Aaron and Apples

When the apple trees fruit, the humans must step in to take off the weight. If not, bears like Henry will climb over an eight foot high fence and tear off the branches so he can enjoy the sweet treats. If not, bees of all stripes will descend on the dropped fruit and enjoy the rotting, juicy goodness. If not, our community will not have any cider and sexy apples to chomp on. For about a month now, the forty or so apple trees up on the Three Banana Ranch have been peaking. But Aaron Bassler, his killings, and the wild west manhunt that ensued, almost got in the way of our planned picking and packing.

The 3BR apple harvest was set for this past weekend before Bassler began to elude dozens of Northern California police, sheriffs, and SWAT commandos. I first heard about Bassler two Fridays ago, from Terri, just before the San Francisco Chronicle started reporting on the “largest manhunt in California history.” Bassler grew up in the Mendocino woods between Ft. Bragg and Willits. He had a system where he’d break into vacation cabins, steal what he needed, and disappear into the woods again. He’d killed two men and was now shooting at police. Like a typical outlaw, Bassler had a disdain for authority.

Arriving into the Willits area just after three Sacramento police had snipped Bassler and shot him seven times in the chest (just like the wild west movie “True Grit”, the authorities had a fire-road intersection staked out, using scopes and high-powered rifles from up on a ridge). At the hardware store in Willits, an employee mentioned that the German shepherds that had found Bassler early in the hunt, bit him quickly and retreated. So he was bleeding for the last week. “You won’t hear about that in the papers.”

Down on the Skunk Train trail, where police commandos would commandeer the train when they needed it (and tours still continued during the manhunt!), there were other stories. Reverse 911 messages sent out to property owners said, in a robotic feminine voice, “The Sheriffs will visit you. If you hear a knock at your door, please do not answer while holding a weapon.” One police said that night vision goggles were useless in the dense forest because of all the animals roaming at night. So many eyes; too much going on. The police spotted about 12 bears, ran some of them out of their territory from all the ruckus, and two camouflaged commandos had a bear walk right over them.

The property owners down on the Skunk Train trail had a party during the peak of the manhunt, heavily armed, and practically ran off the authorities. It was a huge show of community, mutual aid, and firepower. General consensus held that the interloper cops, from all over Norther California, were scared shitless of Bassler. He had the upper hand on them, hiding in shallow, leaf-covered holes, humping gear and guns about 4 miles an hour, over treacherous terrain that police feared to tread. Bassler had outflanked them, escaped a gauntlet of about 50 of them, and, when shot, had his finger on the trigger of his own high-powered automatic weapon.

Enough about the Aaron Bassler manhunt.

Excited to begin the harvest, Terri and I got started as the late-wakers began their breakfast. We used a ladder and some apple picking devices (a small cage on the end of a pole) to quickly fill up some wheelbarrows with our harvest. We didn’t really know what the system was going to be, but it easily worked itself out after we started piling the apples up by the hand-cranked press.

First, dump the apples on the tarp by the press. Second, sort the apples: wormy ones in one pile or bag (to be cut up for sauce, cooking, etc.), bumpy ones in the pressing pile (closest part of the tarp, with a piece of cardboard separating the sorted from the unsorted pile), and sexy ones in the “stick in your face and eat” pile. Third, get the press going.

To press the apples, we eventually found all the right tools for the job. Turning the grinder crank so that the teeth hit the apples from above, the apples suck and mulch down into the bucket with a “suction” of momentum. It is good to have a second person there to feed apples into the grinder. We tried three kinds of fabric filters to put in the mulch bucket below the grinder. The cheese cloth lasted about 4 pressings. The game bag lasted barely three. Terri’s flannel pillow case did at least a dozen pressings and was still going at the end of the day!

There is a crank missing for lowering the press onto the mulched apples. We found that a short 2×4 worked best. Once the juice starts flowing, we had a 5 quart bowl, with a strainer, under the drain. We used a spoon to clear out the schmutz from the drain hole and save the insects who wanted to drown themselves in sweet apple cider.

We found that one pressing took about 15 quarts of apples and made 5 quarts of cider. We put the cider in an Igloo container and jars. In one day, we made about 10-12 gallons of cider.

We baked some apples too! We made apple crisp, apple sauce, apple pancakes with apples on top, and roasted apples. The children left a trail of nibbled fruit; we cut off the bitten parts and threw them in the pressing pile. To celebrate “Peace on Irmulco” (aka the death of outlaw Aaron Bassler), the property owners had a covered dish party at the “Y” (an actual road intersection that is Y-shaped). We brought along some cider with spiced rum. It was a hit.

Terri and a crew also harvested some pears. She found them to be juicier so the pressing went faster for them. Of the apples varieties, the enterprise apples were less wormy and sexier than the rest. One tree had three varieties on it. Some tasted better than the others, but in the end, the cider was awesome!

Questions still remain about how the authorities handled the Aaron Bassler manhunt. Opinions show that the police bungled the operation a few times. Though there was no “shoot to kill” command for the police who killed Bassler, one property owner was told to shoot to kill by a police at some point during the manhunt. Questions arose about how to handle a delusional psychopath whose father begged the authorities to commit and medicate. When the snipers saw Bassler’s finger on the trigger of an automatic, they chose to not risk calling out to him. He’d probably jump into the woods and cause another week of tension and anxiety. So they took him out. This seems to be the trend for police in Northern California: shoot first, ask questions later. Before you judge either way, you should read up on the manhunt and try to work out the facts.

And, though the Bassler affair was an odd addition to the weekend, the apples still tasted sweet. Like nature in general, the apples do not judge the acts of humans and so the fruit cycled through like they naturally do.

For our first season at the Tree Banana Ranch, we did our best to trim the apple trees. We saw the flowers, then the early fruiting. We began picking them a month ago, before the manhunt broke a record dating back to the wild west era. And this weekend, we harvested, sorted, and pressed  the fruit that once hung about 100 feet away. The trees seemed happy to have all that weight taken off. And as the rains come, the new season begins.

With the rains, the fresh memories of the Bassler manhunt will fade from memory, only to be brought up around campfires, beers, and possibly at the next apple harvest. Like tree roots and mycelia, the two are now entwined in the history of a new homestead.