Thursday, February 29

I’m a city person, but there’s one bit of rural cosplay I can’t resist | emma brockes

Yot was a long weekend in New York last week, where the schools closed for the Jewish New Year and New Yorkers reckoned with an annual tradition. “Let’s go apple-picking,” someone says, and every year you insist you’ll resist. The 80F (27C) heat; the dust; the bumper to bumper New York plates; and the task itself – picking sodding apples you will never, ever make into a pie (when, in your entire life, have you ever made a pie?) – none of that matters. Like a trigger from a hypnotist, hear those words and you, a city person, are compelled by some law of physics to rent a car, identify a farm and drive out to fulfill your autumn quest in a jacket too warm for the day.

This year, we tried to at least use our years in the trenches to make the experience less onerous. Drive 45 minutes out of town to a field in New Jersey and you’ll find yourself less in a farm than a giant car park. (This is the same, semi-metropolitan zone that three months hence will offer ski slopes with 3cm of snow, warmed by the heat of 8 million New Yorkers). This year, we would do it properly and drive two and a half hours north west into rural Pennsylvania. We would stay with friends who knew what they were doing. We would find the one apple-picking experience that, unlike that of all the other cosplaying city folk, would bring us convincing insights into rural life.

If there is a genuine aspect to all this, it is what I assume is the deeply embedded need in all humans to mark the change of the seasons with something more profound than a novelty order at Starbucks. We undertake the annual migration, in part, because the kids love to choose a pumpkin from a pumpkin patch rather than a supermarket aisle, but also because, at some mineral level, our bodies are telling us to do it. For 99% of the year, I have zero desire to live in the country. For this single weekend, as the leaves start to fall and the temperature cools, I entertain the idea that life in the city is suppressing my latent but vital Tess of the d’Urbervilles side.

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The farm was three hours from the city. It was an overcast day, threatening rain, and the car park was two-thirds empty. As an extremely immigrant to the US, I’m susceptible to certain types of Americana, the novelty of which never wears off. This was it: the farm of my dreams, full of activities clearly not planned by someone running the place from a Manhattan zip code. There was a bouncy castle with no safety barrier. There was a single, ancient fairground ride that looked as if it had been kicking around since the 70s. There was a “corn pit” – like a huge sand box, but instead of sand, corn. The kids dived in and emerged 30 minutes later covered in a thick layer of corn dust that was thrillingly unsanitary. There was a miniature steam train that did a circuit of the farm. A concession stand sold deep-fried Oreos.

And there was the orchard itself. As my children faffed about putting enormous Honeycrisp apples into their bags, I put my back into having an important seasonal moment. What would Gerard Manley Hopkins do with this? “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” Yes, one gets older. Yes, the leaves fall. But as long as the apples are crisp and the air is fresh, might we not enjoy the mixed metaphor of our path through the woods? Right, back to the city.

I dropped off the rental car at a garage in midtown, six blocks from Times Square. It was 10 degrees warmer than the country. The traffic speed was roughly 4mph. Pigeons were fighting in the gutter over a discarded slice of pizza. “It’s good to be home, right?” I said to my daughter, but the unexpected perfection of the weekend lingered. My one sadness is that we left the farm before I had a chance to try out ax throwing. What if I’m an amazing ax thrower? What if, unknownst to me, I have the kind of axe-throwing talent that belongs in the World Ax Throwing League? Autumn is a time for regrets and I would read more fully into this sadness if I didn’t know better. There is always next year.

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