The Apple-Shaped Earth

My last blog post was about the threat of one million square feet of warehouses being built not far from our orchard. With the concerned opposition of many citizens of Boxborough, we held back the tidal wave of development — at least for the moment. The planning board pulled their zoning articles from the upcoming town meeting warrant. There will be no vote on re-zoning until the fall. That change will give everyone time for regrouping and envisioning. The property at 1414 Massachusetts Avenue is still owned by Lincoln Properties, and warehouses are the most lucrative way for them to develop their land. The website of the Boxborough community group, Save Our Town Character says, “The potential for Zoning changes to allow warehouses as described below is still very high.” The need to protect the land and the character of the neighborhood is ongoing, but spring has officially arrived, and farm work has begun.

On our first day, Blase, Holly, our new farm worker, John, and I enjoyed the yearly ritual of burning the apple prunings. Ignited by a dry Christmas tree, crumbled newspaper, and kindling, the fire of prunings swayed in the wind. Sparks rose, and apple smoke filled a cloudless sky. Mallards, great blue herons, a woodpecker, and red-winged blackbirds chirped melodies.

I staked for the planting of fifty-three new trees from the apple rootstock we grafted one year ago. Blase attached the back hoe and has begun digging the holes. He is as much devoted to this farm and the orchard as I am.

It will be a marathon of planting. In each hole, the tap root will lead to the north. We’ll mix a little compost and our own bio-char from the burn, a great amendment for the soil, made by dousing the fire before it burns to ash. A cedar stake will go in each hole to support the tree as it grows, and we’ll back fill by hand, removing the large rocks, our most reliable crop. Trees will be watered, blessed, and mulched to suppress the competition with tough orchard grasses. We’d gladly welcome volunteers!

Next the airblast orchard sprayer needs to be tested and calibrated for the season. And oh, the hardest part for me, what are we going to spray? There are more options now for organic growers, and one tendency is to want to try everything. Another approach is to allow the trees to fend for themselves, building up their own immune system like a child must do who goes to preschool. I prefer the middle way, doing what we can to help build the immune system of the trees by improving the soil and spraying nutrients.

Last weekend we visited our grandchildren. Both girls had runny noses, and Blase came home with a nasty cold. As a friend remarked, “Young children are like Petri dishes.” Some might say apple leaves are similar. Every leaf is an incubator where good and bad bacteria and fungi duke it out, and the strongest wins and colonizes the leaf. We want to do what we can to encourage the good guys rather than spraying to get rid of the bad. And, once in a while, we will spray an organic pesticide for a particularly destructive pest, rather than lose the crop.

A mid-June apple hidden behind a leaf with spots of cedar apple rust.

A mid-June apple hidden behind a leaf with spots of cedar apple rust.

The next two months will be the most crucial for the orchard. Will we have blossoms? Pollinators? Fruit set? A crop? Today, with the added pressures brought on by climate change, these are real questions.  Orchards, like lands protected for conservation, keep us alive emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Our country was founded on the promises of agriculture, of self-sufficiency, of everyone growing food and fruit. The fruit orchard was a symbol of this belief in hard work, community, and opportunity for all.  We are now far from this ideal as we destroy forests, oceans, and even the air.

Sculpture LH

Sculpture LH

But the apple remains a fruitful inspiration, as it was in the nineteenth century when Walt Whitman wrote in A Song of Occupations, decades before space ship photographs,

The sun and the stars that float in open air,

the apple-shaped earth and we upon it,

surely the drift of them is something grand.

You Don’t Know What You Have Till It’s Gone

Our farmhouse is in Harvard, but many people don’t know that our apple orchard is in Boxborough. We were recently told by a neighbor about a proposed zoning overlay district in Boxborough that would change the zoning of our farm as well as adversely affect our neighbors in Harvard, Boxborough and surrounding towns.

The proposed overlay district comprises 371 acres and will enable the Lincoln Property Company to build four warehouses, 1,020,000 square feet. These four giant ‘cubes’ would cover twenty-three acres of formerly forested land within several thousand feet of our property.

Elizabeth Brook feeds the large wetlands area that flows around our orchard, and into the 500+ acres of Delaney Conservation area. In the last two weeks we have had two sightings of a bald eagle flying over the orchard and Elizabeth Brook wetlands. This proposed development would massively disturb this fragile ecosystem and threaten the aquifer that feeds our wells.

Great Blue Returned on the Spring Equinox

Great Blue Returned on the Spring Equinox

Many of you who have been reading my blog know of the struggle I have faced in growing organic apples over the last few years. Climate change is one factor, but I recently learned of another issue when I attended the Holistic Apple Grower’s Meeting in Western Massachusetts earlier this year. A new fungus, Marssonina Leaf Blotch, causes apple leaf defoliation in apples when a fungicide is not sprayed throughout the growing season. Arriving in this country from Asia, it first appeared in the western part of the country, defoliating thousands of acres of aspens in Utah, but is now in New England. Orchards spray fungicides for scab, the fungal disease most serious for apple growers in New England where the summer weather is often warm and wet. Organic growers have less choice in sprays to control this disease, so I made the hard decision a year ago to remove our Macintosh trees, known to growers as scab magnets. Right after the trees came down, friends joined me to graft one hundred rootstocks with scab resistant apples. These one-year-old saplings grew well in our hoop house for the year and are ready to be planted.

The disappearance of the gnarly Macintosh trees in the first few rows of the orchard caused neighbors to wonder if we were cutting down the entire orchard. I assured people we were not giving up. I have shared my lessons and strivings in growing organic apples, but none-the-less have continued to remain faithful to the trees and the land that have nourished me since I moved here in 2001.

Giving up on the earth, our government, or any issue that is challenging doesn’t solve anything. We have to do the work and stand by our convictions. Liberty Property Company’s build might take ten years, and who is to say that in twenty years, these warehouses won’t be obsolete as everything will be drop-shipped. Tax revenue is an important consideration for all of our communities, but in preserving our towns’ rural nature, its conservation lands, farmland, wildlife, clean water and night sky we make sure that our town remains a desirable place to live and that our property values stay high. Warehouses will not serve the local community, and in fact will cause a serious disruption to our way of life.

Tree Crotch.jpg

Many Boxborough residents heard for the first time about the proposed changes to their bylaw only recently. It seems that there has been a quiet, but legal effort to slip this bylaw change through Town Meeting by highlighting the ‘gifts’ to the town, but not mentioning the warehouses. If you know anyone in Boxborough, please make sure they know about this change in their bylaws coming up for a vote at Town Meeting in May.

I look at the wetlands and the orchard now with a new set of eyes. The runoff into the wetlands might mean we can no longer irrigate. Boxborough neighbors say that with the twenty-acre solar panel array, phase one of Liberty Realty’s development plans, they hear Route 495 in their homes even with the windows closed. More traffic sound reflecting off twenty-three acres of roofs will certainly eclipse the twangs of red-winged blackbirds, chirps of robins and bluebirds, honks of geese, and squawks of herons. And it will be impossible to hear the apple trees. “They can speak, trees . . .” says the 14th century poet, Hafiz in his poem, An Apple Tree Was Concerned.

An apple tree was concerned 
about a late frost and losing its gifts 
that would help feed a poor family close by. 

Can't the clouds be generous with what falls from them? 
Can't the sun ration itself with precision? 

They can speak, trees, 
they can say the sweetest things

but it takes special ears to hear them,
ears that have listened to people
with great care. 

My daughter, Ariel, picking Honey Crisp Apples in 2017

My daughter, Ariel, picking Honey Crisp Apples in 2017

We face choices everyday about how we use the earth’s limited resources.

Let us choose wisely.

What Are We Doing to the Earth, John Chapman?

John Chapman (1774–1845) is familiar to most grade school students in the United States as Johnny Appleseed, the man who planted apple seeds. The irony is that John Chapman might have been sorely disappointed with this epitaph. John Chapman established nurseries of apple trees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and as far west as Indiana, but these orchards were not his true raison d’etre. Selling apple trees for his livelihood gave him the possibility of travel where and when he wanted—and the freedom to practice and spread his religion of choice.

 John followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish mystic, scientist, and theologian who influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe and was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Swedenborg believed we live in both the world of spirit and the material world, but that our eyes are often closed to the former. He was a Christian who formed a new religious movement, the Swedenborgian denomination, to advance the idea that God revealed himself in the world, in the earth, in all sentient life. Based on his own significant mystical experiences, he wrote that love is the “basic unit of reality.” He seemed determined to show people that there is more than what they see with their eyes and hear with their ears: There is a mystical world that everyone has access to.

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

John Chapman certainly seemed to want to have, or perhaps did have, his own mystical experiences—we will never know. But he did he carry the words of Swedenborg across the American frontier. Visiting homesteads, he would pull out his Bible and read passages with an ardor that calls to mind the approach of television evangelists today. Sometimes he would tear out a few pages and leave them, only to exchange them for new ones the next time he passed through. He was a vegetarian, wore no leather, and would never even cut down a tree.

Of course, on these journeys, he always had apple trees to sell. Fruit trees, often a requirement for anyone wanting to establish a land claim, provided the fruit to make applejack—hard cider—the drink of choice for the settlers at all three meals. From apple cider, settlers could make apple cider vinegar, a cleaning agent, as well as a preservative and medicinal drink. Even if the apples Chapman’s seedling produced were bitter and hard, ‘spitters’ I’ve heard them called, it didn’t matter, for they all mixed well in the grinder. 

Chapman would travel into a new territory ahead of the homesteaders and establish a small nursery with seeds he picked up annually from a cider mill in Pennsylvania. He chose a protected spot near a river or stream, secured it with brambles, and traveled on. The following year he would return, dig up his one-year-old seedlings. Apple seedlings with the right conditions can grow five feet or more in a year.   

My friend, Eric Schultz, who generously let me read his chapter on John Chapman in his book, Nation of Entrepreneurs, to be published by Greenleaf Publishing this fall wrote, “John Chapman was the oddest of evangelists, bringing gifts of heaven and alcohol in equal parts to the American frontier and running a business model that supported both.” There are not many followers of the Swedenborg religion today, but Chapman’s apples spread far and wide, and are certainly part of the proliferation of varieties of apples we now grow not only in America but all over the world.  It’s interesting how one’s passion does not always create one’s legacy.

I think about John Chapman when I read that we have experienced the five warmest years in history. We will soon be planting Southern apples here in New England, for in not too many years, our older heirloom varieties will not have enough chill hours to produce buds. Much of this heating up of the earth is because of our selfishness and blindness to the interconnection of everything we do, build, use, and desire. Chapman was a minimalist, even during a time when there was not much to spare. His potato sack shirt had armholes cut for sleeves and probably did little to protect him from the elements, but apparently, he never complained. What would we think if we saw this man walking along our streets, barefoot with “horny” toes, wearing a tin can cap, bearded and hairy?  We appreciate true iconoclasts often only after the person has died.

I came upon an interesting post, A Theology of Wild Apples, in the blog, American Orchard, Historical perspectives on food, farming and landscape.

 Yet well-off travelers in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century frequently cast harsh moral judgments on the subsistence-minded farmer and his wild, disorderly orchards. And by the 1820s, many moralists found another reason to condemn the seedling orchard: most of its apples were destined to be converted to demon alcohol. Temperance societies called for the destruction of wild apple trees as an essential step toward sobering up the nation.

Chapman, born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, died in 1854 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fortunately, a few decades later, his younger compatriot, Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord in 1887, celebrated wilderness, wildness, and, thank goodness, wild apple trees, writing the long essay, Wild Apples, in celebration of them. There is room for both: the domesticated apple and the wild apple.

Which brings me to our orchard of ordered rows. Last Monday, we finished winter pruning, and now the twisting rhythms of branches play the ground between the trees. We pruned on those days of coldest cold stamping our feet to keep warm, and finished last Monday, a 50 degree day with honey bees out flying. Here’s to a bountiful year of apples, those planted by crow and deer, and the straight rows of nursery stock.

Pruned Row February, 2019

Pruned Row February, 2019

And to you, John Chapman, thank you! May we be inspired by your life to care more deeply for every apple, and to appreciate the miracle of every seed.

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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