Just yesterday I heard the chuckle of a pair of traveling robins. The birds were perched high in the now-empty apple trees, and they were seeking the bright red cherry-like fruit on our backyard bushes. Every October the traveling birds stop by our yard for this feast of juice and nutrition before they move on to their winter habitat. I get to watch them gorge themselves because one of those berry-laden bushes is right next to a window, offering us an up-close view of hungry birds gobbling red cherries, stretching their necks to reach more and more until the bushes are empty of fruit.
The robins never come until the fruit is ready, and when they do arrive, they stay several days until the branches are bare. Then they move on.
Ryden Burke, center, watches as Jay Swartz, left, and Colin Surprenant show him how to work the cider press.
(Photo courtesy of Randy Lewis)
Home for apple time
Last weekend we had our own version of harvesting fruit at the right time of year. I'd gotten a surprise visit from two of my three sons, home to help with the apple harvest. Our family has always worked hard at this time of year, trying to beat the wild mammals who also love our apples; bears, raccoons and squirrels often can get to the harvest before we can organize an apple-picking detail. But this year, we beat them all.
Neil and I began gathering the week before. We'd been listening to the apples drop to the ground or into the river - each day there seemed to be more falling and tumbling down. So we grabbed some Sheetrock plaster buckets and spent time under the trees, picking up the drops and assessing the bountiful harvest still on the branches above.
The days were beautiful, with bright blue skies and glorious red and orange leaf-filled trees decorating the hillsides. There had not been a true killing frost yet, so flowers still bloomed most everywhere. Warm afternoons were followed by a quick chill-down by 4 p.m. Fall had officially arrived.
A multi-step process
Then the "boys" arrived, and a handful of friends and neighbors were not far behind. Some folks enjoyed climbing trees to get to the apples. Some stood in the river with nets to catch those that tumbled down when we shook the branches. They filled old sunflower seed bags and laundry baskets with their bounty. With bright yellow sun and brilliant blue sky as backdrop, the setting was perfect for a neighborhood cider day.
We have about a dozen apple trees, half which produce most of our cider apples. Cider tastes best when multiple types of apples are used, and we certainly comply with that recommendation. Our trees are mostly distinct from one another, all with old-time varieties and different flavors, colors and textures. A few trees are quite old and have not been pruned in more than 40 years. But they all were planted by someone who lived here, in some historical era or another. One big tree reaches high into the sky like a maple, and we rarely get apples from that old master. But since this year was such a bountiful year for fruit, we had plenty of apples by the time the harvest was complete.
Wash, chop and press
Then comes the pressing of all this fruit. We have a wonderful two-piece press: one section for chopping, and the other for squeezing the juice. A couple of people sit in lawn chairs, washing and inspecting the apples, cutting out worms and rotten spots, then passing the cleaner fruit to the chopper crew who turns the wheel for chopping the apples.
Once the chopper crew has filled a bucket with chopped fruit, they pass it on to the pressing crew. This team twists the presser until all the sweet golden brown juice pours out below. Then someone pours the cider into pre-washed gallon and half-gallon plastic jugs and offers the workers tastes of one batch after another. No two batches taste the same, and each batch is delicious, like drinking apples without chewing!
Generations of helpers
This year we celebrated one family's three generations of cider-making helpers. Friends who'd helped us make cider 30 years ago with their young kids were helping with their young grandkids on this day. Young people who used to be the kids climbing the trees are the parents of the next generation of cider-makers now. Something big and powerful is represented by the passing down of know-how, equipment and technique to the folks who follow us in time.
Octobers are full of color and temperature changes and tumbling leaves. We watch birds in their migrations as they pass through our world, geese honking overhead. Octobers are also full of the love of apples and the amazing joy turning them into cider brings, especially with friends and family gathered around, passing down history and ritual to those who will carry on when we're gone. Thank you to all who helped out, who added to the joy of a glorious cider day in the autumn of 2013 in the Adirondacks.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book of 2007.