How is the Orchard?

It’s the question I am most often asked, and it has become my least favorite question to answer. Have you ever been in this situation?  That which you most don’t want to talk about is exactly what elicits the most interest. The old Zen saying—you find your fate on the road you take to avoid it—is apropos.

No one asks, “How is your spirit, Linda?” A few ask, “How is the studio?” or about the children and about my husband, Blase. But a disproportionate number inquire, “How are the apples?” They know we’ve had some bad years.

To the apples, then. Well, maybe. . .

You see, I just don’t want to write about them. I love the trees, the land on which they grow, the wildflowers, the seasons of their lives, the bare branches in the winter, pruning, the blossoms, the buzz of pollination. In 2015, we had a magnificent bloom and gathered for apple blossom viewing with shakuhatchi music floating out from a hidden speaker in one of the trees.

 Apple Blossoms Macintosh Apples

Apple Blossoms Macintosh Apples

The blossoms turned to fruit, and we had a splendid crop.

But the truth is that 2015 was the last year we had a munificent harvest. In 2016, we had no fruit because of an early frost. Last fall, we had a bumper crop, but horrible scab rendered all our Macintosh and Golden Delicious apples unsellable. Out of the last four years, we’ve had one great year and one all-right year. We need to look honestly at what is happening despite the amazing 2017 Honey Crisp harvest.

 My daughter, Ariel, picking Honey Crisp apples in 2017.

My daughter, Ariel, picking Honey Crisp apples in 2017.

Growing organic apples was never part of a get-rich scheme. When I moved into the farmhouse in 2001, the abandoned orchard across the road and I shared many characteristics. I was hurt, confused, and without solid ground under my feet. The orchard grew brambles, poison ivy, but no fruit. Bringing back the orchard became an artistic as well as spiritual passion; it grew and flourished as I healed, grafting a new life.

There is a great demand for local organic apples, and the orchard proved to be economically sustainable. However, our experience in recent years is changing the equation. Blase and I are questioning the orchard’s future. With a demanding schedule of time and resources for orchard care, growing organic apples on our scale is proving to not be sustainable. It’s not emotionally supportive: It’s downright depressing.

And why aren’t there any apples this year?

Among the multitude of interrelated answers, some I know and many I don’t. Thinning is certainly one reason. Most apple orchards thin their trees with chemical thinners when the fruit is only a few millimeters in size. This reduces the number of apples, fooling the tree into thinking it needs to produce a decent crop the following year to guarantee long-term survival. We thin our small trees by hand, too much fruit will impede healthy growth, but the mature trees are simply too big and too many so they produce a copious crop one year, and a pocket-sized one the following year—biennial production. I also think last year’s wildly successful scab fungi weakened the trees. Earlier this spring we took out seventy-five old trees—fifty Macintosh, the scab magnets, and twenty-five old. undesirable, meaning unsellable, Red Delicious trees. Fluctuating weather patterns accelerated by climate change are creating new challenges for orchardists and farmers in New England. Even though we have bees, the struggles facing our native pollinators makes pollination of apples in a cold spring a concern. Bees don’t go out of their hive unless the weather is over 55 degrees and they loathe rain. In spite of this litany, except for recent deer damage, the trees are leafy and healthy. Of course they are: No stress with no crop!

But the inexorable problem remains—there is no crop once again. This orchard that has meant so much to me, fed and nourished many others for the last fifteen years, this orchard that has been my companion, my lover, and a great teacher, is not sustainable. We are caring for some four hundred trees, too many to do this work part-time and unprofessionally. If we had a small mixed orchard it would be different.

What are we going to do?  Blase and I are beginning to talk about how to make some kind of change. I have friends who decided reluctantly to move out of their house once their children fledged. I have an artist friend who moved with her husband to San Miquel d’Allende, Mexico, where, because the dollar stretches further, they built a magnificent glass and stucco house and studio. But we don't want to move. We don’t want to leave the farm.

Blase and I are both creating new directions as we live the decade of our sixties. Blase is organizing community events here and working with people one on one. He’s also returning more often to his woodworking shop in Maynard and fixing up his camp on the marsh on the North shore. He still tends a large kitchen garden and he repairs every dang machine that breaks, and they all do . . . .

I work with our part-time women farmers, Holly, Julia, and Hannah three days a week. We pull invasives, pick fruit, weed, mulch, and create new planting beds. Strawberry harvest is over and blueberries are next. On the last 90 degree Friday, we netted the blueberry rows. We were so fried by the heat, I let everyone go home at 4 o’clock instead of 5, had a shower, and promptly collapsed, forgetting about my dear friend Marion Stoddart’s party (I am so sorry, Marion).

Together, we also make art! Holly made a snake with all the sticks that needed to be picked up among the wildflowers near Paul Matisse’s Olympic Bell. Julia painted the signs for Which Way?  Hannah has created some of our most memorable Instagram posts.

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Planning is underway for our 12th Annual Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit, and the artists will be installing their work in August. I love finding just the right location for each sculptor's work. This year, artist Anne Eder, known at the farm for her extraordinary installations of mythical creatures, will be overseeing her students from the Harvard Ceramics Studio with their own interdisciplinary sculptural installations. And my studio will be open on September 15 & 16th, part of the Bolton Harvard Open Studio. There is much work, both farm and art, to do. In some ways it is a relief not to have a big apple crop, I have more time for other projects. Yet, when I look at the photo of Ariel and the Honey Crisp apples, I cringe with disappointment—no apple-picking, no biting into juicy organic apples, no cider-making. 

What is our fate? And what road am I on trying to avoid my own? It’s right in front of me—and I can only say I am grateful. 

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The Earth, experiment with found object, watercolor, and bronze figure, LH

Which Way?

Studios without Walls, the group of artists that organizes an annual outdoor sculpture exhibit along the Muddy River in Brookline, has expanded to a new location—the Newton Upper Falls Greenway. This exhibit of Beyond Boundaries, organized by the talented artist, Wendy Wolf, fills an old railroad bed trail through Newton Highlands with fifteen installations.

   We All Speak the Same Language  , Wendy Wolf

We All Speak the Same Language, Wendy Wolf

My sculpture for the Newton Greenway, Which Way?, has had several lives. In the late 1990s, the sculpture, then titled The Way of Signs, was on the Boston Common, before being moved to Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton for a season. It was a signpost with signs pointing in every direction—The Way of Peace, The Way of Doubt, The Way of Jealousy, The Way of Love. When this piece found its way home again, I dismantled it and put it in storage. In March of 2003, I remade it for a women's peace vigil at Old Frog Pond Farm. I repainted its old signs with the names of countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Brazil, India, Pakistan, the United States, Bosnia, Somalia. A group of seventy-five women gathered at the farm on the evening of March 7 to protest sending troops to Iraq. With light from home-made torches, we walked over the snow from our bonfire near the farmhouse, down the hill, across the stone bridge, and out to a point where the sculpture glowed from the torchlight and lit the white snow. No boundaries, no barbed wire fences, no gun-protected borders: simply directions to parts of the world where we wanted to send our love. (I can't find the Boston Globe photo but here is one I took when I installed it.)

   The Way of Peace  , LH, installed at Old Frog Pond Farm

The Way of Peace, LH, installed at Old Frog Pond Farm

The Way of Peace had a sojourn a few years later in the town of Lawrence, along a canal. A group of anarchists adopted it and hung some of their own signs and a small plastic flying pig.

   The Way of Peace  , Lawrence, MA

The Way of Peace, Lawrence, MA

Since this incarnation, the base and the wooden post have been gathering dust, while the signs were painted over becoming street signs pointing the way to pick-your-own raspberries and organic apples at Old Frog Pond Farm.

For the call for art for the Upper Newton Greenway, I decided to resurrect the sculpture. Though our world aches for peace, I decided to return to the sculpture’s original incarnation with new signs pointing to emotions and desires that we can all relate to—The Way of Joy, The Way of Jealousy, The Way of Generosity, The Way of Money, The Way of Fame, The Way of Water.

Looking around the farm for wood to make the signs from, I decided to use some unusual boards I have been harboring for many years, unsure of how or if I wanted to use them. They are thin and long, of varying sizes, with rounded oval ends. Trappers used them for drying pelts. They would stretch the animal inside out, pulling it over and down, and pinning it to the boards. Then they could scrape away the innards and leave the skin to dry. I painted the dirty, somewhat oily wood, a clean white.

Signs White.jpg

I asked Julia Tricca, one of our farmers, if she wanted to help. I know she is a good artist. I explained that I wanted a mix of colors and graphics for each sign. She was immediately drawn into the project, and made interesting lettering and designs for several signs. I loved what she did and turned the project over. For the next few weeks she would leave us in the fields or berry patches and go into the studio to work on the signs.

To complete Which Way?, I placed a round of wood sliced from the trunk of tree with a hollow center, anthropomorphizing the sculpture with a “head.”  The signs became her arms, like the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, known in Japanese as Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva with many eyes and arms who sees all the cries of the world and has enough arms to offer help in all directions. Last week, Mike LaBonte, another part-time farmworker helped me install the sculpture in Newton. (If you work at the farm, it is likely you will be pulled into an art project.)

When we finished installing, Mike left. I was sitting in the pick-up truck I’d borrowed from my husband, Blase, looking at Which Way? through the windshield when a large group of people appeared. I watched their surprise and delight, then got out of the truck and introduced myself. They had gathered because a fire alarm had gone off in their office building. I explained my sculpture was part of an exhibit that would be installed over the weekend. A young man said he thought Which Way? was wonderful and I asked, “Why?” He replied after considering, “Because it humanizes the area.” That’s the joy of public art! It’s a surprise gift. We do speak the same language.

 Hannah and her dog, George, were so excited to see the sculpture being installed they asked me to take a photo and send it to them.

Hannah and her dog, George, were so excited to see the sculpture being installed they asked me to take a photo and send it to them.

The troops marched into Iraq despite our peace vigil—as a country we still follow The Way of War. But we do have choices individually. We can try many directions and see where they lead. We can make good choices.

The exhibit will be up all summer. If you are in the area, stop by! You can enter the trail through the parking lot for the Boston Ballet School in the TJ Max mall at 153 Needham Street, Newton Highlands or pull into one of the parking spots at Pettee Square at 94 Oak Street, Newton Upper Falls. Here are a few photos of the other installations to entice you.

   Swarm,   Joe Wright

Swarm, Joe Wright

   Soaring High  , Janet Kawada

Soaring High, Janet Kawada

   Qwgkak of the Upper Falls  , Anne Eder        Photo:  Anne Eder

Qwgkak of the Upper Falls, Anne Eder       Photo: Anne Eder

The other artists are: Stacy Piwinski, Maria Ritz, Gregory Steinsieck, Gail Jerauld Bos, Freeedom Baird, Madeleine Lord, Betty Ann Libby, Myrna Balk, and Louise Farrell. For information: Studio Without Walls.

Geese, Herons, Beavers, and the Baby Steps of a Lapsed Blogger

For those who have been faithful followers of my blog, who have worried, and asked, “Is everything all right?” My reply is a hearty, “Yes!”.  It’s simply been a busy spring. So much has happened that I don’t know where to begin. Thus, baby steps.

 Scultpure. LH

Scultpure. LH

I watch the geese. We have, I think, eight families, but they often mix together and it is hard to tell who belongs to whom. They are eating machines and when I listen closely I hear their beaks snap as they grab grass, insects, and whatever else they are snacking on. They are also poop machines and walking around the farm requires attention to the ground before you step.

geese and tyvek studio.jpg

The geese love being here because of the pond. They need a body of water for protection. The hissing and tongue-sticking-out behavior of the defensive adults seems bravado distraction to give the goslings time to scurry into the pond.

The young herons are also a treat to watch.

 Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

One caught a frog in the mixed fruit orchard by the house. Another has been fascinated by something in the chicken coop. Then she or he walked across the street into the orchard and meandered down a row of apple trees. It is most unusual behavior for a heron. These young birds haven’t learned to fear humans or their domains; innate curiosity lures them close. This morning one came walking up the driveway;  I half expected a knock at the front door. Older herons have their reserved spots around the pond — one stands near the willows, another across the pond, and a third on the far side of the dam. This heron pays no attention to the medley of black, Northern water snakes that congregate on the warm rocks. I look down when I walk around the pond; sometimes the snakes prefer to hide in the long grass.

When I look up, I see my studio. There is no siding on the outside walls, only plastic Tyvek wrap like a Christo art installation. Inside, however, I am working and enjoying the new light-filled space immensely. We don’t have a CSA at the farm this year, and we don’t have any full time workers – which means I try to make time each week for art.

 New Studio (difficult to photograph)

New Studio (difficult to photograph)

So far it has been working and I’ve installed new work in four outdoor exhibits this spring.

 Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

I also try to spend a little time at the end of the day sitting in a chair with the windows wide open looking over the pond. One evening I saw something swimming, making what looked like figure eight circles on the far side. This went on for quite a while until I decided I would go up to the house to get some binoculars, risking of course, the creature’s disappearance.

When I returned to the studio and held the binoculars up to my eyes, I saw that there were two beavers, not one, swimming together.  One swam ahead while the other approached, then slid up over them, then swam off, and circled round. In silence the beavers came together again, then separated; joined and parted. Beavers making love in the pond!  A few more times and they disappeared. Now I keep binoculars by my window seat. I will not use these to make another scutlpure!