Notes from the Field: Community-Based Research in the Apple Orchards of Boulder County

A few miles northeast of Boulder, Colorado lies the Midwest in miniature. Trees drape over country roads that wind around small ponds and across irrigation ditches. Hedgerows frame farm vistas. A harrowing turn off of one of those roads leads to Sarah’s orchard where, one September morning, she welcomed our crew from the Boulder Apple Tree Project (BATP) to survey her apple trees. Since purchasing the property a few years ago, she had learned about the orchard from local history books and her neighbors, many of whom had lived in the area for decades. One of her apples tasted unlike anything in a supermarket. It was firm in texture but soft in flavor, slowly spreading its spicy warmth across the tongue before finishing off with a tart nip.

The BATP team has been tagging and measuring apple trees, sampling their fruits, and interviewing their caretakers over the past two years. We are studying the oldest trees in the county, identifying local varieties, their origins, and their benefits to the community. Through interviews like the one with Sarah, we have learned that neighborhood networks and the taste of the apples themselves have helped to preserve the orchards and their histories.

Author with Project history research assistant, Sarah Dominguez, sampling trees in Sarah’s orchard. Photo credit: Ezequiel Dominguez III (@erd_iii).

My historical research for the Project started indoors. I am not a so-called archive rat, in no small part because I hate the way carbon paper desiccates my skin. But archives are archives, so I packed my moisturizer and pieced together an outline from the archives. Mining prospects drew settlers from the Midwest and California who experimented with fruit-growing along the Front Range, but horticulture in a new landscape perched a mile high between mountains and plains was like a game of Tetris. Between early freezes, late frosts, drought, grasshoppers, prairie dogs, and disease, one event could arrest production for an entire season if it didn’t kill off the trees. A few commercial horticulturalists took the risk, but for the most part apple trees helped to diversity family agricultural portfolios.

My plan had been to fill the gaps of this story with nontraditional sources such as oral histories. The plan worked for the most part, but I underestimated what the community could provide. To date, we have conducted short interviews with dozens of residents across the county and have recorded our first oral history. Through this process, we are gaining access to family records and photographs well beyond what is available in the archives. This work does supplement the archival record, but our interviewees provide more than that. They help to define the meaning and import of the Project. For example, one of the most promising lessons for the Project came from residents who have continued the experimental legacy of the early settlers by planting their own trees who have noticed that the older trees have a better survival rate. These insights give us hope that local historic varieties will provide a more sustainable option for future plantings than today’s common cultivars.

Another fundamental lesson from the community is the centrality of taste. It may seem facile, but it was not obvious. I was over in my archival corner trying to figure out the social uses and implications of apple trees using newspapers and county records and I  missing the point that people (and dogs and bears and raccoons and squirrels) just like the way they taste. Their seductive gustatory quality is part of the apple tree’s great plan for self-perpetuation, of course: the more critters eat, the more they poop, the more the apples grow. In fact, as Michael Pollan famously observed, as caretakers of the sacred apple tree it may be just as accurate to think of apples as cultivating humans as it is to think of us cultivating them.[1]

This is not to say that members of the community always have the answers. A few months ago I heard that someone had identified the oldest apple tree in one of Boulder’s city parks. One of the tree’s identifiers kindly gave me a tour and presented the venerable tree in all its shriveled, bent glory. So how do you know it’s the oldest? I asked. I don’t know, he replied. We just looked at it and guessed.

Honestly, though, dead ends are less frequent than I expected. More often I am mitigating my own ignorance. Sometimes my interviewees pick up on this when I ask what they think is an obvious question. I try to give reassuring smiles to let them know that we just need details for the record. Of course, I usually don’t know the answers. That’s why I ask the questions. I didn’t know, for example, how one transports water from a ditch to a tree, or if mountain lions eat apples, or how to make applesauce. But I do now.

Given this reality, I cannot talk about “discovering” a story that was never lost. Instead, I have come to think of myself as an audience surrogate—the Carrie Bradshaw of the Boulder Apple (there is less sex in my stories, though, since cultivated apple trees are discouraged from such liberated encounters with their fellow apple trees). In other words, to borrow a word from pedagogy, I am a facilitator.[2] If, as Keith Basso writes, place-making is a form of cultural activity, then I am part of that activity as an interpreter, a framer, a connector.[3] By asking questions about what happened in people’s backyards and on the streets where they grew up, I provide the opportunity for a fresh perspective on their personal stories – as something worthy of curiosity and as part of a larger story that binds together not only the streets and neighborhoods of the past but the neighborhoods, towns, and regions of today.

Add_l Photo 1_Suding

Over the next year, the BATP team will continue to use genetic and ecological research to identify the apple varieties we have sampled. We will also continue our oral history interviews and develop an undergraduate curriculum based on the interdisciplinary techniques we have developed to help students answer community-based research questions.

*Historic photos courtesy of Boulder Historical Society/Museum of Boulder, on permanent loan to the Carnegie Library for Local History.

*Apple photos by Ezekiel Dominguez (@erd_iii) and Dr. Katharine Suding.

[1] See Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2001).

[2] Thanks to Vanessa Roberts at the University of Colorado, Boulder for her work championing this word and its attendant mindset in our graduate seminar on Inclusive Excellence.

[3] Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 7.

*Suggested reading:

  • Boulder Apple Tree Project website.
  • For more on oral history, see the Oral History Association’s blog and check out History Harvest at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for another project combining local history, family records, and oral history.
  • For an activist, sociological version of community-based research, see the report from the University of Colorado, Boulder from an undergraduate diversity project using “participatory action research” in which affected communities are part of the research team as well as the subjects.
  • For more on the history of apple trees in the United States, see Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire (2001,) Barrie Juniper and David Mabberley’s The Story of the Apple (2006), and Daniel Bussey’s The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada (2016).