Tasmania: Orchard Zen

Apple picking is existence now. Apples are everything. Stems and seeds and cores and leaves and branches and roots and ladders and wellies and bins and sacks and brambles – apples.

We work six days a week, up at 6.45, out picking on the fields by 7.30 if we get our skates on and the great white estate doesn’t need jump starting, and we finish up at 4.30. Usually run an errand or two on the way home, occasionally check around the back of Woolworths for any gone-off delights they’ve thrown out, then home around 5.30 in the evening. A couple of glasses of wine, a hearty meal (cooked on rotation between Seth and I), a chat by the fire and a few pages of a book or an episode of a TV show, then bed by 9.30, shattered and spent. Off to a deep and warm slumber.

There are more of us in the little log cabin now; seven in total. After the first few days a French couple arrived, Chloe and Mica, from Brittany. They are lovely gentle people, the same age as me, and they have been together for almost seven years after meeting through a neighbour. We also have Luke, from the Netherlands, who was travelling with Jemima and Chloe in Tasmania a month ago (there are two Chloes – which is a lot of Chloe’s for one tiny house). Everyone gets on splendidly and we spend every evening sitting around together, either by the fire or outside if it’s warm, making each other laugh with silly stories and bitching about apples.

Apple picking is hard. There’s no way around it: it’s absolute graft. A bin of apples is 400 kilos, and pays $40; the second day of picking had me fighting back tears of frustration as my back screamed and my hands bled, and at the end of nine hours I had picked two bins of apples and thereby earned $80, while Seth, happy as Larry, had picked eight, scooping himself a small fortune. 2.4 tonnes of apples – an unholy amount.

It’s tough work. You start the day with your gigantic wooden bin sitting in a row of apple trees, and a sack hanging from your front, with crossed straps across your back for support. The sack holds around 20-25 kilos of apples, which is one to two hundred fruits, depending on their size. Some are huge, the size of mangoes, and others are more akin to cherries. The smaller ones are bastards – it can take twice the amount of time to fill up your bin. All day you are climbing up and down ladders, leaning precariously on your ladder to pinch the hard to reach fruit, squatting down for the lower branches, and all the while you have the heavy sack of apples strapped to you. The first few days my back ached like never before, and my hands and forearms were cut to pieces.

You’re not the only life in the trees, either. The orchards are home to all manner of creatures and creepy crawlies. Over the last two weeks I’ve wrestled with earwigs, leaping tree frogs, birds’ nests, busy little colonies of woodlice, apples that have been hollowed out and fashioned into wasp nests, and the occasional huntsman spider the size of your palm. There’s nothing in the trees that can cause you too much harm – the wasps are everywhere, but they’re usually so drunk on the sugar from the apples that they just tumble out of the tree at the slightest breeze. Some spiders can nip you (not the huntsman – funnily enough the biggest spider is the friendliest), and I’ve been gnawed on by a few cheeky earwigs, but Tasmania is a little tamer in terms of deadly wildlife than the mainland. The funnel-web can kill you dead of course, but they’re pretty rare.

The second most dangerous spiders are the white-tails; their bite can cause necrosis in humans, which essentially means that if you react badly, your skin starts rotting around the bite mark. I was talking to this Scottish guy called Liam last week in the orchard, and he told me solemnly that a friend of his was bitten a few years ago and, I quote ‘60% of his arse cheek fell off’. I asked if it grew back. He still walks with a limp, apparently.

In the car home after that difficult second day Seth consoled me, telling me that he was the same when he first started. This is his fourth season apple picking now – two in New Zealand and now two in Australia. On his first day, five years ago or more, he picked one bin, and was equally distraught. But he told me to stick at it, that things would get better over the next couple of weeks. When you’re just starting out, though, those bins seem so impossibly huge. I was working as hard as I could, taking only a 20 break in the whole day, and despite my efforts I simply couldn’t produce any more fruit.

But Seth was right, it turned out. As the days ticked by, I found my body growing accustomed to the prolonged strain. My back is stronger and can support the heavy sack all day without screaming like it used to, and the cuts that once covered my hands and arms have healed over with tough new skin. After three weeks I’m picking four bins a day without breaking my back, and going home with enough energy leftover for a spot of merry making – four while bins, 1.6 tonnes a day – it all seemed so ridiculously impossible at the beginning. It’s amazing what your body can get used to.

There’s a strange zen to it. I’ve never bothered with ashrams and meditation and all that, but I don’t think apple picking is so far removed. It’s so quiet, and your body is under great strain constantly, and for the most part you pick alone. Sitting in a lotus shape on a yoga mat or picking apples up a ladder – it’s not so different. I found that on my hardest days I feel as though I am suffering, and my body cries out and I get miserable and angry. I learned early on that the only thing to do is to keep picking. As long as your hands keep moving, everything will be fine; 9 hours is too long for a bad mood to last. Sooner or later you pass through the anger, and invariably emerge into a new, steady calm.

You work through a lot of internal shit, too. There’s nothing to do but think.  Thoughts that you had buried rise to the surface; fears and painful memories, and happy ones too, long forgotten. The only sounds are the wind, the rustling leaves, snapping stems, and the everlaughing kookaburras, and a strange delirium grows as they day draws on, as epiphanies come and go with the breeze. You soon find your head swimming with odd snippets of conversations you once had, soundbites from television shows you watched as a kid, lyrics of songs you’ve not heard in ten years. It continues over days and days; a song you hummed to yourself while positioning the ladder on Monday will jump back into your mind when you position the ladder in a similar manner on Friday. You go a bit mad. It’s quite nice.

I miss Jeanne every day, and spend most of my working day thinking about her and the future with her that I am working to save money for. She’s the reason I’m here, and my main motivator when the trees are tough and the mornings are cold. I think about all the conversations we had, all the adventures we’ve embarked on together already, and about all the wonderful times that are to come. Sometimes my mind wanders into fearful territory, and I get scared, but then I think about her smile and the way I feel when we are together, and everything is okay. She calls me almost every day on my lunch break, and I spend my half hour sitting in the orchard eating sandwiches and drinking coffee from a flask, speaking to my witty French girl. It makes me happy in a way that is so quiet and calm and complete that it barely needs to be expressed in writing. The world doesn’t need to know this feeling; I want to keep it for me.

IMG_8097

Leave a Reply