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!

"What's in a Name?"

Granny Smith, Bramley’s Seedling, and the picaresque Bloody Ploughman are names of apples with unique histories, but I, too, have had my own journey with names. I was born Linda Bess Weiner. When I was a child I disliked my middle name; it seemed too old fashioned. I got the sense from my mother that she really didn’t like it either. The name came from my father’s mother, an overbearing woman. I imagine that my mother must have felt pressured to do what her mother-in-law wanted and thus named me after my great-grandmother. When I was about ten, my mother said I could change it, and we decided together it would be Elizabeth. The initials, LEW, had a nice ring to them, and she gave me a necklace with those letters. We didn’t say anything to my grandmother. However, it never rolled off my tongue without a hiccup of some kind, a hemming and hawing, an exclamation that it wasn’t my real middle name. And then of course the question followed: “What is my middle name?”

After a few years, I simply dropped having a middle name. I was Linda Weiner. It wasn’t a last name that I particularly liked either. There was just too much childhood teasing —  Oscar Meyer Weiner hotdogs and worse. Why couldn’t I have a normal last name? I especially felt this frustration given that my family had now moved from the working class refinery town of Chester, Pennsylvania, to Wynnewood, one of the towns of Philadelphia’s prominent Main Line. My schoolmates attended dances at the nearby Merion Cricket Club, but Jews were not allowed. We got along well enough at school, but clearly there were differences. My name gave away my legacy.

The English apple, Bloody Ploughman, was named after a ploughman who was shot by a local gamekeeper for stealing apples. And the popular, Granny Smith, was named after an Australian woman, Maria Smith, who rescued an apple growing in her compost heap. The Bramley, another English apple, was named for a Mr. Bramley who bought a house from Mary Ann Brailsford  where she had planted a seedling which grew astonishingly good cooking apples. Bramley allowed a local nursery to propagate it on the condition that it would be named after him. I might have avoided planting this apple if I’d known its patriarchal history.

A group of new apples sport the name, ‘Crisp,’ including Honey Crisp, Golden Crisp, and Cosmic Crisp. The “crisp” in the name indicates that these apples have been bred to be particularly crispy, something the early 21st century public desires. One of my favorite new apples is Bonkers, a cross between a Delicious and a Liberty produced by Cornell University's apple breeding program in Geneva, New York. Bonkers is large, extremely crispy and juicy, and very red; and it is scab free, important for our organic orchard. The name, Bonkers, also has some kick, especially compared to other new scab-free apples like Pristine, Liberty, and Freedom.

When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to live with Paul Matisse, the father of my three children, I told him that I didn’t particularly like my last name. How could I like ‘Weiner’ when I was living with a ‘Matisse,’ one of the most illustrious names in 20th century art? Paul said, “Why don’t you change it?”  I immediately thought of the traditional Japanese poets who often took pen names. The Japanese haiku poet, Basho, over his lifetime published poems using three different names. Basho was the last one he adopted after his disciples built him a little hut and planted a basho, a banana tree, in front of it.

The idea appealed to me and I thought of a poetic name like River, a name taken from the natural world. Paul was quick to say, “No.” I think he imagined Linda River was too close to Joan Rivers or some Hollywood star’s stage name. “It should be a normal name,” he said, and he pulled out the Manhattan phone book, opened it at random to the H’s, and found Hoffman. So I took up Hoffman, and went to the Cambridge courthouse and officially changed my name. It was a sort of declaration that I no longer belonged to my family of origin. I was starting out fresh, a new person with Paul; I was a person without a family history. 

When, twenty years later, I moved to a rundown farm with a large pond in Harvard, Massachusetts, I decided that I wanted to give this new home a name. I was a small frog leaping into a big pond, not knowing what was waiting for me under the water. I named the farm, Old Frog Pond Farm, after Basho’s haiku.

Old Pond

            Frog Jumps

Splash of Water

It felt right to name the farm after a Japanese poem. It connected me to the time when I was living alone in Japan — young, inexperienced, and passionate about the Noh Theater.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Trying on a silk kimono with my Noh teacher, Takabayashi Koji Sensei.

Naming the farm after Basho’s poem was the beginning of finding a true name, a place where I was grounded in the reality of the soil, physical work, and natural beauty. As I found firm ground beneath my feet, my old names no longer mattered.

Unlike us, an apple likely has no consciousness of its name; it simply grows, producing blossoms, leaves, and fruit regardless of what we call it. But the name can change our perception of an apple and create its market appeal. In a similar way, our own names can make a difference. Some names roll off the tongue easily, others are poetic, or connect us to a much-loved family member. Many people at midlife go back to their full birth name, and discard their childhood nickname, capturing a new identity in doing so. In 2010, I formally took Buddhist vows, and my teacher gave me the Buddhist name, Shinji. Shin means truth and ji means soil or earth. Truth in the soil. One’s Buddhist name is meant to be a teaching, something to aspire towards. I like when I am called Shinji by my Buddhist sangha and friends, and I am perfectly happy being called, Linda, or Mama, or Babe, the name my husband, Blase, uses, or Ama, the name my granddaughter uses.

We have a few seedling apples in the field near the Medicine Wheel with no names. These started growing from pips in the pumice we dumped from our apple pressing two years ago. If they continue to grow, they will each produce a unique variety of apple. Most likely the apples will be small and bitter, but you never know, one of them could be sweet and crisp, or be a great cooking apple like the Bramley seedling. And what would I name it? The Shinji apple has a nice ring, but I think the first seedling apple we grow will be named for my first granddaughter, the Vita Apple, the apple of my eye!

Southern Apples, an Elephant, Monkey, Rabbit, and Bird, Two Mango Trees and a Birthday

I celebrated my 60th birthday this week. My partner, Blase, gave me a first edition of the book Old Southern Apples, written by Lee Calhoun. Southern apples might sound like an oxymoron, since not many people think of the South as an Eden of apples. But over 1300 varieties originated south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and these apples are an important part of the area’s agrarian history. Old Southerners not only talk about Bloody Butcher corn and Red Ripper peas, but the now extinct apples like Fall Ambrosia (sounds so delicious), and the still available Limbertwigs.

Old Southern Apples describes the unique features of over 1600 apple varieties (though 300 of them originated elsewhere but were grown in the South). The book divides these apples between 300 still growing or available at nurseries and 1300 now extinct Southern apples, the names and descriptions mostly taken from old nursery catalogues (a coincidence that both numbers are 300). The book also contains forty-eight plates of hand-painted apple pictures selected from the seven thousand in the collection of the National Agricultural Library. That was from the days when the United States Department of Agriculture hired artists!

Old Southern Apples, Plates 15 - 18; Photos: Jerry Markatos 

Old Southern Apples, Plates 15 - 18; Photos: Jerry Markatos 

As you may know, apples grown from seed are the unique progeny of two parents, because the blossoms are cross pollinated. Most of these seeded trees crop with hard, sour, or small fruit, better for the hogs than for eating off the tree. Some apples are good for making hard cider and apple cider vinegar, but a few trees out of a thousand planted might produce unexpected, remarkable apples that would be given names and propagated. Of the 1600 apple varieties mentioned in this book, all of them grew from seed to be extraordinary apples. In the South, whether the settlers were large landowners or tenant farmers, they all planted out their orchards with seeds, they didn’t set out grafted rootstocks. It was the way it was done.

Today, it would be the rare individual who would scatter seeds to plant an orchard. After all, who would want a collection of wild apples? Large orchardists order sapling trees from wholesale nurseries in the thousands or even ten thousand. Blocks of the same variety, interspersed with another variety for pollinating, are planted. It is the researchers who cross apples and come up with new varieties for orchards to trial. A few apples become the darlings of the marketplace. This approach to apple growing is very different from the grand creativity that nature realizes with such ease. As Lao Tzu said, Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Inside my card, Blase tucked a print-out of a Buddhist tale. When King Mahajanaka, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, was traveling through a park, he saw a monkey sitting on a branch of a mango tree. The King longed to stop and pick a few mangoes, but traveling with his large retinue, he had to continue without stopping. He decided he would sneak back alone that night to pick a few mangoes. That night, when he got to the grove, he lifted his torchlight and saw that someone had gotten there before him. The mango tree was stripped bare of fruit; its limbs were broken and its leaves lay scattered everywhere. He was saddened to think that this beautiful tree would likely not survive this ravagement. Then he saw another mango tree, one that had not been harmed. He realized that this tree avoided the carousing thieves because it had no fruit. The King returned and pondered his experience with the two mango trees. He decided he would renounce his title and give away everything he owned. He would become a tree without fruit. I love the story of the King Mahajanaka and the mango tree, but it could be taken as a teaching in renunciation. As many of you know, the orchard at Old Frog Pond Farm had no apples this year, and it was not because I renounced my title of orchardist.

The Birthday card Blase gave me was hand painted in Bhutan; he had saved it from our trip seven years ago. It is of a bird on a rabbit on a monkey’s shoulder, on an elephant (the bird and rabbit are hard to see). They are walking under a mango tree laden with fruit. It is an illustration of the “Four Harmonious Friends,” a much loved Bhutanese tale. These animals worked together; the bird planted the seed, the rabbit watered the sapling, the monkey fertilized it, and the elephant protected it until it grew into a beautiful tree with fruit for all of them.

"Four Harmonious Friends" handpainted in Bhutan

"Four Harmonious Friends" handpainted in Bhutan

I loved my gift of so many fruit related stories. Our orchard is so much more than its acres of grafted trees. It’s a language we speak and share; a wild grove of poetry, paintings, sunsets, clouds, blossoms, and, hopefully next year, delicious fruit.

In the Plenty of Time

In his autobiographical book, The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday, describes summer on the plain in Oklahoma where he spent his childhood: “Great green-and-yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth, going nowhere in the plenty of time.”

I loved that phrase, going nowhere in the plenty of time. It reminded me of my time in New Guinea with my mother. No running water or electricity, but plenty of bugs, plants, sweat, babies crying, dogs barking, men with shaved heads and men with long hair, women wearing only grass skirts or thin calico shifts. When I talk about this experience, people always ask, what did you do there

LH in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1971

LH in the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1971

We would sit, walk to another hamlet in the village, walk out to the road to wait for a truck which might or might not come, make flower leis, braid dry grasses, roast beetles and eat them, maybe play cat’s cradle. Some villagers went to their gardens to dig up taro root or yams – their gardens looked just like the rest of the forest. There might be coconuts to gather and a delicious pudding to make. Smoking, of course, (but I didn’t), rolling sticky black tobacco in pieces of old newspaper; and chewing betelnut (slightly hallucinogenic) — mixing it with a little mustard and powdered lime that would turn bright red when you spit the combination out after chewing (I did a little.)

Elder women swept the bare ground clear of leaf litter every morning and burned their collections in small fires. Younger women walked to a cave a mile away to bring back the day’s drinking water.

The women sometimes would sit on the ground with legs out straight, a board with carved patterns on their lap, scraping sharp shells over fresh banana leaves, pressing them into this board to make doba, their currency. Men might be working on a wood carving to sell in the main town to a tourist or at the Methodist mission. All of this was going nowhere in the plenty of time.

 There were highlights of course. The night a man died and we entered the hut to see his body laid out over his daughters’ legs. The mourners wailed, and then when the crying lapsed, they told stories and laughed. They decorated him with bands of red and white paint. And on my last night (my mother was staying on), one of the big chiefs announced he would kill a chicken! The villagers were ecstatic – they knew that this meant he would kill a pig, and we would feast and dance. They never did explain just how they knew.

Life seemed more about just living, not about producing. It was the fabric of relationships that always needed tending. Relationships between lovers, husbands and wives, children, clans, mother’s brothers, brother’s sisters, uncles, and when there was a death — the real work began. Mourning took many forms and was done by many people. Some blackened their bodies for a year, someone carried the deceased’s purse, which held his lime stick and lime pot, others shaved their heads. All of these mourners would eventually need to be paid back in elaborate ceremonies acknowledging their gifts of mourning, paid back with large baskets of doba, those banana leaf bundles, (that I carried on my head in the photo from last week’s blog.)

N. Scott Momaday returned to Rainy Mountain after the death of his grandmother and recalls his experience of the life that went on all around her:

There were frequent prayer meetings, and great nocturnal feasts. When I was a child, I played with my cousins outside, where the lamplight fell upon the ground and the singing of the old people rose up around us and carried away into the darkness. There were lots of good things to eat, a lot of laughter and surprise. And afterwards, when the quiet returned, I lay down with my grandmother and could hear the frogs away by the river and feel the motion of air.

Wind Sculpture , Michio Ihara     photo:Robert Hesse at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio

Wind Sculpture, Michio Ihara     photo:Robert Hesse at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio

I think about our Western fixation with time, with spending it wisely, with being productive, and compare it to the importance of being together, nurturing relationships, doing everything in the plenty of time.

we watched the crows

hard pears

in no hurry to ripen