As the dog days of summer dwindle and the U-Pick signs crop up at the end of dirt farm roads, calling the masses to pick apples from bounty-bent boughs, the time is ripe to read cider-maker Andy Brennan's thoughtful new book, Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a Living.
In 2011, Brennan founded Aaron Burr Cider, which rapidly earned renown among the pioneers of New York City's farm-to-table movement for its limited-run bottles of full-bodied, unrefined natural cider made from hand-foraged apples. Love makes poets of us all, and this artist-turned-apple farmer is no different. Brennan's prose in this ode to the wild apple tree blossoms with unassuming beauty as he earnestly explores the overlapping realms of history, nature, cultivation, and farm management.
Uncultivated endeavors to tackle one of the white elephants looming in the shadow of American agriculture: What does the manipulation of food mean for the future of what we eat—and what are we losing along the way? Brennan's own cider-making theory involves interfering with the natural cultivation processes as little as possible.
The book opens with a request. Brennan entreats readers to "think of [apple trees] anthropomorphically," explaining that they "have been attempting to communicate with us." Neither how-to manual nor memoir, Uncultivated jumps between the history of the apple in America to personal experiences and observations of macro-social issues to form a captivatingly idiosyncratic and irreverent meditation on ecology, economics, and evolution. Quietly radical explorations of "forgotten wisdom and ethical questions which rarely surface" lead to the thought at the forefront of Brennan's mind: "Could this mean the tree knows what's best for itself?"
"Uncultivation, for me, is about looking back at the progression of agriculture and deciding how we want it to continue," Brennan says. "We've inherited 150 years of knowledge since the dawn of [industrialized] agriculture but not all that inheritance is for the best."
Brennan, who has been growing apples in Wurstboro for 15 years, built a small but thriving, environmentally conscious agricultural business on the backs of wild apple trees. He proposes that perhaps there is something in the lessons of de-domestication that we can extrapolate for ourselves. "I found that the more I tried to emulate wild apple trees, the more I discovered things about myself," Brennan says. "We are cultivated too. We have overlooked other directions we could have taken."
Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a Living
Uncultivated: Wild Apples, Real Cider, and the Complicated Art of Making a Living is now available now from Chelsea Green Publishing Company.