In his fantastic book on the craft of fiction, Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter examines how some authors make animate and inanimate objects (like clouds and houses) come to life, gaze back at one, and reveal their inner lives. In Robert Frost’s beautiful poem “After Apple Picking,” a harvester spends all day getting caught up in the natural world’s own dramas. Baxter also claims that in moments of “extreme emotion… objects really begin to speak,” and that’s the case when Richard Pryor describes his freebasing incident in some of the most honest and hilarious stand-up of all time. Baxter practices what he preaches, and in the conclusion of his “Talking Forks” chapter he pays attention to the apple trees around his office and shows how humbling it is to place the human realm beside the immensity of nature.
In the first two lines of Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” the speaker’s position on a ladder puts him on a continuum from earth to heaven:
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still…
It does seem heavenly, this post-harvest moment when the speaker is surrounded by barrels and boughs and the sweet scent of apples. He’s exhausted after work from the physical labor, but also from being so close to the sublime:
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
Nature has been surprising and confounding the speaker all day: first in the form of a sheet of ice he looked through, and then in the apples that reappear in his dreams:
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
At the end of the poem, the speaker berates himself for all the apples he let fall:
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
The speaker feels responsible for ferrying the fruit safely into barrels. The apples are vulnerable to the hand of fate, and so is he (poised on that ladder between heaven and earth), and in this way the objects surrounding him “have the same status and energy as the characters themselves.”
In Richard Pryor’s “Live on the Sunset Strip,” he peppers his honest description of crack addiction with things the pipe would say to him, from “Time to get up. Time for some smoke, Rich” to taking Rich’s side when friends tried to get him off drugs:
I understand, Rich. They don’t know. It’s your life! They don’t have a right to fuck with you. Where were they when you needed them? Come on in here with me, cause I love ya.
The pipe was speaking because Pryor’s emotions were so violent that they spilled over into the surroundings. As Baxter explains it, “Feeling, dispossessed by humans, moves quickly into the nearest receptacle available to house it.” Pryor’s pipe is sentient and highly expressive — a character in its own right.
In Baxter’s “Talking Forks” chapter, he encourages his readers to get away from the limiting mindset in which you see only the “insentience and thoughtlessness of things.” He acknowledges that it’s hard to talk about objects in a way that doesn’t sound “crackpot New Age,” “crazy or lamebrained,” or a like a pathetic fallacy (projecting your emotions on the objects around you). Nevertheless, Baxter wants us to stop “resisting both emotional violence and the Being that on occasion seems to gaze out of objects,” and proves why it’s worthwhile to do so with his chapter’s last two paragraphs:
Outside the window is an apple tree. It is August as I write these sentences. For the last few days a squirrel has been foraging in the tree, and sometimes it descends low enough on one of the branches in front of my study window to take a good look at me. It can stare at me for two minutes without moving. Then it goes back to its business, as I do to mine.
We do not spray the tree, and the apples growing there are mostly green or wormy. During the time that I have been writing this essay, the apples have been falling to the ground in the backyard. Every now and then, writing a sentence, I have heard the sound of an apple hitting the earth. Before the sound of its impact, there is a breath, a swish, as the fruit drops through the branches and leaves. It is not a sigh but sounds like one. This sound has nothing to do with my current moods, but I listen for it, and I have been counting the number of apples that have fallen during the last ten pages of this essay. There have been eighteen.