Race and Apples 6: Cherokee Peaches

Let’s talk about peaches for a moment. I think they will cast some light on one man’s solution to racial divisions, through fruit picking. The man was Henry David Thoreau, and in his essay Wild Apples he wrote:

If a New England boy’s dealings with oranges and pine-apples have had more to do with his development than picking huckleberries or pulling turnips have, then he naturally and rightly thinks more of the former; otherwise not. No, it is not those far-fetched fruits which the speculator imports that concern us chiefly, but rather those which you have fetched yourself in the hold of a basket from some far hill or swamp, journeying all the long afternoon, the first of the season, consigned to your friends at home … What are the imported half-ripe fruits of the torrid South to this fruit matured by the cold of the frigid North?
Thoreau’s half-ripe fruits are peaches. The fruits of the north are apples, which you could pick yourself. This was Thoreau's metaphor for the United States, not so much a comparison of two types of fruit but a dismissal of absolute rights of land ownership. Thoreau’s story is not just about apples sweetened in frost. His “torrid fruits of the south” are simultaneously peaches, with their blushing red cheeks covering white flesh and the cultural compact that expressed itself in both the hot-headed politics of slavery and the gentile romance of plantation culture. 
Private property rights in the Okanagan Valley mean this buck can be shot out of season for simply being here.

Horticulturally, the targets of Thoreau’s disdain are the soft-flavoured domesticated peaches that early innovators at the end of plantation culture (and shortly before the US Civil War) shipped to New York packed in oak barrels — the standard shipping containers of the day — filled with powdered charcoal. The charcoal, readily available and cheap, cushioned the fruit, separated each peach from its sisters (to prevent the spread of rot), absorbed any spilled juices, neutralized mould, and arrived in the north dusty and black, like slaves that had come through the underground railroad. Horticulturally, this method of shipping was clever, but when these fruits arrived they tasted miserable, as Thoreau noted, just as peaches still do when they’re picked green and sent to market to ripen during transit. Only a person who picks a fruit, noted Thoreau in Wild Fruits, enjoys its “cream.” The peaches of Thoreau’s time were sour, thin, dried out and beginning to shrivel. US National Public Radio takes the story further:

Gentleman farmers saw fruit cultivation as something particularly refined and European, and a craze for all things “oriental” gave peaches an even greater allure. This cultured crop fit in with the narrative white Southerners were eager to tell about themselves after the Civil War. “Growing peaches for market required expertise that seemed unnecessary with corn and cotton, which any dirt farmer could grow,” Okie writes. To succeed, peach farmers had to be able to access horticultural literature and the latest scientific findings. Both required literacy, as well as a certain level of education that was still out of reach for many newly freed men and women.

Before railroad networks, built up by the Civil War, made quick shipment of ripe peaches packed in wicker baskets possible, these fruits were considered of little value and what trees there were around plantations were considered wild things that slaves could pick at will for themselves. NPR goes on:

Before peaches became an important crop, they hung low on branches throughout the South and landowners who saw them as without value were happy to give them freely to slaves. But once peaches were part of the agricultural economy, they became off limits to all but those who could afford them. By the end of the 1800s, Okie writes, a landowner who caught three black children pilfering little more than a handful of peaches charged the father of one $21 for three peaches, threatening the children with a chain gang if he caught them in his orchard again. A laborer working in a city at that time made less than $1.50 per day on average, making it likely that, for a black family in the South, those three peaches amounted to roughly a full month’s wages. What was once freely available to African-American became “a white fruit,” Okie says.

After the war, the fruits that fed the slaves were now harvested by black workers.

An undated photo shows peach pickers being driven to the orchards in Muscella, Ga. Black labor was essential for the success of the peach crop, even if African-Americans were rarely credited for the importance of their work.

Red-headed American boys and aristocratic American women were the images used to sell these peaches.

Thoreau was most interested in what he saw as the root of slavery, labour and possessiveness: absolute property rights and the corresponding loss of common land. He wrote about it at length in his essay Walking, the bread-and-butter of his presentations on the touring circuit in the decade before the war.

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only — when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the PUBLIC road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come….In wildness is the preservation of the world.

Thoreau envisages a future in which private land is so fiercely held that people will be “confined” to the highway between one “gentleman’s grounds” and another. All citizens, in other words, except a gentleman on his own grounds, will be slaves within the narrow space serving private property for the state: roads. Thoreau’s statement, “To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it,” is not attached to either group of people in his distinction between private slaves and private gentlemen but hangs independently between them, applying equally to both.A man enslaved exclusively to a road can’t know what a road is, because he has no ownership. At the same time, the act of fencing oneself within privatized land doesn’t allow one to experience earth, because one has enslaved oneself within a narrow social representation of it. In Thoreau’s reading, in other words, slavery turns everything and everyone into an image of itself. His antidote to private/public distinctions is their union in “wildness” — not, it should be noted, in wilderness, which is a quite different form of land use, outside of the state. By advocating “wildness” instead of the slavery that the distinctions of private property force on all people and which force people to conquer more territory in the West, Thoreau reveals that the true frontier is the full inhabitation of the land one already has, in a manner akin to that of the native peoples who used to live upon it. It is a commonage, but one in which the crop is not grazed down, but picked in its wild state. Thoreau’s wild crops include the obvious, wild blueberries, wild hazelnuts, wild grapes, wild plums and the crop that epitomizes for him the true citizen of the true country fully inhabiting his or her space: the wild apple; a creature that has left domesticated pastures and has found a richer, hardier, more flavourful life amidst the wild trees and hillsides that once surrounded it and were considered of no account. As he explains in the essay, “Autumnal Tints,” however, written, as was “Wild Apples,” on his deathbed and intended for publication in the same series, these fruits also include leaves:

Flowers are but colored leaves, fruits but ripe ones. The edible part of most fruits is, as the physiologist says, “the parenchyma or fleshy tissue of the leaf” of which they are formed.

Thoreau’s essay continues with long, poetic descriptions of trees and grasses progressing in colour through Autumn, in an ever-deepening correlation between the ripeness of the earth and the maturity of human individual and collective spirituality. To appreciate this ripeness of colour, Thoreau proposes, requires familiarity with landscape, so that one knows where a lone maple might be, far up a side valley, that will burn redder than any others and will define the whole forest by its colour, or will plant its offspring in city streets, instead of business and traffic and men, to bring this spiritual connection into the heart of the social organization of the state.
Wildness is not to be conquered, Thoreau proposes, but to be embraced. America should not describe itself in terms from foreign places, such “as Naples yellow, Prussian blue, raw Sienna, burnt Umber,” or by “trivial articles of commerce, — chocolate, lemon, coffee … [or]… cinnamon,” but through “the earth beneath our feet” and its maples, elms, oaks, willows and grasses, in the full range of their colour. He then makes a plunge into politics, by describing bitter-sapped (he has tasted their fall sap on the tip of his knife) but blood-red fall oaks, slamming European contamination of North American experience through a tree metaphor by describing bitter-sapped (he has tasted their fall sap on the tip of his knife) but blood-red fall oaks:

in a small grove of white pines on Pine Hill in the east, on the very verge of the horizon, alternating with the pines on the edge of the grove, and shouldering them with their red coats, look like soldiers in red amid hunters in green. This time it is Lincoln green, too. Till the sun got low, I did not believe that there were so many redcoats in the forest army.


What makes this history so fascinating is that the peaches at the root of this chain of imagery were present in the plantations of the South because they had been brought by the Spanish to their missions in Florida in the 16th century, were gifted to the Seminole people (and others) who laboured on those farms (for better or worse), and who incorporated them into Native American culture. When the Cherokee and other nations of the South were dispossessed of their lands and exiled to Indian Territory in the half century preceding American arrival in Oregon, culminating in the Cherokee Flight on the Trail of Tears in 1838,

You can read this long and startling history here:

they left peaches behind the wherever they went, the peaches that grew wild on plantations and which fed slaves, and on the actual Trail of Tears, planted peach pits in promising locations along water sources and protected areas, so they would be there to feed them on their return. The tradition continues, perhaps more haphazardly, perhaps not, on the Yakama lands in Cascadia:

When Thoreau talked about wild apples, this is what he meant: not people or peaches planted on plantations in a parable of ownership, but people and fruits, apples and peaches and wild blueberries and sumac leaves all together, moving over the land and supporting each other. It is a gift from the Cherokee, that became the salvation of slaves, that became the foundation of the reconstruction of plantation culture into an industrialized form after the US Civil War, that powered the settlement of Cascadia and has led now to grocery store peaches that taste like water and industrial refrigeration, but look oh so very fine. A peach off the tree is a fine thing, though. The Cherokee understood that, and how to bring it about, and so did Thoreau. Imagine if we provided that experience , freed of the supermarket, those extensions of plantation culture into our privatized lives, on which we have collectively become so dependent.

Red Havens in my Garden

Currently, we market industrially-packed and grown peaches picked by near-slave-labour, on the old model. We could market experience instead. I prune for one orchard that sells U-Pick peaches for $2 a pound. Their neighbours sell picked peaches for 50 cents a pound. Organic peaches around here go for $2.50 a pound. I think you can see the pattern of desire. Ignoring it and continuing the current system continues the model that Thoreau tried to warn us against and which he, at least, claimed led to slavery. Ignoring it continues to deny the wisdom of the Cherokee, for the division of the earth into the property of the few and the transformation of taste into tastelessness. I will look at this division over the next few days and chart how its effects show up in racialized work forces, decreased produce quality, overpriced food, a decline in creativity and insecure supply chains. See you then. Here’s where we’re going:

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