Gripple Apples

Gripple. Nice word. It has an active form, too: grippling. These old words don’t hang out in a dictionary, though, and Google is hopeless with them, but you can find them in Henry David Thoreau’s last work (1862), Wild Apples:

Such [apples] as grow quite wild, and are left out till the first of November, I presume that the owner does not mean to gather. They belong to children as wild as themselves, — to certain active boys that I know — to the wild-eyed woman of the fields, to whom nothing comes amiss, who gleans after all the world, — and, moreover, to us walkers. We have met with them, and they are ours. These rights, long enough insisted upon, have come to be an institution in some old countries, where they have learned how to live. I hear that “the custom of grippling, which may be called apple-gleaning, is, or was formerly, practiced in Herefordshire. It consists in leaving a few apples, which are called the gripples, on every tree, after the general gathering, for the boys, who go with climbing-poles and bags to collect them.”

Sadly, not any more. Here is the state of grippling today, behind the twelve foot tall deer fences that surround orchards like concentration camps:

Northern Flicker and Gripple

I sure do miss grippling.

OK, private property that only mice and birds are free to invade, I get that, sigh (Says a grippler of old), but it comes at a price. In order for apples to return a profit in a world in which there are too many apples stored too long and shipped too great a distance too easily, a few things have to take place:

1. Apples are grown on super-dwarf trees, to reduce labour costs and to double fruit size, which halves labour costs for picking and handling and creates apples the size of turnips or even acorn squash.

2. Apples are thinned on the tree, so that the apples left at picking time are of the highest aesthetic quality, to reduce or eliminate shipping and sorting charges at the packing house level, as well as the picking costs for fruit of low aesthetic value.

3. At picking, any apple not visually perfect is thrown on the ground. 

Up to half of the crop can lie on the ground after the completion of this process. There they will freeze over the winter and ferment in the spring. In the spring, the robins will get drunk on the resulting apple cider and have been known to lie feebly on the ground, lamely flapping a wing now and then, whee. There is nothing left for grippling. There is, also, no employment. In fact, the whole system is designed to eliminate employment. There is, however, this:

Royal Gala Apples

It used to be that apples like this would be picked up for juice. In fact, farmers in these parts once had their own processing facility, called Sun-Rype, to handle this juice. The victim of late 20th Century ideology, it ceased to serve the farmers and now sells huge volumes of concentrated juices imported by tanker truck. The price for apples picked up off the ground is now less than the cost of picking them up. Even so, no grippling.

There are some costs to this kind of land use. Here’s a bit of a list:

1. Precious water is, effectively, thrown away.

2. Farmers are going broke. Their investment and labour is, effectively, wasted.

3. Only people with money have access to food. To protect private property rights, people without money to purchase food receive donations at volunteer institutions called Food Banks.

4. People drink concentrated apple juice from the Third World, contaminated with pesticides illegal in North America. They also often drink industrial apple juice that is digested by enzymes in large tanks and then siphoned off, filtered, and sterilized. Did you wonder why it tasted so weird?

5. A fruit production system that maintains market competitiveness by lowering employment costs finds itself surrounded by people without the money to buy its luxury products. This isn’t accidental. It is a reflection of social structures.

The point is that for all of its benefits the concept of private property means that public, common law rights are removed to enable the property owner to profit from that privatization of public right. It is a powerful tool and actually all works fine, if all citizens are labourers (rather than citizens with inalienable common law rights, such as the right to gripple otherwise unused fruit), and if they are paid sufficiently for their labour that they can provide for their needs for shelter, clothing, and food. For many interlocking reasons having to do largely with industrialization, nationalism, and globalism, that is currently not the case. And by the looks of it…

… their food is lying right here. Would they pick it up? Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. That’s not the point. The point is that when privatization becomes wasteful of the commons and when there is no one to purchase the products it produces out of its monopoly, something has to change. In fact, that change is already upon us. We are looking at images of it.

Royal Gala at the End of Its LIfe

The tree with yellow leaves has only a short time left. Trees like this were planted in the 1980s, with the expectation of hysterical profits over a ten year life, before they were replanted with yet newer luxury varieties. Economic realities meant that didn’t happen. They linger on, in both slow physical and social decline. To compensate, more and more apples are discarded on the ground every year.

So, there you go. Grippling. A darned good word to use when grappling with cultures in decline. In this story, there are no villains. All are being equally exploited by forces that separate them from each other to greater and greater extent. In this shifting dynamic of the boundaries of private and public space, I have no answers. I just have an observation, and, at heart, I have this:


No, not Red Delicious but the apple that settled the West.

One of the best apples I have ever eaten was a nearly-frozen Delicious I grippled under a cottonwood tree, on the edge of an orchard in November, 1980, as the first snowstorm was coming down the Similkameen Valley in a blue wall of darkness. By the time I got the apple off of the top of the tree, and brushed the long, yellow apple leaves from my neck, It was almost dark, the air was long past violet, and snow and the last photons of light were whirling around my head and through the bare, black branches of the trees. As I walked through the new snow, I ate that apple. It was like eating the sun and the earth together, at once, as I held them in numb fingers. It was freedom. It tasted like light. What did Thoreau say about that? Let’s give him the last word:

THE era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England. You may still wander through old orchards of native fruit of great extent, which for the most part went to the cider-mill, now all gone to decay. I have heard of an orchard in a distant town, on the side of a hill, where the apples rolled down and lay four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this the owner cut down for fear they should be made into cider. Since the temperance reform and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no native apple-trees, such as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown up around them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know! Notwithstanding the prevalence of the Baldwin and the Porter, I doubt if so extensive orchards are set out to-day in my town as there were a century ago, when those vast straggling cider-orchards were planted, when men both ate and drank apples, when the pomace-heap was the only nursery, and trees cost nothing but the trouble of setting them out. Men could afford then to stick a tree by every wall-side and let it take its chance. I see nobody planting trees to-day in such out-of-the-way places, along the lonely roads and lanes, and at the bottom of dells in the wood. Now that they have grafted trees, and pay a price for them, they collect them into a plat by their houses, and fence them in, — and the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.

4 replies »

  1. Recently watched a documentary on the gleaners in France – there are ancient common laws which give rights to the public to gleen after commercial harvests – they have even won the right to gleen inside greenhouses – thanks for your praise and memory of ancient common rights!


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