For the Birds Radio Program: Apple Cider

Original Air Date: Oct. 20, 1998

Apples draw people and birds both.

Duration: 4′09″


We humans have five senses, but as with birds, most of the information we need comes from sight, hearing, touch, and taste. The sense we use the least yet is the most evocative is smell.

All four seasons come with their own scents. Cold temperatures limit odors winter air can hold, but wood-burning stoves carry the day. My dog Bunter’s fur used to be thick with a smoky reminder of our neighbors’ fireplace—I don’t think I’ll ever smell smoke without thinking of her. Spring’s huge variety of smells are just about all lovely ones—blossoms and earthworms and wet puppies. Summer odors grow a bit thicker—those puppy scents mature to doggy smells, and raspy mature leaves produce a more pungent scent than the same leaves did when they were soft and new. The sour smell of pesticides and fertilizers cling to many lawns, and garbage gets a chance to decay and develop some interesting smells before the weekly garbage day.

My favorite season for scents is autumn, thick with the mingling smells of ripening fruit and decaying leaves. In particular, I love to take an evening walk past autumnal apple trees. But their smell leaves me a little sad, too—the grounded apples that produce the most odor quickly grow rotten and are wasted, at least as far as we humans go. Deer sometimes retrieve fallen apples in the dead of winter, but despite their beauty and tastiness, apples are one fruit that even a deer can badly take for granted. Most creatures treat fallen apples with disrespect for their sheer commonness, acting as if they grew on trees or something.

One man with enormous love for apples and the joy they bring is Paul Steklenski. He picks apples directly from trees and salvages the used but healthy ones on the ground. He uses this fruit when he hosts cider-making parties to share this abundance. I got the extraordinary opportunity last week to attend one of these, and learned that nothing can compete with hand-pressed cider as a timely and tasty autumn treat, unless it’s the birds that gather to share those apples. Right now Paul’s yard is rich in juncoes, White-throated Sparrows, and chickadees. Downy Woodpeckers and chickadees peck suspicious spots on apples in hopes that insects wormed their way inside.

Once apples are chopped up, Paul pours the mash into a mesh bag that he’ll squish in his cider press. Before the bag is even filled, cider gushes forth, pressed on by the sheer weight of all those apples. Once the bag is full of mash, it goes inside a wooden cage-like cylinder and is mashed down with a wooden plate that squeezes out juice when pressed down by an enormous screw. My kids and friends and I took turns with the tasks of cider-making while listening to White-throated Sparrows, chickadees, and distant geese. Eventually the buckets were full, and we poured the lovely liquid into gallon and half-gallon jugs.

Fruit-eating critters, from warblers through the occasional Townsend’s Solitaire, sometimes avoid apples this time of year, preferring to pig out on berries. I tested a rehabber’s Cedar Waxwing on Paul’s apple cider, and she was utterly delighted! Waxwings have a sweet disposition, perhaps because they are what they eat, consuming apples at every stage of their lives, from delicate spring blossoms through ripe fruit, to the apple tree’s final gift, cider. Sipping the beautiful abundance together, I thought what a beautiful way to share earth’s love.