Off-the-Wall Comments from an Ignorant Farmer

Hugh Williams is an orchardist I admire. When I read his email reply to my recent blog about our difficulties with the apple crop, I knew I wanted to share some of his insights. I wrote to ask if I could quote him. “Of course you can use my name. More off-the-wall comments from an ignorant farmer!” was his reply.

Hugh and his wife, Hannah Ball, and their two children grow fruits and vegetables and raise a small herd of cows at Threshold Farm in Duchess County, New York. Everything they do is touched by the biodynamic practices first introduced to the world in the early 1900s by the philosopher-farmer, Rudolph Steiner. Hugh started farming on his family’s farm in Australia in the early 1960s. He has learned through careful observation what his plants and animals need to flourish. 

Cows in Bhutan   ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

Cows in Bhutan ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

I first met Hugh at the annual Holistic Apple Growers meeting in western Massachusetts. At the beginning of each meeting, Michael Phillips, the organizer and champion of holistic apple growing, greets everyone and suggests we go around the room and introduce our orchards. The first year I attended, Bill McKintley from Potsdam, New York, then the owner but now retired, of St. Lawrence Nurseries, began. John Bunker, who runs Fedco trees in Maine spoke next. John lives in Palermo, Maine, and is passionate about Maine’s heirloom varieties. Brian Caldwell, a grower in New York, is an organic vegetable researcher at Cornell University. He has two small orchards near his home. I was intimidated when my turn approached.

“I recently moved to a farm with an abandoned apple orchard,” I said, “and I am trying to bring it back, using only organic materials. But I’m a sculptor, and I don’t know anything about apples. “

Everyone was polite; no one hinted I might be getting in over my head.

“How many trees do you have?” asked a handsome man with an Australian accent. That was Hugh Williams. When it was Hugh’s turn to speak, I remember he said he had been growing apples for forty years, and added coyly, “I’m waiting for the day I can be rid of my sprayer.”  I wrote that down.

Over the last decade, Hugh has attended every apple growers meeting. Hugh always brings something original to our gatherings, a new enthusiasm, some relationship he hadn’t noticed before, an insight as to how a plant or animal grows. His cows are grass fed, and the calves run with the herd. An interviewer wrote, “We even saw Hugh milking from one side of a cow while a calf was nursing from the other side.” 

Hugh knows about challenges. He and his family live solely off the profit from their farm. In a bad year, they have to be creative. Hugh wrote, “We have a very poor apple crop too, except on a few varieties. Enough for our fruit share members, and we have great plums, peaches and pears so we'll eke our way through another year.”

I had written that our crop failure was in part due to biennial production because we don’t thin the fruit from the mature trees. Hugh answered, “For us it was mostly poor pollination. There were no insects, even on the dandelions!” Hugh and Hannah think it's a “global phenomenon” and referred to a “thinning” of the insects. Hugh reminded me that when you stop at a gas station today, there is no longer the need to clean your windshield. It used to be de rigeur, so many squashed insects stuck to the glass. Where did these bugs go? I never clean my windshield anymore.

I think of the avalanche of toxic chemicals we have been releasing onto our planet every day since the end of World War II. The companies that made nerve gas and other toxic materials needed to change their product line in order to continue operating. Someone had the brilliant idea to manufacture chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for the farmer. The corporate world is concerned with the bottom line. Inside brick and steel buildings, workers lose all connection to the natural world, to the subtlety of light, to beauty, to the richness of the insect, plant, and animal worlds, to the future of our children. 

Two Girls in the Market  , Bhutan   Photo:LH

Two Girls in the Market, Bhutan   Photo:LH

There is an article in the July 25, 2014 issue of Science, Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Defaunation is a new word used to describe not only the disappearance of a species but the decline in numbers. Farmers like Hugh and Hannah Williams don’t need scientific studies. 

Hugh ended his note saying,

It raises the question of what actually is the function or purpose of agriculture, which certainly is not inherently tied to money, nor perhaps even to cropping! Our spiritual purpose becomes ever closer and more concrete. While yes, our farm is a temple precinct, we cannot avoid the conclusion it is also the very sensitive canary in the coal mine.

Hugh’s spirituality infuses his farm and all who know him, providing deep sustenance to all creatures. He shares his ideas easily, even when they are counter to how much of the world thinks. I admire Hugh because he cultivates the physical demands of being a farmer—the hard work, the selling, the making a living—all with dexterity and wit, and he attends equally to the spiritual, with passion and reverence. Perhaps he would say, these two realms are connected, or are in fact, one and the same. Maybe, that is why his farm is named Threshold, a place of connection between inner and outer, earth and sky, the physical and the spiritual, the material and the ethereal.

Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan     Photo:LH

Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan  Photo:LH

Creative Connect

Sheets of rain slice across the pond, while our thirty-eight resident Canada geese poke at their feathers or calmly stare. Human wellbeing often depends on being dry, out of the rain, but in those moments when I enjoy the geese, I also enjoy getting wet.

You might call such a moment being alive, but as an artist I call it being creative. For by creativity I mean the potential to connect with the world outside oneself, whether near to home—the geese in the rain, a field of wildflowers, or far from home—the terror of immigrant children separated from their parents.  

When I experience long periods without this creative energy rising, I don’t feel connected. I fall into an abyss of my own mind, a morass of thinking about myself. Creativity makes me feel connected to the world. We all share this experience; it is inherently human.

The opposite is also true. We can be in the most beautiful place and not appreciate it; we block the beauty from entering our marrow. We can be in the most loving relationship and not allow the love to enter. When we don’t connect, we don't belong. Caught in the rain, we fear our clothing is getting wet or ruined, and we make it a problem. We hurry, frown, hunch up, forget the larger picture.

This longing to be connected with a big 220 amp plug drives my art. Even when I am grieving or burdened, when the world appears deeply troubled and dysfunctional, I try to keep this connective amperage flowing. For I know life will continue to change like wood to ash or leaves to compost, and human creativity is recognizing and living with these transitions and using them. A friend sent me a link to an article about an artist's painting exhibit. The artist, Kelly Thorndike, is an Iraqi vet who was stationed at the horrific Abu Ghraib prison when a bomb went off. In the second before shrapnel hit and seriously wounded him, Thorndike saw a nearby inmate blown to pieces. It’s worth a read. Creative work can help us process events and feelings we store in our minds.

A few nights ago, I was finishing a new sculpture, a mandala of sorts, with a great hollow tree in the center, and small meditating figures surrounding it.

Sculpture in process leaning on the wall.

Sculpture in process leaning on the wall.

I think the outer work is complete, but I have one part yet to finish. The Buddhas are sitting on wooden dowels, bobbins from an old textile mill in Lowell.

Sculpture detail, LH

Sculpture detail, LH

They are hollow. I want to place a word, a prayer, a meditation for the world inside each of these wooden tubes. I cut up a watercolor and wrote single words on each one—compassion, wisdom, suffering .  .  .  but then didn’t feel this was exactly right. As I was putting tools away, I noticed a bag of leftover National Geographic maps from making the sculpture, The Teapot Explorer.

I pulled out one, ‘Peoples of the Mideast’, a map of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan, with pictures of all the different ethnic groups from these areas—Bedouin, Qashqai, Armenian, Turk, Lur, Kurd among others. In one corner of the map there is a box describing the ethno-linguistic groups titled, An Awesome Human Mosaic. I thought of adding the names of indigenous people inside each bobbin in recognition of the depth of so much human diversity.

Copyright 1972 National Geographic Society

Copyright 1972 National Geographic Society

Then I opened a second map, ‘Great Migrations’, depicting eighteen migration patterns around the globe—birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, micro-organisms, and fish. I traced the Monarch’s multi-generational migration of 4000 miles. I followed the equally miraculous journey of the Loggerhead turtle 9000 miles from beginning to end, back to the very beach where it was born. Each of these creatures as unique as the indigenous people I admire.

I left the studio filled with awe.

Early the next morning on my way to the studio, I stopped to visit the geese. Some of the them were on the dam wetting their feet, others stood in the lawn alongside it. I appreciated  so much life right outside the door. Then I continued to my studio determined to write this blog. I’m not sure the blog is quite finished, and I don’t know how or when I will finish the sculpture, but as I look up from my page, startled at the sound of flapping wings, I see the geese practicing. It's flying-lesson time for the young.  

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.

IMG_4371.JPG

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. 

Metal and water color.jpg

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.