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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Apple Savior

Air Date: Week of

NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling profiles apple tree cultivator Carlos Manning of West Virginia. Mister Manning's passion is finding old varieties of apple trees in abandoned orchards and grafting them on to existing apple trees, thereby saving the species.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's the height of the apple harvest in the nation's orchards. And favorite varieties including McIntosh, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Cortlandt, are ripe for the picking. But if you sink your teeth into an apple you've never tasted before, you might have Carlos Manning to thank for it. Carlos Manning's passion, you see, is rescuing old, abandoned apple trees from certain obscurity and possible extinction. He's a grafter in the best sense of the word. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has this profile of Carlos Manning. And his story begins, oddly enough, at a coal processing plant, where Mr. Manning drives a truck for Maple Meadow Mining of West Virginia.

MANNING: Well, I've lived in this area all my life. I was born and raised on Saxton Road, which is about eight miles from here. Started working at Maple Manning Mining in 1974. I was 26 years old.

(Blue jays call)

ZWERDLING: If you look past the smokestacks, if you gaze beyond the piles of rusty, broken machinery, this is actually a beautiful spot. We're hemmed in by hills and they're covered with naked trees. You can see a couple of family farms over on the ridge, with tilting wooden fences and red barns. But this coal plant is a blotch on the landscape. The mud is black. Carlos Manning's clothes are stained black. The mammoth trucks keep dumping mountains of coal.


MANNING: I really like the job. It's real good people to work for. They treat you good, and that's all you can ask from a job. And to me, I couldn't get a better place to work.

ZWERDLING: But when he's not working at the factory, Manning spends nearly every waking moment following his passion. He's nurturing tiny new shoots of life.

MANNING: Apples.

(Blue jays and crows)

ZWERDLING: Ten years ago, Carlos Manning knew almost nothing about apples. Today, people in the apple world will tell you that Manning is something like a savior, and there are only about a dozen people doing what he's doing in this entire country. When we drop by Manning's home, he's down the hill in his nursery, and he's digging up baby apple trees.

We can see the stacks of the coal plant over Manning's shoulders off in the distance. Manning has got some customers on this day. He's selling dozens of saplings to a stockbroker and her father who have come all the way from Virginia.

(Cow bells)

ZWERDLING: So, how far have you come today to get these trees?

WOMAN: From North Garden, Virginia, about -- what was it? -- 200 miles, 250 miles?

(Footfalls; a cow lows)

ZWERDLING: Carlos Manning is what you might call a fruit explorer. He wanders around the hillside searching for gnarled, old apple trees. These are ancient varieties of apples that have disappeared from the supermarkets. Americans forgot these apples decades ago, but Manning transplants the apple saplings to this little orchard. He gives them love and attention. And then he sells the saplings to commercial growers across the nation. Manning says he's trying to get heirloom apples back on America's tables.

(To woman) Do you know how many places there are in the country where you can come and get trees like this?

WOMAN: I don't know. There are relatively few, I should think. For now, I'm delighted Carlos is doing it.

(To Manning) Okay, I'm going to leave this for you, because I've got --

MANNING: That will be fine, uh huh. That way I can deduct these off inventory and I know what I've got left.

WOMAN: All right. Very good. So, we're going home today with 51 trees. Two peaches and 49 apples. Do you want to know the varieties?


WOMAN: All right. We're having two Chenago Strawberries, one Black Twig --

ZWERDLING: Strawberries? We're talking apples here. Chenago Strawberries?

WOMAN: It's the name of the apple tree.

ZWERDLING: I love that.

WOMAN: Yes, it's a summer apple. One Black Twig, which is a classic keeping apple. Nine Albermarle Pippins. Two Red Winter Pear Maines. Two Virginia Beauty. Two Northern Spy...

ZWERDLING: We first heard about Manning's work in an article in the Washington Post by a reporter named Bill Gifford. Carlos Manning says he never really thought much about apples until the early 1990s. He and his wife inherited a little farm. There's a shed, a barn, some pasture. And Manning felt this yearning to plant an apple orchard.

(A cow lows)

ZWERDLING: He says when he was a kid he loved to plant the orchard at his great-grandfather's place. He says when he and his brother were done raking hay, they'd climb the trees.

MANNING: We'd take, get us a salt shaker and climb up in the Yellow Transparent trees, and get those big old Yellow Transparents and salt them down. They're sour, you've got to catch them before they get completely ripe. And that salt just gives them a real good flavor.

ZWERDLING: So you would be sitting, here you were a little kid, you'd be sitting up there in the branches of this -- what's the apple tree called?

MANNING: Yellow Transparent.

ZWERDLING: In the Yellow Transparent apple tree with a salt shaker, sitting there, salting your apples, and eating them.

MANNING: That's right. That was a good apple.

ZWERDLING: And when Manning began planting his own orchard, he decided to plant the very same kind of trees. But he couldn't find them. He went to nurseries. He searched through catalogues. And nobody was selling the kind of apples his great-grandfather grew. In fact, most had never even heard of them.

(Cows low)

ZWERDLING: And that's how Manning began learning the sad history of American apples. If you had traveled across America in the 1850s, you would have found thousands of varieties of apples in the markets. Not a couple dozen varieties, like you find today. Thousands of varieties. But then America fought two world wars. Farmers left their land to join the Army or work in factories. Orchards began dying from neglect. And by the time veterans moved back to their farms, the government began paying them to grow different crops. Then came the 1950s, and the food industry began pushing a certain brand of apple, which is everything the old-fashioned varieties were not. This apple is always perfectly shaped. It's always perfectly red. This apple is easy to grow and it resists disease. You know the apple. It's a Red Delicious. So there was Carlos Manning, seven years ago, and he was moaning to his fellow workers at the coal plant that old-time apples had disappeared.

(Crows, blue jays, and cows in the distance)

MANNING: So, a friend of mine that I work with at the mines, he knew that I was looking for old varieties of fruit trees. He came into work one morning and he had a Farmer's Almanac.

ZWERDLING: And right there on the back cover there was an ad for an apple consultant. And when Manning called the number, it changed his life. He reached a man named Tom Berford (phonetic spelling). Berford is one of the nation's leading authorities on the history and care of apples, and over the coming months Berford taught Carlos Manning his new craft. He taught him there are still old-time apple trees out there, all across the countryside. But you have to scour the hollows to find them. And he taught Manning how to graft.

Manning pulls out his grafting knife. He forged it himself. But I don't notice the knife as much as his hands. He has huge hands, and he slices the twig with grace.

MANNING: What I'll do is, I'll cut this (sounds of cutting). So then I go to the middle of that piece of wood and I pick out the biggest buds in the middle of the grafting one.

ZWERDLING: Those little bumps?

MANNING: Uh huh, those right there...

ZWERDLING: That's an interesting thing about apples: You can't really grow them well by planting seeds. Forget what youâve heard about Johnny Appleseed. If you want to propagate good apples and most other tree fruits, you have to snip a twig from the variety of tree you want to grow, and then you graft the twig onto a sapling. It doesn't matter what kind of sapling you use; the tiny twig will take over the entire tree.


ZWERDLING: Manning says the first time he tried to graft, he went right to his great-grandfather's old property. He found a couple of trees that were barely surviving. He carefully cut off some twigs, performed his grafting surgery. And then he waited.

MANNING: You just wonder, you know, if it's going to live, or what. And as you start seeing the first leaf pop out over the graft, it's a good feeling.

ZWERDLING: Can you remember the first moment you realized: wait a minute, this is working?

MANNING: I guess about the first year, after that one grew and it lived all winter and came back alive in the spring and the next year. I said we've got them going, now.

(Cows low)

ZWERDLING: Today, Manning is growing 200 varieties of heirloom apples, right here in this tiny orchard. And you've hardly seen any of them in a supermarket. In fact, Manning goes up to his house and brings back a tattered book. It's an encyclopedia of sorts of apple varieties. It describes all the known types that have been sold at some point in America. He turns to page 268, scans through the "Ws."

(Pages turn)

ZWERDLING: Wilfords, Yellows, Westbrooks. And here's the one he's looking for: Western Beauties.

MANNING: Fruit large, roundish, skin greenish yellow to a pale yellow, nearly covered with pale, dull red, and striped with a darker red. Dots large and yellow, flesh greenish white, tender, mild, sub-acid. And then it says catalogue listings from 1870 to 1914.

ZWERDLING: And then there's this incredible word. It says --

MANNING: It says, "Extinct."

ZWERDLING: So this book says this Western Beauty apple has been extinct in America since 1914.

MANNING: Right. That's according to what the book has.

ZWERDLING: And you're standing right next to your four Western Beauties right here, that you've saved.

MANNING: I feel that most trees, they may be written up as extinct but I say most of them are just lost, misplaced. They're out there somewhere. It just takes someone to seek them out, find them, and put them back into circulation.

ZWERDLING: Over the past few years, Carlos Manning has become a detective. We get in his pickup one morning.

(Buzzing, a door opens; wheels on gravel)

ZWERDLING: We snake along the bottom of the valley on Whowho Hollow Road (phonetic spelling). We pass Moo Road over on the left, go past a gravel turnoff named Fudd Mountain on the right, and we bend around a farm with a two-story log cabin that dates back 100 years. Manning has been calling all the old farmers in the region and stopping by their homes, trying to find apple trees that have officially disappeared. For instance, he gave a call to one of his neighbors, who's over 80 years old.

MANNING: I asked him, I said, "Glen, the orchard that's back in the hollow behind your home that your daddy planted, are there any trees left?" He said, "Well, some of them are still there and some of them are in real poor shape." He said, "Why don't you come over, and we'll bring your four-wheel drive, and we'll drive back there and take a look?" So this road here, I'll take you by the Glen Shumate farm, where I got a lot of grafts...

ZWERDLING: And Manning says the hunt was worth it. He found a Red Astrichen apple tree on his neighbor's farm. But Manning made his greatest discovery in the place he least expected to find it.


ZWERDLING: We've left the countryside behind now, and we've driven right to the middle of town.

MANNING: That's what's amazing about this. You don't know where you're going to find an old variety.

ZWERDLING: Can we just get out of the car here?

MANNING: Okay. I'll park down here.

ZWERDLING: There's a peeling billboard that proclaims, "Beckley, West Virginia, Where the Interstates Meet." Actually, the interstates intersect a few miles from here, and they've left this town in the past.

The houses need paint. The roofs need shingles. A lot of stores are boarded up. A couple years ago, a customer asked Manning if he would please try to find a Rainbow. Rainbow apples have been extinct for decades; that's what reference books say. And no matter how hard Manning searched in the hills, he couldn't find one. But then one day he was chatting with his nephew. His nephew grew up right here in town.

MANNING: So, my nephew told me, he said, "Rainbow." He said, "When I was a child, I walked down this street, walking to school." And he said, "In August, this gentleman would be sitting out peeling apples, and he would always give me some of them, and he called it the Rainbow."

ZWERDLING: So Manning asked his nephew to take him to the exact spot where he remembered seeing the old man peeling apples. And his nephew brought him to this corner, to this jungle of weeds and thrown-out furniture. And Manning could hardly believe it.

MANNING: See, that tree, just luckily we got a graft off of it.

ZWERDLING: The tree is still here, although you can hardly call it a tree. Today it's a tangle of rotting branches, and they're completely dead. But the first time Manning saw it, there was one branch still living, and it was bearing its final burst of fruit. Manning says there were a dozen apples on the branch, all striped and different shades of red.

MANNING: I knew I had the right apple. If I hadn't gotten grafts off it five years ago, it would have been gone.

ZWERDLING: Are there any other people right now in the country, that you know of, who have begun propagating the Rainbow?

MANNING: Not that I know of. As far as I know, I'm probably the only one that has that variety. But I want to get it spread out, so, you know, to get it out in the country, so it will be sure to be growing somewhere.

ZWERDLING: Here you've spent your whole life working with coal, pretty much, right? How old were you when you started?

MANNING: I was 21.

ZWERDLING: Now you're 50. Here you are settling on this whole new field, tracking down apples, grafting them, preserving them. What gave you the confidence that you could do it?

MANNING: I believe if you set your mind to do something, if you want to do it bad enough, you can do it. It's just a matter of setting your mind to it.

ZWERDLING: Before we leave West Virginia, we stop by Manning's home again. And I finally ask Manning something I've been dying to ask since we arrived. Can I taste one of his old-time apples?


MANNING: Okay, we'll go in here and get an apple picker, and we'll go pick...

ZWERDLING: Actually, Manning sells most of his trees before they bear fruit. But there's an older tree standing near his house. It still has a few apples left. And he calls his teenage daughter from the barn, where she's been grooming her horses.

MANNING: Yeah, pick him -- see if you can get this one over here. This is a real nice apple.

DAUGHTER: That one? I'm too short. Here's one.

(Cutting the apple.)

MANNING: Now, taste that and see what you think about the flavor about it. It's good, crisp.

ZWERDLING: Mmm. That's amazing.

MANNING: You don't get too much flavor like that in your modern apples.

ZWERDLING: That has so much flavor, it tastes almost fake. (Laughter) I mean, it's almost like some candy, you know, and on the package it would say "apple flavored."

MANNING: Right. We'll cut a piece of this apple.


ZWERDLING: While we were researching this story, we called an apple industry specialist. He's nationally-known. And he said, "You know, Carlos Manning's contribution to America might go unsung. In fact, I don't even think Carlos understands the contribution he's making himself. "But," he said, "the world of food in this country will change in the coming decades because people like Carlos brought lost apples back to life." Ever since the article about Manning appeared in the Washington Post, he's been getting phone calls and letters from total strangers.

(A door opens)



M. MANNING: How are you?

WOMAN: Good.

(Door shuts)

ZWERDLING: His wife Mavis has stacked the letters in piles, mainly on their dining room table. Up till now, she's been microphone shy, but she reluctantly, proudly, agrees to read an excerpt.

M. MANNING: Sunday, November 16, 1998, Blacksburg, Virginia. It's from Virginia Tech. "Dear Mr. Manning, Greetings to you, Sir, and I will hope first of all that I have got the right person and the right address. A friend of mine just sent me the apple article from the Post. I've read it half a dozen times and carried it around in my pocket for most of the week. Tonight I've decided that I will write to you. I'm not sure even now just quite what I will say, except to begin by saying that what you do with the grafting and the apple varieties is very much important. My grandfather's family was from upstate New York, and he always loved old varieties and old apple trees. And that's awfully important that we have living apple varieties only kept alive by grafting, one generation at a time, from the time of Jefferson. Heck, we have apple varieties that we know have been grafted and kept going from the time of the Roman Caesars. God, that is so impressive. From the time and countryside of Joan of Arc. Each kept grafted and documented just by little individuals like you, and me, and my grandfather. The apple varieties are a record, a chronicle of our whole civilization and history."

ZWERDLING: And before we leave Maple Meadow Valley, Manning wants to show how he's going to pass on his legacy. He's bought a piece of hillside that looks across the hollow and overlooks the smoke stacks of the coal plant. The fields are shimmering with a morning frost.

(Blue jays and crows)

C. MANNING: This flat right here will make a very nice place for an orchard.

ZWERDLING: And he's begun to carve out a little farm to give his daughter some day when she's an adult. She's only 13 now, but Manning has already begun plowing the fields where he's going to plant her old-time apple orchard. And he's already teaching her how to graft.

(Crows and blue jays; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Daniel Zwerdling's profile of apple tree cultivator Carlos Manning was produced by Tracy Wald, and originally broadcast on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered.



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