fruit on the ungrateful earth. Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in country pastures  and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.”

Henry David Thoreau's Wild Fruits, published posthumously, contains his essay "Wild Apples" and other writings on wild fruits.

Henry David Thoreau’s Wild Fruits, published posthumously, contains his essay “Wild Apples” and other writings on wild fruits.

Thoreau’s dissent, never published in his lifetime, did not result in a widespread re-evaluation of cultivated and wild apples. The cultivated apple continued its favored status. But by the middle of the 19th century, that status was not rooted in old Puritan dogmas but in the values of the marketplace. In an age when markets had penetrated into the most isolated regions of the nation, an apple’s virtue became increasingly connected to its commercial value. This did not doom the wild ungrafted apple tree to extinction. It continued to spring defiantly from the earth at the margins of pastures and alongside stone walls and fences. But if not doomed to extinction, it was at least to doomed to invisibility, unseen by all but impractical poets and adventuresome children.