BLUE HILL — It was perhaps a marker of his celebrity that John Bunker, apple sleuth, founder of Fedco trees and lover of baseball, got a fist bump from an audience member as he made his way to the podium at the Blue Hill Public Library on a recent Tuesday evening.
Bunker was there to discuss his newest book: “Apples and the Art of Detection: Tracking Down, Identifying and Preserving Rare Apples,” whose title is in part drawn from what famed fictional detective Sherlock Holmes called his own work.
Apples are similar to humans, in a way, Bunker explained, in that those grown from seed will be genetically different than their parents and from one another.
Bunker founded Fedco Trees, a division of Fedco Seeds, the cooperative seed and garden supply company in the Kennebec County town of Clinton.
“Apples from seed are always, capital A, always new and unique,” Bunker said. “When you plant a Macintosh seed it will not be Macintosh, it will be new and unique … The only way that you can replicate a variety is by grafting.”
That means that the apple that fell from the tree on the side of the road near your house in Lamoine could be an entirely new type of apple, or it could be from a grafted tree — and then the possibilities are nearly endless.
“The first thing that I have to do is determine do you have a seedling or a grafted tree,” Bunker said. “It has no name until you give it one. The only trees with names are either the seedlings that you’ve named or the grafted trees.”
That’s why being an apple expert is a bit like being Sherlock Holmes, whose method, eliminating the impossible until “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” is one that Bunker uses in his own detective work.
“When somebody brings me an apple and hands it to me and says ‘what is this?’ does that mean I have to go through all 20,000 [options]?” Bunker asked rhetorically. “As rapidly as possible I have to eliminate the impossible and pair it down to 100 choices or 150 choices.”
Bunker, who calls home at Super Chilly Farm in Palermo, got started on his latest book, the idea for which he’d been toying with for decades, roughly 10 years ago, on a trip to England with students from the College of the Atlantic. He needed something to do while the students were attending evening meetings, and set about writing the story of each of the 16 apples (one from each county) he’d drawn for a poster for the 2009 Common Ground Country Fair.
“I started to write the stories of each one,” he said, and “that became the basis of the book,” excerpts of which he read in Blue Hill.
“A lot of what I do when I do apple identification really has nothing to do with apples at all,” Bunker explained. When he’s handed an unknown apple, he looks first for context: where is the tree? Roughly how old is it?
“Maine was a state of small, diversified farms,” Bunker said. “The farm that’s sort of coming back now is the farm that was the norm for generations, where pretty much everybody lived in some version of what we could call a farm.”
Because the only way to spread an apple variety is through grafting; finding a Bailey Sweet (native to the Finger Lakes region of New York) at your home in Hancock means that someone intentionally brought that variety from elsewhere.
“The last big period of grafting diversity was just post-Civil War,” said Bunker, after which the country moved largely toward the form of commodity agriculture that still exists today.
“You could probably create a whole history of the world from one variety,” said Bunker, who often combs through diaries, journals, and even fair posters from the 1800s when he’s looking to identify a particular piece of fruit.
“In some ways it’s very lonely, solitary work,” Bunker said. “In other ways I have met hundreds of people in every county in the state.”
“Fruit exploring is like baseball: to be good, you’ve got to be able to do a bunch of different things,” Bunker read, including “steal when no one’s looking.”
Apart from the book, Bunker’s most recent project is the creation of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Heritage Orchard in Unity, a 10-acre preservation orchard that is home to more than 280 varieties of heirloom apples, with more added each year.
“We were given an unused abandoned gravel pit that needed to be renovated,” said Bunker, “and that’s where we have one each of all these old varieties planted.”
Bunker and MOFGA also are working with a geneticist in Washington state to create a database of apple DNA to be used in identifying varieties in the future. It’s an expensive endeavor, around “$100 a pop,” he said, but worth it.
“Whether you’re into apples, or, I don’t know, old sailboats or whatever it is you’re into,” said Bunker, “the federal government, the state government, they either don’t have the interest or they don’t have the money or both. The work that MOFGA does — there’s nothing like it.”
He continued: “The one thing that you can do besides let me know when you find an old apple tree is support your library, support your historical society, support MOFGA.
It really is going to take a lot of work — a lot of work that’s working on all of our parts — to save what’s important and to keep our institutions vibrant, to take the best of the past from that baton and the best of the present and hand it off to the future. We are creating the future every second.”
To buy a copy of Bunker’s latest book, head to your local bookstore or visit outonalimbapples.com. To source historic varieties of apple trees, like Adams Permain Apple (Herefordshire England, 1826) or Aunt Penelope Winslow (brought from Massachusetts to North Haven between 1760 and 1770, visit fedcoseeds.com. For more information on the MOFGA Heritage Orchard or to purchase Common Ground Country Fair posters or note cards, visit mofga.org/Programs/Maine-Heritage-Orchard.