A New Year for Apples

Many of you who have been following my weekly blog know that this fall I became quite discouraged about farming and the orchard and so much that I’ve poured myself into over the last ten years. In large part, my frustration was due to a fungal pathogen, Venturia inaequalis, better known as scab. But thanks to a persuasive mentor and the researchers at PRI, I’m finding the door is opening and there is light on the other side.

PRI refers not to Public Radio International, but to Purdie, Rutgers, and Illinois Universities, the name of the cooperative disease resistant apple breeding program that has patented apples such as Scarlett O'Hara, Sundance, Pixie Crunch, and CrimsonCrisp — all apples bred to be crunchy, attractive, tasty and most importantly, resistant to apple scab.

When I started growing apples in 2005, my mentor Denis Wagner’s first concern was what we were going to do about apple scab, one of the worst problems for organic orchardists in New England. Denis advised I spray micronized sulfur, a common material used in agriculture to fight fungal infections. It is a mined material and permitted under organic regulations. The Sumerians used sulfur 4,500 years ago to combat disease in their crops.

The scab fungus overwinters in the orchard floor. In the spring, after a warm, rainy period —  millions of spores float upwards into the tree like dust motes in sunlight. Landing on warm and wet, fresh green leaves, the scab shows up as innocuous-looking dark spots on the leaves. But gradually, these black cloudy patches grow darker and spread over the leaf surface. Unchecked, the fungus becomes rampant and jumps from leaf to fruit.

apple scab.jpg

The apples develop brown crusty scabs and eventually crack. Sulfur applied to the leaves changes the pH and makes them an inhospitable host. The problem is getting spray onto every leaf surface — next to impossible — and renewing the coverage after it rains. An organic orchardist might need to spray sulfur fifteen times or more.

Over next few years, I learned through my holistic apple grower’s network how to calculate the spore release and not spray at every threat of precipitation. I would spray only when there was a large percentage of inoculant. I found I could keep the virus in check, unless we have a bad year – meaning a very wet spring. Then it becomes impossible to control. Ten years ago was a ghastly season. The scab was so ugly on the Macintosh trees that I decided to take down every Mac that wasn’t in the first three rows. My thinking was that I could confine these scab-susceptible trees and control it better. Macintosh trees are notorious scab magnets.

This year was again a banner year for scab. We lost half our fruit. Scab jumped from the Macintosh to the Golden Delicious, and then to the Blushing Golden, varieties that are normally scab resistant. With the Macs in the front three rows of the orchard, it was not a welcoming site for those entering the orchard: for people coming to pick apples for the first time, it was alarming.

I consulted with Denis again. “Remove them,” he said. “The trees are old and very densely planted.”  I hemmed and hawed. I didn’t want to take down any trees. But I knew that even when I sprayed I got only about 50% coverage because of the tree size and density. I told Denis I would consider removing them and began my Macintosh cogitation.

What to do? Take down thirty-five beautiful trees? Take down only one row to start? I spoke with another apple grower and he suggested leaving a few Macs – because they make lovely early season cider.  ‘Ah, what a good idea,’ I thought. I mentioned this to Denis. 

            “Linda,” he said. “You made the decision to get rid of them, just get rid of them.”

First Row of Macintosh Trees

First Row of Macintosh Trees

A phone call came in.

            “Don't hang up!” a gentleman said. “This isn’t a solicitation. I’m interested in organic apple wood.”

I would have hung up, but at that moment I was stewing in apple wood decisions. It would take considerable labor to cut down thirty-five full size trees, pile the branches, burn them, and stack the burnable logs. 

            “We’re looking for some organic apple wood to make charcoal,” the man said. “We think we can sell it to high end organic restaurants.”

He had my attention. He was in Arizona, but coming to New England and wanted to visit the farm, meet me, and see the trees. I explained that this year, I actually had a few large trees that I was planning to take down. We agreed to meet.

Len Kronman visited along with his business partner, Dave Santos. I don’t know how they are related, but Dave is younger and Len is older. Dave seems to be the on the ground man and Len is perhaps a financial backer. While we were walking through the orchard I told Len about my attempt at creating a wild orchard pointing out Valerian and Jerusalem artichokes growing between the trees.

            “My daughter-in-law had just published a book on wildflowers. Would you like a copy?” he asked.
            “Oh yes,” I replied.
            “Please send her a copy,” he directed Dave.

Len is also an art collector; he specializes in Native American art. But as he said a few times, he just loves to collect. We took a tour of sculpture on the farm, and he chose a piece of mine, a small figure sitting on a tall rock. All this from organic apple wood . . .

Dave and I chose a date when he would come with a few men, a chipper, and a truck. Then he called back, apologetically.

            “Would it be all right if we chipped and left the branches less than 2” in diameter? It will be too small for charcoal,” he explained. “If we take it away we will need to bring two trucks – one for the charcoal making wood and the other for the twig stuff.” 

Chipped wood from the smaller branches is called ramial wood chips. They have more nutrients than older wood. They’re hard to come by unless you have your own chipper.  We always burn our prunings in a huge bonfire and then spread the ashes around the trees.

Bonfire of Apple Prunings

Bonfire of Apple Prunings

            ‘Nutrients for the trees,’ I thought. “I would love to have them!”

            Dave and his crew won’t be here until after Christmas, but I am feeling better about removing the Macintosh trees. I’ve already ordered replacements — two early season, scab resistant varieties from the PRI breeding program. In the front row will be Pristine, a hardy yellow apple, with crunch and sweetness, that I already grow. And for the second row, Redfree, another early season apple with skin color 90% red wash over yellow. The tree salesman also convinced me to put in an order for the new Evercrisp apple. He said, “You might have to wait a year or so, but you’ll love it!”  I’m looking forward to the ripening of the new year filled with things not yet known, not yet tasted, not yet seen. I hope you are, too! All best for the Holdiays!




My First Visit to the Farm

Fruit is ripening, farmers are planting, weeding and harvesting, and outdoor sculpture is being installed, but it wasn’t always this way. Sixteen years ago, I read the real estate listing for the property — five bedrooms, a detached garage/barn, apple orchard, and a chicken coop. I was a sculptor, not a farmer, and definitely not an orchardist, but the rentals I looked at were either too small or had no art studio space. That’s when my friend, Elizabeth, suggested I visit the farm; she had grown up here, and her parents had sold the property to its current owners.

It was mid-March, mud season in New England, when I turned off the highway, drove several miles, and rounded a bend on a narrow country road. I saw sad fences and a gray pond. The farmhouse needed paint and the outbuildings begged for repair. Winter’s old snow and patches of bare ground met my eye; nothing green hinted towards Persephone’s eventual rise from Hades.

I shook hands with the realtor and we entered the front door. A brick fireplace filled the living room where a few pieces of furniture had been placed. It didn’t feel like home, for every personal knickknack had been cleared away. I followed the realtor down three steps into the kitchen. Dark pine boards covered the walls and ceiling. There were no drawers or cabinets, only open shelves for plates, bowls, and glasses. Along one wall, heavy pots for making jam and stocks stood like sentinels guarding alien territory. Above a wood-burning cook stove hung a patchwork of blackened iron pans. This was a work kitchen.

We walked up the stairs and I peered into the small bedrooms with sloping walls and chimneys flues. Enough room for my three children. Simple and practical, the house was over 250 years old, and it had never been fixed up to be someone’s modern suburban dream. We entered the master bedroom, and for some reason I thought, If the house has hot water, everything will be fine. I turned on the hot water faucet in an avocado-colored sink, a popular sixties color, and warmth ran over my fingertips.

We walked outside again: I was drawn towards the pond. An American elm towered high above a small waterfall. Her thin hanging branches swayed in the breeze, and reflections rippled over the surface of the water. When so many elms had died all over America from Dutch Elm disease, this one was clearly thriving.

The Elm, May, 2002

The Elm, May, 2002

“Can I see the chicken coop?”

Inside the ramshackle white clapboard shed, I teased away thick curtains of cobwebs. Every surface was covered with slimy white-green chicken shit in varying stages of drying. Some forty old hens squawked, panicked by my presence. I had never been near a chicken, and was as much disgusted as fascinated by their gnarly feet, overgrown toenails, and featherless backs — the feathers, I later learned, were worn away by the roosters’ endless mounting.

peck me kissme2.JPG

“What’s going to happen to all these birds?” I asked.
“Why? Would you want them?”
Why not, I thought to myself, not knowing anything about chickens.
 “Sure,” I said.
 “I’ll ask the owners for you,” the realtor responded.

The other side of the chicken coop housed a Kubota tractor. It came with the property. This orange machine was huge and I looked away. Alongside the shed, a rickety fence marked the wintered-over remains of a sizable kitchen garden. I loved tending a small garden and growing a few vegetables, but this was a garden that would feed a family all winter. Then, crossing the driveway, we walked into a brown, two-story unheated garage. Inside this empty space I could make a new studio. It would hold all the rusty metal, old tools, and machines I use to make sculpture.

The listing had mentioned an old orchard. “Where are the apples?” I asked. He casually gestured across the street. The road was lined with old apple trees. We walked across the street and followed an old cart road that bordered the orchard. I peered through rows of bare branches.

“What would you do with the apples?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I heard myself say. “I’d have to learn,”
“It’s hard to grow apples,” he cautioned.

I could feel a small delight rise. Pears, cherries, and peaches are all delicious, but apples figure in mythology, history, science, and even religion.  I wondered, could I grow apples?

The realtor and I walked to the back of the orchard to a small clearing near some wetlands. A giant bird flew overhead. “Great blue heron,” he said. I nodded, while peering into a weathered shed. Giant earth-encrusted tools silently stood in their stalls. Later I learned the names — manure spreader, back hoe, brush hog, but at the moment they were as otherworldly as the caw caw of the heron, that ancient pterodactyl.

I didn’t consider the reality of taking over a farm and an orchard. Yet something had happened as I walked the property. This place will keep me grounded, I thought to myself.

Now, sixteen years later,  the stately Elm is a decaying stump, and though a few new Elms have sprouted nearby, no other tree can replace that loss. Blase, my partner, and I are anticipating the opening of the new harvest season, admittedly with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. We love to greet old friends and welcome new people to the farm. We have a crop of apples this year, and the sculpture exhibit is going to be our largest and, we think, our best exhibit yet. But we don’t enjoy rushing to the phone at 10pm, and finding a customer wondering if we have Gala apples, their favorite.

I am more grounded than ever, but like the changing landscape we are beginning to think about what comes next. Change is what we can count on. We are getting older and beginning to feel different pulls. I want to do more art and Blase wants to work more with people. How will we grow and how will our journeys braid together and transform the landscape? Whatever field we cultivate, the heart will surely grow.

The Almata Apple, just picked!

The Almata Apple, just picked!

Hanami — Blossom Viewing

Blossom viewing is a cultural event in Japan. Hanami, literally “to see flowers,” is the word for this traditional custom that dates back to the 8th century. Hanami takes place as a picnic under the branches, or a stroll among the trees. Sweet treats and sake, colorful kimonos, and an opportunity to compose and share poems are all part of hanami. When I lived in Japan, the evening news announced the opening of the cherry blossoms from Okinawa in the South of Japan to Hokkaido in the North. Families and friends planned their weekends to visit their favorite cherry blossom viewing sites.

© "Amidst the Beauties of Springtime – Dwarf Cherry Trees at Omuro Gosho Temple" 1904 / Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

© "Amidst the Beauties of Springtime – Dwarf Cherry Trees at Omuro Gosho Temple" 1904 / Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hanami is not only for daytime viewing, but temples and gardens have lanterns to light the cherry trees during special evening hours. In Kyushu, there is a traditional Japanese garden with over 2,000 cherry trees. In Maruyama Park in Kyoto, over 800 trees are illuminated during the short season of the blossoms, and crowds gather. Hanami is big business.

Picture courtesy of Mifuneyama Kankō Hotel, Kyushu

Picture courtesy of Mifuneyama Kankō Hotel, Kyushu

Usually hanami refers to cherry blossoms, but originally it was plum blossoms that were harbingers of spring. In Kyoto, I would see plum trees in bloom in early February, when there was still a dusting of snow on the branches. The striking visual similarity between snowflakes and flower petals has been a favorite subject for Japanese poets. In the earliest Japanese poetry collection, the Manyoshu, this poem was composed at a plum-blossom viewing banquet at the home of Otomo Tabito in 730 CE:

In my garden fall the plum-blossoms—
      Are they indeed snow-flakes
Whirling from the sky?

                                    —the Host

And later in the same collection:

Yonder in the plum tree
Fluttering from branch to branch
The warbler sings
And white on his wings falls
Airy snow. 

                                  —Author unknown

In Japanese poetry, blossoms evoke the ephemeral nature of life, the fact that everything we love in this world is impermanent — the warbler’s song, the moon’s reflection in water, the touch of a lover. However, in our realization of this transience, we love all the more. For the Japanese, beauty is never very far from melancholy, and one of my favorite books is Beauty and Sadness, by Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. In the book, the writer Oki Toshio meets a lover from his past, Otoko Ueno. She is now a well-known, but reclusive artist, living with her protégée, who is fiercely jealous of her teacher’s old lover. It’s not the storyline in Kawabata’s books that won him the Nobel prize, but the subtlety of emotions. It’s as if the reader were gazing into the reflection in a drop of sweat on her lover’s neck — we are that close physically to complex emotional states.

In the traditional world of Noh Theater, often one emotion is the focus of a play and, during the performance, that emotion builds to a final delirium of expression. While I was training in the Noh Theater, I danced a role from the Noh play Sakuragawa, Cherry Blossom River, in which a mother, having lost her only son, named Cherry Blossom Boy, roams the countryside to find him. She comes upon the Cherry Blossom River, where, in her crazed grief, and moved by the falling blossoms, she dances. In the dance, she uses a bamboo scoop to lift the fallen blossoms from the river, as if to raise her drowned son’s body. She dances faster and faster, while the deep voices of the chorus, the percussive beat of the drums, and shrill calls of the high-pitched Noh flute come together with intense fervor to express her unimaginable loss. The cherry blossoms signify the transient nature of life, yet a mother’s love for her child never fades.

Now, as an orchardist, I check the daily weather reports during this time of the year. Tender blossoms are susceptible to damage from frost, and the wildly fluctuating temperatures we’ve been having in recent years raise my anxiety. High temperatures cause flower buds to break dormancy and begin to swell. Frigid temperatures can be fatal for these tender buds. Last year, all over New England, farms lost their peach crop, and many orchards lost up to 90 percent of their apple crop. Even if the buds open, the severe cold can affect the fruit set and quality. It’s a big unknown, and we are a long way from fruit set. 

Weather can also wreak havoc with cherry blossoms. A rainstorm with wind close to peak blossom time will leave wet petals plastered to the branches, trunk, and ground, and the hanami tourists will change their plans. I’ve seen a rainstorm shred the petals in our orchard; but, by then, the bees had already pollinated, and the tiny applets grew.

Viable blossoms are a cause for celebration both for their beauty and for the fruit we can anticipate. If we have a full blossom set I’m going to host a hanami — kimonos optional—with  hot sake, tasty morsels, and poetry!

The Creative Heart

I watched as my son, Alex, carefully undid the wrapping, opened the wooden box, and lifted a corner of the quilted cloth. On his face, I saw a strange look of disbelief. “It’s broken,” he said. Now it was my turn to be stunned. The beautiful ceramic bowl sat in broken shards on its rose-colored cloth. I was crushed and horrified. It felt like a betrayal.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about Kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing a broken bowl with gold. For Christmas, I offered a Japanese tea bowl that had been repaired using this method, to Alex and my daughter-in-law, Connie. I felt it would be a meaningful gift as they embarked on married life together. With baby Vita now a hear and half, a new baby on the way, and the opening of a store in Asheville, North Carolina, East Fork Pottery, their life is full. I thought of the Kintsugi bowl with its veins of gold as a symbol of creatively and beautifully overcoming challenges.

A week later, I was still feeling badly about how my gift turned out. I thought to myself, I should make something with these shards — a sculpture — and give it to them. I mentioned my idea to Alex and he seemed a little put off — then he said, “Yes, um, we should do a repair.” And I understood that he wanted to repair the bowl himself. I had kept it anticipating that I would return the broken shards to the gallery, but they graciously refunded the price I had paid. We decided to talk about it in early January when we will next be together.

Everything in our world is impermanent. Wood turns to ash and fallen leaves to compost. The broken pot shards can become something else. Accepting change is about no longer being stuck in what was, but moving on. This moving on is the awakening of our creative heart.

I know that my well-being depends on feeling that I have connected to that place of creativity inside my heart. With days of less meaningful doing, I begin to fall into this dark abyss of my own mind. I become disjointed, my body altogether not my body, my limbs connected like a puppet. I don’t act with spontaneity and wholeness. I can be in the most beautiful place and if I don’t feel connected to it, I can’t appreciate it because I block the beauty from entering my bones. I can be in the most loving relationship and not allow this love to enter.

Each creative act makes use of something that is unresolved in our hearts. Each creative act makes the world whole. In this new year, let’s make whatever is broken whole again. We don’t, in fact, can’t know what it will look like. Who would ever imagine that a river carved a canyon that enthralls millions of people thousands of years later. I can’t imagine what will possibly come out of this box of pot shards, but this is precisely the process that heals broken places and turns them into art. 

In this new year, I’d like to remember that broken bowl when I find myself slipping away from my creative heart, when I feel alone and cut off.  For I know that in doing the work I will find my way back. We all share this longing that is deeply human, that beseeches us to be fully our own life, to belong completely to the entirety. Our longing is the gift we can offer.

When I started this weekly blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, one year ago, I thought it would be a one-year project and I would be using the orchard as a springboard to write. With 2016 being a year of no apples, they have been a very silent partner. I’ve decided to commit to another year, and hopefully with some good winter chill, we will have an apple crop and there will be more apple-inspired writing. Please join me, share the blog with your friends, and together let’s lift the corner of the new year, white, and pure, and unknown. It’s ours to create for the very first time.