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new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990

The Secret Life of the Apple
Once it exploded with divine flavour - but no longer.
Sue Shaw charts the apple's spectacular fall from grace.

[image, unknown] Faced with a horribly complex problem, do you: a) Panic? b) Go back to bed? c) Break the problem into pieces and look at them one at a time?

The first two options are tempting but the last is more productive. Big questions are too difficult to understand unless we simplify them. And looking at small things in detail can produce big truths. Scientists, for example, map the human body by studying a single cell under a microscope. And William Blake dreamed of seeing the world in a grain of sand.

So what happens if we do something similar and look at the world through a single object - the humble apple, for instance? Well not so humble actually. The apple has suffered delusions of grandeur for centuries - ever since the Biblical legend of Adam and Eve reached north-west Europe and people assumed that the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge was an apple. It seemed logical, because apple trees were among the most popular fruit trees.

The apple has never recovered. One day it was just an edible fruit, and the next it was The Apple, star of one of the greatest dramas of all time: The Fall of Humankind. Pretty impressive stuff?

It thought so. Ambitious beyond the wildest dreams of the banana or the humble plum, it attempted to take over the world. Today it has a pip in almost every pie from computers to cosmetics. The Big Apple is the symbol of the world's greatest metropolis, New York City. Isaac Newton discovered gravity when he saw and educational material the apple conjures good food and health. Even the Beatles used it to symbolize their vision of a more just world when they named their business Apple Corps.

But although the apple as symbol is all around, most of us would still think of it first as a tasty snack. Take a trip down to your local supermarket. What do you see? Temptation on a grand scale. Things that our grandparents could not have even dreamed of. Go on - excite your palate with a little of what you fancy: the soft, the sharp, the acid tang of novelty. Avocado, pineapple, coconut and kiwi-fruit, water melon, lychees and other exotic delicacies - all flown from the furthest corners of the globe to quench our insatiable Western appetite for the unfamiliar. And in the midst of them all are the blushing apples, pretty as you please, proclaiming themselves exotic from Chile, South Africa or Israel.

Would you believe it? This oldest and most common of Western fruits - grown since before the first word was written - is marketed as a speciality. To this end it has settled in countries that a few hundred years ago barely knew of the apple's existence. And with a little help from its friends, the big multinational companies and landowning farmers, it is spreading its roots.

But here is where even everyday eating apples adopt a different meaning according to the context. Take the Grabouw region of South Africa which produces 65 per cent of South Africa's apples and exported around 250,000 tonnes to the European Community in 1989. Many farmers in Grabouw own big German cars and have holiday homes by the sea. To these people, the apple symbolizes money.

But what does the apple mean to the pickers as they stretch and bend, stretch and bend, dawn to dusk, for less than $19 a week? Do they see temptation or trouble on the trees? When their children scream hungrily from inside the damp, overcrowded, concrete houses is it money or mayhem that the apple conjures?

Sweet or sour
Does the apple tantalize or taunt when labourers summon the courage to challenge the boss about conditions on the farm - only to be sacked? That was the fate of one worker on the Anglo American farm estate Vergelegen, dismissed for asking his employers why he was not paid for a public holiday. He had worked the same hours on the same farm for nine years but he was paid as a casual labourer, and so had no right to a pension, to notice pay -not even to the right of appeal. What was his reaction? Did he tear an apple off the tree and smash it to the ground? Or did he see it as a force for change?

To others in the farmlands of Grabouw the apple says 'Organize, fight back,' and the number of farm labourers joining unions is growing. To Western anti-apartheid campaigners the apple has been saying, 'Damn the racist apartheid system, boycott South African fruit,' for at least a decade. Boycotts and sanctions have bruised the South African fruit industry. The closure of its US market knocked a hefty 17.5 per cent off South Africa's agricultural exports. Some farmers have even improved their workers' conditions as a result: at least Westerners are giving Third World workers one small thing of value.

In other respects the influence of the Western apple buyer is less positive. Take the thousands of Third World labourers who are poisoned every year by pesticides. They are martyrs to the cause of producing perfect fruit and vegetables to meet consumer demand in the West 'Have a nice day now'. Farmers can't get off the pesticide treadmill. As pests become ever more resistant to the chemicals, ever more chemicals need to be used.

Chemical companies may posture regret, but they have a vested interest in increasing Third World sales, as markets in industrialized countries are shrinking. Thai farmers test the concentration of pesticide by tasting it, but why should the multinationals care? They're into wealth not welfare.

And recently the Big Boys of business discovered where a lot more bucks can be found - in fruit and vegetable species, lurking among the genes. Once there were thousands of varieties of apples just as there were multiple varieties of most plant foods. Today many of them have vanished. The apparent tempting diversity on the supermarket shelves actually means uniformity: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and more Red Delicious, made gaudy with lights and bagged in polythene. You may choke on it but it screams 'success' to the multinationals.

These companies are buying up genes, storing them in gene banks and patenting them. If you want to grow a new crop variety, you pay for the genes. Genes might have been nature's gift in the past, but this is the 'economically mature' late twentieth century.

It makes good business sense in another way too - because it is now cheaper to make plants that fit the pesticide than to adapt the pesticide to fit the plants. Get breeders to grow crops that can withstand the most vicious herbicide and you have a an ideal source of income: breeders buy more genes, farmers buy more pesticides. You have to admit it's neat.

It's a sad comedown for the mighty apple: polished with wax to inhibit aging and sprayed with pesticide 16 times a year, it is turning into just another product of the global factory farm. If the apple could feel, the rate of change would make it shudder on the branches of the trees where it stands to attention in its sterile, tightly packed commercial rows.

Why, just a few generations ago the grandparents of this trumped-up charlatan blossomed and grew in orchards that attracted humans and animals alike with the sweet scent of fruit as it hung from the boughs. People, woodpeckers, nuthatches, tree-creepers and flycatchers, foxes and badgers, hedgehogs and other creatures all took sanctuary in orchards which were like symbols of harmony between human beings and nature.

Now all that is going, going, gone to the highest bidder - to the housing estates and industrial complexes, the big commercial farms and roads. Human memory is short. Soon it will forget that such orchards ever existed.

Nature's gift
Perhaps it would have been better for the apple if it had never been burdened with so much symbolic baggage. Before it came into contact with Eve and became a star, the apple was a humble fruit, a gift from the holy Tree of Life, which accumulated meaning in many cultures long before the Garden of Eden myth took shape.

People through the ages made images of the Tree of Life, as with the stone altar in Neolithic Malta with trees carved on all four sides. The Bronze Age Sumerians made a ring seal revering both fruit and Tree together: a seated goddess and horned god stretch their hands towards fruit on the tree that grows between them.

Throughout the ages human beings turned to living trees for comfort. Trees conjured up thoughts of immortality and the cyclical nature of time by their perpetual rhythm of birth, growth, decay and regeneration. Over time the Tree - and its fruit - came to be understood as part of the sacred source of life, a manifestation of Mother Goddess, from whose body the whole world sprang and to which it would return.

In parts of Europe the apple tree became the noblest tree of all - the tree of immortality. Most European cultures have their ancient apple myths. There is, for instance, the Norwegian folk tale about an old woman called Misery, whose only possession is an apple tree to which things stick. One day Father Death knocks on her door. 'Of course I will come,' says Misery, 'but before I die, grant me this favour - fetch me one last apple from the tree.' Father Death climbs the tree to gather a rosy apple but directly he touches the fruit he is caught. For ten long years Misery leaves him there, during which time no-one in the village dies. Finally she lets him down provided he allows her to live as long as she likes. Father Death agrees. And that is why Misery is alive in the world today.

The moral of the story might not be lost on today's Greens: that human beings create their own misery by betraying the gift of the apple tree - the gift of nature. Happiness can only be theirs if they honour that gift.

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Begging blessings
Our ancient ancestors heard. They begged forgiveness from the Mother Goddess and blessed the axe in a ritual of mourning before hacking down trees in autumn. And they gave thanks when the first buds appeared in spring. Some of these rituals we still practise today, though their meaning is only dimly remembered. There is the old English custom of dancing around the Maypole to weave leaves back onto the bare branches. Or the Christmas Tree which we light with candles and bedeck with gifts to announce the rebirth of the sun.

In parts of England people still worship Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees, through the custom of wassailing which is intended to encourage a good crop of apples. On Twelfth Night wassailers hang toasted bread on their most productive apple tree to attract the robins which are traditionally held to be good spirits. Guns, are shot into the branches to frighten away evil spirits. Cider is poured over the roots of the tree and the wassailers circle the tree chanting:

Stand fast root, bear well top,
Pray God send us a howling good crop;
Every twig, apples big
Every bough, apples enou;
Hats full, caps full;
Full quarter sacks full.

This ritual comes from a time when the apple was recognized as a gift from something greater than ourselves - though by then she was only a minor goddess. For gradually over thousands of years, the Mother Goddess who gave birth to all things had lost her power as people realized that men had a role in procreation.

Male gods were born. And in some cultures the phallus even became the sacred source of worship, the sacred source of all that lived. Enter Adam and Eve - and a star was born. The apple shot to glory. Or did it?

Bite into a shiny, red apple and taste insipid sponge. Often picked by impoverished Third World workers, it appears on our supermarket shelves and our tables as a polished, insubstantial thing, available only in two or three varieties instead of in thousands, and grown at the expense of the environment.

With the apple we have tried to naturalize our exploitation of the world, to make oppression and degradation seem part of nature's plan. But the apple is biting back. Now it has become associated with appearances and money so that it is a symbol of exploitation itself. Some of these are explored in the pages to come: computers which siphon even more power from the people who operate them; a dynamic but degraded city; a hippie alternative to capitalism which failed because it never really analysed the problem.

The way we are treating the apple serves as a metaphor for how we are treating our world. And its spectacular fall from grace should serve as a warning.

[image, unknown]

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New Internationalist issue 212 magazine cover This article is from the October 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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