A realtor showed me A & M Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts during mud season. Winter’s old snow and patches of bare ground met my eye. The farmhouse needed paint, and the outbuildings begged for repair, but I was captivated. I was leaving a marriage of almost twenty years and looking for a new place to live. A friend suggested I visit this small farm; she loved the place — for she had grown up here.
I asked to see the chicken coop. Inside I picked my way through shit-splattered sawdust, teasing away thick curtains of cobwebs. Some forty old hens squawked, panicked by my presence in their ordered world.
“What is going to happen to all these chickens?” I asked.
“Why? Would you want them?”
Why not? I thought to myself. How difficult could they be to care for?
“Sure,” I said, not knowing anything about chickens.
“I’ll ask the owners what they are doing with the chickens,” he replied.
“Where are the apple trees?” I asked.
He casually gestured across the street. We followed an old cart road that bordered the orchard and I gazed down the rows of bare branches.
“What would you do with the apples?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’d have to learn,” I heard myself say.
“It’s hard to grow apples,” he cautioned.
I could feel a small delight rise inside me. Pears, cherries, peaches are all delicious; but apples are at the center of mythology, history, art, and even religion.
Could I do it? Can I grow apples? I wondered.
I changed the farm’s name from A & M Orchards named for the prior owners, Art and Marie Spaulding, to Old Frog Pond Farm, after the haiku by the seventeenth-century Japanese poet, Basho. I made a postcard and sent it to friends. It was a photograph of the pond, and floating above it, I added an image of a frog. The caption read, plunging into the unknown.
I’ve encountered a similar instruction in Zen practice. Daido Roshi, my first teacher at Zen Mountain Monastery, used the metaphor of a child leaping from a height into her parent’s arms to describe the trust we need to cultivate for true spiritual practice. We need to leap, to trust the world, and more importantly we need to learn to trust ourselves. It’s not a leaping away from life; it’s leaping into it, into more engagement.
It was a grand leap for me to leave to leave my marriage and move to the farm, but we make countless small leaps everyday, like in pruning when we have to make a large cut in the top of an apple tree or when we pick up the phone and call someone we haven’t talked with in a long time. It’s living a life where we continuously take small risks and don’t think that the water might be too cold, the person might not want to hear from us, or we might be making a mistake.
I try to remember this teaching of plunging into the unknown, of choosing the way of the unexpected, rather than following a map, but often I forget. Basho’s haiku continues to remind me.