wild apples

Wild Mother Apples of Tian Shan

It’s hard to know which story to tell
but easier now to guess
which story will tell us.

Once apples were forbidden fruit because
the Latin nouns malum/malum were written
the same, but one meant evil
—the other apple: Life/oblivion.

Now everything is hot ocean
rising among the breathless, tear gas
and virus shivering above
the gorged and starving.

Nikolai Vavilov’s family knew the gaunt aunt
of famine. He grew consumed with seeds and all
which meant them well or ill—
he unlocked and peeled away
in delicate curls their genetic passions.

He found the ancient mother of apples
in Tian Shan, in Kazakhstan: honey-! hazelnut-!
and licorice-flavored apples
amid hoary spruce and wild bear—

It was worth his life
to collect and save their seeds,
these food of the dead and living
birthers of heroes and sagas.

Nikolai built in Leningrad a great collection
of the world’s seeds, carefully guarded during the war,
never breached, though nine died
of starvation keeping watch.

We know so little yet.
Even the checkered beetle and common moth
witness and unraise what we have wrought.
Our atoms, our concrete vaults dissolve
with the settling of fog in a hemlock-scented night.

Morning arrives and tadpoles wriggle free
from their jelly. Salmon rise to swallow
the wisdom of the world. We will learn,
who choose no other course.

The Nazis distrusted Nikolai’s
aptitude for following, bearlike, the call
of the untamed mothers of apples—
so they starved him to death in prison.

His shade and others pour spirit
libations in the weeds for all of us
while apples grow wilder in Tian Shan
and blue ghost fireflies settle low
in the hollers of these mountains.



I wrote this poem on March 20, 2020 when we’d just begun to understand the gravity of the pandemic. It was published in January of 2021 by On the Seawall.

Nikolai Vavolov (1887-1943) was a Russian botanist and geneticist who studied genetic erosion, and believed crop diversity was essential to life on earth. He created the world’s largest collection of plant seeds, and helped preserve and protect them through the 28-month long siege of Leningrad.

Vavilov’s expeditions for plant and seed collection covered more than 50 countries.

In the wild forests of Tian Shan, Kazakhstan, Malus sieversii—the genetic “mother” apples of most of the fruit we eat today—still grow.

2 comments on “Wild Mother Apples of Tian Shan

  1. Dark and troubling words, so beautifully written.

    • Lisa Creech Bledsoe

      March of 2020 was a dark time for many, and it permeated so much of what I thought about… Thank you so much for taking the time to read.

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