HERE'S TO THEE | Wassailing the Microbial Ecology of Cidermaking | Simon Pope et al


"Here's to thee Old Apple Tree," we declaim to the apple tree, every year on Old Twelfth Night, as part of a conventional wassail celebration.
But who or what else takes part in bringing us our cider each year? What of all those things that go unnoticed but whose effects are felt nonetheless? What of the yeasts, living "wild" on the apple skins, that we co-opt into the fermentation process? And what, indeed, of the other microbes that make their home on the cider-press and on the walls of the barn? And the rules and regulations of food production that also shape the cider that we drink? What of the microbiomes of the people that pick and prune, press and drink the "scrumpy" each year? How do all these participants relate to each other? What kinds of dependencies do they form? What kind of cooperations or antagonisms? What kinds of collective action? And what kinds of politics do they negotiate among themselves?

A multi-disciplinary group of participants took part in making a batch of cider at Halstow in Devon, England. As they picked and pressed the apples, their conversations informed a new Halstow Wassail, with a new wassail song sung, not only to the apple trees, but to all those things that constitute the microbial ecology of cider-making; a new wassail bowl, for the communal-drinking of cider, was made by Abigail North from clay found on the farm. The wassail took place on the 18th January 2020, as a heart-felt celebration of microbial life – "the Great Good Unseen" of whom Jim Causley sings.

Simon reading incantation Simon reading the incantation in the orchard, January 2020
Simon reading incantation Jim & Bill waiting for guests to join them


In its most recent guise, the wassail is often concerned with generating new communities. e.g.: constituted by those who have an interest in a community orchard; local residents celebrating the history of cider-making. These kinds of wassail parallel the efforts of participatory approaches to art: where groups of people are brought into being as an artwork; and which generates a sense of solidarity or belonging for the people who take part.

Here’s To Thee attempts to make a move beyond this by: mobilizing the convening-power of the wassail, as an accessible and popular folkway; but to question the assumptions that we might have about who constitutes the ‘community’ that it generates – in the sense of who constitutes our social worlds with us. To acknowledge a more-than-human social world: including microbial life in particular; and to draw attention to the negotiations that we make among ourselves and with microbes in this – the so-called ‘microbiopolitics’ of cider-making (Paxson, 2008); as well as its 'microbiosocialities' (Enticott, 2003) – ways that we come together with and through our relationships with microbial life.

The project proceded into production in 2019-20, and was then expanded upon further through an arts commission in 2020-22. §

Jim leading guests to the tree Converging on the apple tree
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