“Early American, Apples in a Porcelain Basket” (2007), by Sharon Core. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York
After Apple Picking
By Mark Powell
When you think of apples you probably don’t think of the South Carolina mountains, and there is no reason you should, at least not anymore. What was once a thriving if small industry has been reduced to a few family farms that operate on the U-pick or roadside stand model.
Growing apples is labor intensive: the ladders, the buckets, the early fall mornings. This was once the work of migrant workers in South Carolina. But now those men and women from Mexico and Central America are building McMansions an hour east in Greenville. Apple orchards are something of a niche business. Folks looking to escape the southern heat can spend a day winding through the cool mountains picking their Ginger Gold and Granny Smith and Red Delicious. It doesn’t hurt that the remaining orchards here are gorgeous: mountains so green they seem covered in felt, ridge after ridge in the clear light of autumn. For years, my wife and I lived in a small cabin on the edge of Sumter National Forest. Every fall we’d see cars with their Georgia and Florida plates loaded with cider and bags of Mutsu.
But not that many.
While apple trees can grow all over the state, you need the cooler temperatures of the mountains to yield edible fruit. Until the 1980s, Oconee County was about as perfect a climate as the South offered and the orchards were once abundant enough to form a co-op.
But by the mid-eighties, the seasons had begun to shift, the flowers blooming earlier so that a late frost would wipe them out. The cost of pesticide had gone up, too. The crab is the only wild apple native to North America, and as Wayne Cox points out in his excellent article for Edible Upcountry, you can’t grow much else without a heavy reliance on pesticides. Further, orchard apples are grown from grafts, not seeds. All that, Cox writes, is “why the large, sweet, showroom apples we’ve learned to love are impossible to grow without the use of pesticides, requiring more than any other food crop.” And then, of course, there is the labor situation.
Last summer, I sat outside, having lunch with my family at Chattooga Belle Farm in Long Creek. We were celebrating my youngest brother, who was getting married the next day, and the chance to sit outside in a place that looks north over the mountains, to eat good food, to actually gather safely—if in scattered and distanced fashion—in the midst of a pandemic felt like the summer’s gift. Just below us was an apple orchard, and we watched folks come smiling out of the rows, sliding their masks back into place. My wife and children and I had started the year in Romania, where I was teaching on a fellowship. We’d had what felt like a harrowing trip back to the U.S. in late March, arriving just as international borders closed, moving—as so many of us did—into quarantine. I come from a big, close family, and we’d hardly seen anyone since Christmas. So the day was particularly special.
After lunch, I wandered down into the bee-loud glade of the orchard. I didn’t know at the time that what is now Chattooga Belle had been known for most of the 20th century as Horseshoe Lake Farm and co-owned by that most industrious of the Marxes, Groucho.
The next day, my brother was married behind nearby Whetstone Place, a stunning old farmhouse turned wedding venue where, it so happened, my maternal grandmother had been born. It was a happy day, but walking my grandmother around the grounds felt like walking into a ghost story. The house had been in our family for four decades, from the 1930s through the 1970s, and my grandmother pointed out where they had kept the garden and worked the fields, where they piled eight people into a room sized for two.
She told me how as a teenager she’d waited all day for a young man named Cliff James to pass by. He was headed down the road to visit his girlfriend, but my grandmother had set her eye on him.
“Cliff and Ernest,” she said. “You remember Ernest, don’t you?”
I told her I did. Cliff James was my maternal grandfather, Ernest James his older brother.
“Well, of course you do,” she said, and smiled. “You remember all the old stories.”
Here’s one of them: one spring morning in 1944, Ernest James woke on a hillside in southern Italy to realize that over the course of a chaotic and bloody night of fighting his unit had been encircled by German forces. The sun would have just been coming up but even in the gathering half-light it must have been clear: they had no way out. The captain sent back the word that he was planning to surrender come daylight, but in the meantime, it was every man for himself. If you wanted to try to break out, now was the time. Ernest huddled with his squad, and here you have to imagine the exhaustion, the smell of cordite and wet wool. The machine oil grooved in the lines of their fingers. They’d already fought their way through North Africa across the Mediterranean to Sicily and now onto the Italian mainland. They were nineteen, twenty years old, but they were no longer children: they’d been in combat with the 85th Custer Division for over a year.
They must have looked around.
There was the possibility of slipping through the German lines, but then they realized they had no language, no map; they wouldn’t be able to place themselves on a map even if they had one. Imagine the resigned looks on their faces as they broke down their M1 Garand rifles, stomped the bolts and operating rods, and threw the trigger groups as far as they could. The way their mouths must have been set as they came out with their hands in the air. All around them the Nazi empire was crumbling, but my great-uncle—the eldest brother to the man who would eventually become my grandfather—was now a prisoner of war.
I would hear these stories four decades later, the quiet child in the porch swing. Around us, acre after acre of the apple orchard Ernest and his wife Jolene owned and worked. He was something of a mythic figure, at least to me. He’d worked as a teenager in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, seen Morocco and Tunisia, Oran and Algiers. As a POW, he’d been sent to Stalag VII A north of Moosburg, Germany, where, working on a farm, he was stabbed with a pitchfork. He had the display case of medals and the stories of watching swarms of American and British bombers flying overhead on their way to Berlin. More than a year after his capture, he was liberated by Patton’s Third Army, and he remembered the general standing on top of a tank to address the newly freed prisoners, his ivory-handled revolver white as bone. He’d entered the Army weighing 165 pounds; that day, the day of his liberation, he weighed 99. Working on that German farm, he had very nearly starved. The Army doctors thought he’d be dead in a year’s time and sent him home to Long Creek, home to the mountains of South Carolina.
He didn’t die, of course. He didn’t stay long, either. There were no jobs, and like thousands of Southern Appalachians he headed to Detroit, where he wound up working in a hydromatic transmission plant in Flint. It was there he met his future wife, Jolene, who had come north from Kentucky with her sister. They returned to South Carolina, but the years were hard. Ernest’s health was bad, and he would eventually lose much of his stomach in a series of surgeries for maladies brought on by malnutrition and what today we know as PTSD. He spent long periods alone in the woods, hunting and fishing. While Jolene worked in a garment plant, Ernest ran a series of general stores, then sold them and bought a herd of Whiteface Hereford cows.
And then in 1970, he got into apples and something seemed to fall into place.
The 1970s were the heyday of South Carolina apples, and Ernest and Jolene prospered, leasing or owning five different orchards. They had a son by then, Alex. There was a packing center where the co-op sold in bulk. There was a deal to export to China. Today, open fields give way to long mountain views, but back then it was all apple trees, the roads hemmed in by them, the ridges obscured. Never more than in 1978. That year there was a bumper crop, the apples on the trees like grapes, the limbs so heavy they had to be propped up, so that to some literal and figurative extent, apple trees were all you could see.
By the 1980s, Ernest and Jolene had reduced their holdings to a single orchard—the one where I ran and played as a boy. Much of my second novel, Blood Kin, is set in a fictionalized version of that orchard. I wrote it in my mid-twenties, and while I knew almost nothing about the intricacies of the apple industry, that didn’t stop me from setting a book in one.
My connection, as I understood it, was deeper: not just physical, but, as I would eventually come to understand, nostalgic. Which is to say I loved not just the landscape, but what the landscape represented to me: family, and all the connection and comfort that comes with it. My maternal grandfather is the James side of the family. My mama looks like them, and I’m often told I do too. I have the James forehead, they tell me (almost big enough to be a five-head, or so goes the joke). Those were my people, and that was my world.
Yet by the time I played in those orchards, they were very nearly gone. And then they were gone. When a blight in the late ’80s led to orchard after orchard being bulldozed under, Ernest and Jolene had long since gotten out of the apple business, and what was left were stories—which are sometimes enough. It was true what my grandmother had said: I do remember all the old stories.
But memory, I would come to realize, can distort as much as it illuminates.
I loved not just the landscape, but what the landscape represented to me: family, and all the connection and comfort that comes with it.
In July of 1989, my hometown of Walhalla splashed briefly across the national news after agents from what was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided Piedmont Quilting, a textile mill situated in a squat block building on the edge of town. The raid revealed 85 undocumented workers, all of whom were deported. That number would eventually rise to 117 “illegal aliens,” as they were called back then, including a twelve-year-old, working in what Thomas P. Fischer, head of the INS’s Atlanta office, would tell the New York Times, “almost bordered on bondage.” Recruited from Mexico and Peru, many of the workers had been in the U.S. for only a matter of days. The New Jersey owners faced jail time, and Piedmont Quilting would eventually pay a fine of $580,000.
It was a big deal.
Even as an oblivious high school freshman I knew as much. Though perhaps only because the workers were held for what seemed like weeks—though it was only a few days—at the Walhalla City Gym. It was, and remains, a basketball gym from a different time: the springy wood floor and high dormer windows, that funky sweetness that is one part popcorn and two parts sweat. I grew up basketball obsessed, and though by the time of the raid I was playing high school ball, I was still in the city gym almost every summer night for pick-up games, shirts and skins, call your own fouls. You’d suck water from the bathroom sink and hitch a ride with an older kid when it was over—there were no helicopter parents back then. Which is all to say that if that gym was my cathedral, I knew every altar and saint.
So when I saw it one evening on the local news—local being WYFF, an hour away in Greenville—when I saw video of that gym, my gym, covered with cots and crowded with the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, I felt my small insular world break open, if only a little.
How could any of this surprise me?
Before they came to the textile mills of Walhalla, the migrant workers in this region used to work for the orchards, and weren’t migrant workers part of the old stories?
When they owned their orchards, Ernest and Jolene had typically hired six migrant workers, some of whom lived in their house; the others lived in a small white house on the edge of the trees. They all worked together. They all ate together, too, Ernest and Jolene and their son Alex crowded around the kitchen table with the workers who would arrive from Mexico in the late summer and return in the winter. But sometime around 1975, two of the workers asked to stay on, and Ernest kept them working as long as he could, pruning and raking brush. When there was no more work for them, he did something I’ve always found astounding. Ernest didn’t abandon them or kick them out; he loaded his wife and son and two friends into his new Oldsmobile Royal Delta 88, and the seven of them set off for Monterrey, Mexico, some fourteen hundred miles away. Somewhere along the drive, they stopped at a roadside store that had a cooler box of “Co-Colas” and goat meat sandwiches, and Ernest began to tell the proprietor about his stomach troubles. By then, a third of his stomach had been removed, and the glovebox of his pickup was stuffed with jars of baby food and blue bottles of V.A.-issued Mylanta. The man recommended a diet of peppers. If you stay with me for a year, he said, I’ll cure you. Though he turned him down, Ernest did consider it. Mexicans had lived with his family. Why shouldn’t his family live with Mexicans?
I’m not trying to romanticize any of this. The migrants were workers doing a difficult job for low pay. But when you live with someone, when you share meals with someone, when you cross half a continent piled into a car together, I imagine it’s hard not to see that fellow human being as, well, a fellow human being. It was the same at orchards and farms everywhere and if it wasn’t exactly family, it wasn’t exactly business either. At least that was how I’d understood it growing up.
In 2008, my wife and I moved to Florida so I could take a position at a small private university halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach. Over the next few years, we had a son and a daughter, and I started making side-money taking incoming students on summer trips down through the Florida Keys. It was half-service, half-play—at least in theory. We’d take an airboat ride through the Everglades, snorkel the Pennekamp Reef off Largo, kayak through stands of giant mangroves around Islamorada. That was the play. The service involved a visit to a community in Florida City that sat in the block-and-chain-link shadow of Krome, an ICE detention and processing facility tucked back past the saw palms and Robert Is Here, the locally famous fruit stand. (Edwidge Danticat describes the tragic death of her uncle at Krome in Brother, I’m Dying.) The community consisted of “ghost children”—the children of migrant workers who were gone much of the year—and was the place from which many migrant workers began the trek north, harvesting tomatoes in South Florida and then strawberries in the irrigated fields along the Gulf, peaches and watermelons in Georgia, apples in North Carolina. It was an eight-month odyssey of endless indentured work. Slave work, if you got down to it.
Over the years, I came to know a few of the migrant workers in Florida. They told me stories as vague as they were violent, stories always second-hand about a cousin or friends, stories difficult to believe yet hard to dismiss. Stories about how the coyotes slipped the workers through the Sonoran Desert on foot and into Florida in the backs of U-Hauls. When they got out in Florida City or Immokalee, they owed fifteen hundred dollars for the transport and went to work paying it back, earning two or three dollars a day while living ten to a trailer in the windless fog of mosquitos and heat and the powdered residue of insecticides so harsh they burned the skin. Of course they paid for that too, the privilege of the trailer costing, say, ten dollars a week, and transportation to the fields—that was another buck. Then, of course, a worker might one day decide to eat something, and there was yet another cost. In the end, it meant not only could they never pay off their debts—they actually wound up in greater debt. Which meant workers could very easily spend the rest of their relatively short lives never venturing a half mile beyond the fields.
There were periodic raids by ICE or the sheriff’s department, but none of it added up to anything like justice. At best, you were deported, and what was waiting for you there? Work in a textile mill if you were lucky: making sixty pesos for ten hours of work, sewing collars and fostering arthritis. Or maybe you would exist at the whim of a cartel. If you were a young man, you might be a runner, a look-out, a mule. Until, of course, you weren’t. Until, of course, a cartel bullet, placed neatly behind your right ear, pierced the growing tumor the insecticides had started years before.
When the traveling Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum came to our town, I took my family and my students and stood there for a long time, half angry, half bewildered. I suspect the balance of cruelty to acts of simple human kindness is probably no different now than it ever was. Yet standing in the shade of the museum, I couldn’t make what I’d just seen correspond to my childhood understanding of migrant work.
I stood there confused and very nearly reeling.
I stood there and started thinking about apples.
In late November my daughter and I drove down to Long Creek to find what was left of the James family orchard. We met my brother and his family in the parking lot of the old packing house—the rest of my extended family had either tested positive for COVID-19 or were awaiting test results, and it felt as if the collective good fortune of the summer had run out. It was difficult not to feel a certain amount of sadness. It was meant to be a family outing—we would caravan in our various cars, my grandmother leading us around all the old spots: here’s where I met Cliff, here’s where Ernest and Jolene lived, here’s the old packing house. If we couldn’t have Thanksgiving we could at least stand around in a mountain orchard and remember. But it wasn’t to be, and I was sorry they weren’t there.
Not that there was much to see. The orchards had disappeared a generation ago and what had been rolling hills are now a morass of scrub and pine. The packing center is a plastics recycling center, and I couldn’t quite tell if anyone was living in the old James homeplace or not. My brother asked if I wanted to go knock. I thought about it but didn’t. Instead, we drove over to an orchard, where I bought my daughter a jug of cider. She wanted to drink it then and there, but I told her to wait, to be patient. We drove over to the cemetery and found the graves of Ernest and Jolene.
Someone had marked Ernest’s headstone with a small American flag, and it was while I was standing there that it came to me just how extraordinary a human he had been. Not just his service in the war, not just his capture, but how he had transmuted the violence of that experience into something more gentle, how he had transformed that trauma into simple kindness. He had spent over a year working on someone else’s farm, hungry and wounded, scared and angry, and while I don’t want to psychoanalyze him, it’s impossible for me to believe that his experience of helplessness, his experience of fear and yearning didn’t inform the way he treated the men who worked his orchards so many years later. Living in the same house, eating at the same table, driving across the country together—that was his relation to the world, and it was true.
It was my relation that was false. I had taken the extraordinary circumstances of my great-uncle’s orchard and from those circumstances constructed an understanding of the larger world. I remembered all the stories, yes, but remembering a story is one thing, while living in it is another. And that’s what I’d been doing: I’d taken those stories and imagined they represented not one small corner of the earth, but all of it. I’d taken those stories of kindness here and mapped them over suffering everywhere. I’d assumed what I’d witnessed growing up was bedrock when, in fact, it was rare. I stood there and tried to balance it all, and I could not.
Eventually I decided to walk on.
There was family everywhere, after all, all these men and women I’d known as a child, and my brother and I must have wandered longer than we intended: by the time we left, the shadows had lengthened and the sky was losing light.
This early, I thought.
Then I caught myself: it was nearly winter—of course it would be dusk. Now just happened to be that time of year when the darkness seems to last forever. But I knew too that it wouldn’t, and instead of lingering on the thought, I poured cider for my daughter and myself. She thanked me and smiled, and was smiling still as we drove out of Long Creek past the buried orchards and my buried kin, on down the mountain. I watched her in the rearview mirror until the light really was gone, and there was nothing left but the two of us and the highway, and somewhere beneath it all, the taste of apple.