Benjamin Honey—American, Bantu, Igbo—born enslaved—freed or fled at fifteen, only he ever knew—ship’s carpenter, aspiring orchardist, arrived on the island with his wife, Patience, née Raferty, Galway girl, in 1793. He brought his bag of tools—gifts from a grateful captain he had saved from drowning or plunder from a ship on which he had mutinied and murdered the captain, depending on who said—and a watertight wooden box containing twelve jute pouches. Each pouch held seeds for a different variety of apple. Honey collected the seeds during his years as a field-worker and later as a sailor. He remembered being in an orchard as a child, although not where or when, with his mother, or with a woman whose face over the years had become what he pictured as his mother’s, and he remembered the fragrance of the trees and their fruit. The memory became a vision of the garden to which he meant to return. No mystery, it was Eden. Years passed and he added seeds to his collection. He recited the names at night before he slept. Ashmead’s Kernel, Flower of Kent, Duchess of Oldenburg, and Warner’s King.1 Ballyfatten, Catshead.2
After Benjamin and Patience Honey arrived on the island—hardly three hundred feet across a channel from the mainland, just under forty-two acres, twelve hundred feet across, east to west, and fifteen hundred feet long, north to south, uninhabited then, the only human trace an abandoned Penobscot shell berm—and after they had settled themselves, he planted his apple seeds.
Not a seed grew. Benjamin was so infuriated by his ignorance that over the next year he crossed to the mainland whenever he could spare some time and sought out orchards and their owners in the countryside beyond the village of six or seven houses, called Foxden, that stood directly across the channel from the island, and traded his carpentry skills for seeds and advice about how they grew and how to cultivate the trees and their fruit.
Benjamin and Patience and their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters and great-grandchildren kept more and more to the island as time passed, but in the final years of the eighteenth century it was not as dangerous as it came to be later for Black man to range the land. Any able-bodied adult who kept peace and lent a hand surviving was accepted. So the story went among his descendants. So, Benjamin rambled around and found farms where he could help raise a barn or split shingles or clear an acre for crops and came home with seeds that quickened and struck roots and elaborated themselves into the shapes of his remembered paradise.
Roxbury Russets, Rhode Island Greenings, Woodpeckers, and Newtown Pippins.3 Benjamin Honey kept an orchard of thirty-two apple trees that began to bear fruit in the late summer of 1814, a decade after he planted them. Pippins were perfect for pies, Woodpeckers for cider. Children bit sour Greenings on dares and laughed at one another when their eyes watered and mouths puckered. Russets were best straight from the tree.
Benjamin Honey surveyed his orchard in the cooling air and sharpening, iridescent, ocean-bent sunset light, the greens and purples deepening from their radiant flat day-bright into catacombs of shadowed fruit and limb and leaf. It felt as if his mother were somewhere among the rows. She might step from behind a tree in a white Sunday dress that took up the shifting light and colors and smile at him. He inhaled the perfume, salted, as everything on the island, and took a bite of the apple he held.4
(The first few lines from Paul Harding, This Other Eden, with my footnotes.)
The extract is an apparent prologue (it has no title in the hardcover edition; it’s called “1” in the e-book; it’s set in italics in both cases). This mini-story takes us through a whole life, and it’s probably going to be fertile soil for other characters to grow in and experience their own stories. From my point of view, there isn’t much to mark here except that it’s a fine piece of writing and promises a novel worth spending time with. Apart from the image at the end, what I will probably remember from the text is how it treats varieties of apples. I once wrote, for fun, a short piece that listed varieties of apples and pears, but that’s not the only reason. Here’s my four notes on why I got stuck on apple seeds:
1 Why is the list split in two parts by a period? What makes these two sets different from each other? The Internet tells me that Ashmead’s Kernel, Flower of Kent, Warner’s King, and Catshead are apparently from England; that Duchess of Oldenburg is apparently from Russia, and that Ballyfatten is from Northern Ireland. So this doesn’t explain the period. What creates the two sets then? Taste, growth, size, colour, use? Am I blind to something obvious?
2 Why are only half of the twelve sorts recited? Are the names of the others unknown, forgotten, insignificant? Or is this a decision based on the assumption that lists aren’t supposed to be too long?
3 Four more varietes here, this time apparently regional, i.e. American, as “Rhode Island” suggests (checks out). Are all the twelve seeds from before gone?
4 I would love to know which kind of apple Benjamin’s going for at the precise moment that he has virtually achieved his life goal. But probably there is no specification because it doesn’t matter: It was about the orchard, not the varieties of apples. No one cares which kinds of apples grew in Eden either.
|First few lines read from:||Paul Harding, This Other Eden (Hutchinson Heinemann)|
|Found on this list:||Booker Prize 2023 (Longlist)|
|Feelings toward lack of variety of apples in local supermarket on the day of posting this:||Weariness, Indifference|