This morning I realized that I haven’t done any pick-your-own-apples this year. At least to Americans, there is a mystique associated with apple trees and apple orchards. Johnny Appleseed, apple cider, and apple pie are as much the American experience as Friday night football and jazz. Apple Computer got its name because Steve Jobs had just returned from an apple farm and thought the name was fun and welcoming. Near my home, there is an apple orchard where people (me included) willingly pay an entrance fee for the privilege of picking their own apples. To their credit, the owners have turned their orchard into a bit of tourist destination, adding a corn maze, a small stage for folk singers, and few Halloween elements to the site. Still the reason that the place can get away with a fee is that most of the other apple orchards in the area are gone. They were situated too close to the edge of various towns and have given way to development. Across the Mississippi River from my home in La Crosse is La Crescent, Minnesota, the self-anointed Apple Capital of Minnesota. Today a visitor to the town would be confused by the nickname; the apple trees are few and far between. The community still holds its annual Applefest, but I think the apples for the event’s apple pies need to be trucked in. Most of the orchards are gone, replaced by subdivisions with street names like Red Apple Drive and McIntosh Road.
Only somewhat related, I am reminded of my first autumn living in Taiwan. The cultural exchange guy at the American Institute in Taiwan invited a bunch of American expatriates to his home for a real Thanksgiving dinner. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) is the equivalent to an American embassy, except we can’t have an embassy in Taiwan because we don’t recognize Taiwan as an independent country. I wound up sitting next to a man who made his living by selling American agricultural products to Asians. This was 1991, and his focus at the time was delicious apples. In the United States, the state of Washington had gone all in on delicious apple trees just at a time when American tastes for apples had shifted to fuji, honeycrisp, and other varieties. His job was to dump the glut of cosmetically beautiful, but somewhat mushy, apples on someone else.
According to recent research, the most common reason for going to nature is to improve personal health. I should be nonjudgmental as to why other people go to nature (so long as they go), but this answer bothers me a little bit. Unless some of the respondents were thinking in terms of mental health, personal health is not a nature-dependent benefit. It equates a walk in the woods with a walk around the block. It says I could achieve the same results by giving up French fries and eating more broccoli. It implies that the natural elements could be taken out of the experience and replaced by a basketball court or a weight room.
This is not to say my response to the same question would be any better. If a student from an undergraduate research methods course came up to me in the woods and asked me why I spend time in nature, the first words out of my mouth would be “Challenge and peace.” The young student probably would ask me to pick one of those two answers over the other, and I would watch her face take on a confused look when I replied,“I’m sorry, I can’t. They’re sorta the same thing.” I sometimes go to nature for a challenge and sometimes for a sense of peace, and sometimes I go fully expecting both in the same outing. Anyone who has spent even minimal time outdoors understands this apparent contradiction. It is as Brian Doyle described his own opposing feelings toward time in nature when he wrote,“You know exactly what I’m saying. You have stood there, too.”