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.

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

A Dream for the New Year

I went to sleep not having written a blog and this dream woke me . . .

I was in a room and it was time. My mind was clear and present. I agreed to have the injection that would end my life. But when a tall man with a black suit and white shirt arrived with a syringe ready to plunge the needle through my skin, I freaked. “No! No, no!” I shouted as I pulled away. He was determined and latched on, but I was thrashing wildly and ripped free of his grip. I would not give in easily, I wanted to live.

With every particle of my being, I fought back. Then I said, “Please, if I am to die now, I must tell my Zen teacher and community.” He agreed to let me go make a phone call if afterwards I would return for the needle.

I ran out of the room, ran as far and as fast I could. I was on the lam. Up and over bridges, staircases, down alleys, and across lonely boulevards. In an area with small shops I saw some boxes of biscuits and thought of snatching one, but resisted.

Then I saw my daughter. I called, “Ariel!” and again, “Ariel, come with me, please!”

She came over, I grabbed her hand, and we sprinted until we arrived on a grassy plateau. I was about to tell her what was happening when the tall man with the black suit and white shirt arrived waving the syringe. He grabbed my arm and said, “You will not escape me, now!” He jerked my right hand towards his body to plunge the needle into my wrist. He injected the fluid with great glee and strode away. But I had seen the needle catch on my sweater’s knitted cuff, the poison had not entered my body.

I had outsmarted death. I didn’t know how many more times I would be able to avoid him, but I secretly hoped for nine lives like a cat — and that when the ninth time came — I would be ready. I want no regrets, I want to go with grace.

You might wonder why such a strong dream at this turning of the year. A few days ago, I had breakfast with a friend who lost her partner to a re-occurrence of breast cancer. I have a friend struggling with depression, another paralyzed by the political turmoil in the world, and another beside herself with grief because of the destruction of the natural world. Many of us carry serious fear, and even terror.

Confucius told his followers, 'Bring peace to the old, have trust in your friends, and cherish the young.' And he lived during turbulent times. The message I received in my dream is to live life to the fullest. I am grateful for my Zen Mountain Monastery community who helped me survive in my dream as they have through difficult times. I am grateful for my daughter who brought her angelic presence to the dream as she so often does in daily life.  

Ariel and I on a Hike, Selfie, 2016

Ariel and I on a Hike, Selfie, 2016

Dreams have a lot to offer us. I tried to go deeper into sensing this ‘being alive’. I felt each thing awake — the singular blade of grass, the snowflake, the pink salmon. We shape the world with what we do, what we see, and what we think. Mind is what I cherish because it connects us all — each person born and unborn — each tree and star. And just maybe, the poison to my body had no effect because it will never have power over mind.

I wish you happiness and well-being in the coming year!

May you receive and offer gifts of kindness, generosity, and creativity.  

Canyonlands Many Hands.jpg

Many Hands Blessing Earth

Happy New Year 2018

 

 

Food is Primary Care

Sometimes I will buy a big peach, a bright red tomato, or even an apple only to be disappointed when I bite into a mealy peach, a watery tomato, and a tasteless apple.  I don’t like to throw out food, so I often eat it anyway. But sometimes, it’s just so bad that I guiltily toss the entire beautiful glob into the compost pile, burying it under some faded tulips or tough cabbage leaves.

Nutritionists say that we’re not getting the nutrients our bodies need from our food.  Considering the obesity epidemic and the debilitating diseases in America, it’s hard not to agree. Soil health, crop health, and human health are interrelated. Since the 1950s, however, crop yield has gone up, but nutritional value has gone down.  The great monocultures of agricultural production have focused on yield, pest resistance, appearance, and shelf life; not taste or nutrition.

Many of our food systems provide food that is low on both flavor and nutrition — for example, food served in hospitals to those who are ill, people who need healthy food. Turkey with corn might sound appealing when ticked off the menu, but when it arrives the next day, it’s a different story. Pre-frozen turkey rounds and corn niblets grown with chemical pesticides and herbicides, not to mention jiggles of artificially dyed red and orange Jello for dessert, is neither appealing nor nutritious.

The good news is that Marydale Debor, founder of the organization Fresh Advantage (their wonderful tagline is Food is Primary Care), works to put fresh and nutritious food back into hospitals, schools, and other institutions. It’s not easy – the old guard must be removed and new chefs who want to buy and cook with local ingredients need to be hired. Debor knows that buying food from a small local farm is the best way to get tasty and nutritious food.

A healthy diet contains a diversity of foods, but how to encourage diverse and nourishing meals when much of our food no longer has taste — especially when junk food has so much flavor? I heard a presentation by Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor. He explained that not only have our foods lost their flavor, but food is now separate from taste. He gave the example of the Frito-Lay Company that makes Dorito chips. In that product, for the first time, taste was manufactured; and flavor was added separately such that taste had no relation to the product’s food ingredients.  Frito-Lay, Inc. (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) perfected the taste of their chip to be appealing to a wide group of people. This original manufactured taste opened the door to all kinds of manufactured food, in particular, the enormous category of junk food.

Humans can have associations with food taste from childhood like the sweetness of mother’s milk. If a manufactured food is high is corn fructose, it will satisfy this associative sugar craving, but, and here’s the catch, it will not satisfy the belly’s nutritive need because it’s only flavor. We don’t stop eating, because the craving doesn’t go away. We are caught like Tantalus reaching for the apples that are forever out of reach.

I love potato chips and eat more than I like to admit. But if that peach I had grabbed was warm, sweet, and juicy, or there was a basket of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen counter, I would eat a bellyful, be sated, and nutritionally fed. Healthy food needs to be the norm for people everywhere. Everyone should have access to nourishing and delicious food at a price that is affordable.

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

A Late Harvest of Cherry Tomatoes from Old Frog Pond Farm

Some people believe that our bodies can sense food grown with love and compassion; it feeds the spirit as well as the body, and sadly the opposite is also true.  Food made by an angry cook can make a food unappealing or even repellent. ‘Food is primary care’ — and real food inspires wonderful poetry!

Ode to The Tomato

by Pablo Neruda

The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
light is
halved
like
a
tomato,
its juice
runs
through the streets.
In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately,
we must murder it:
the knife
sinks
into living flesh,
red
viscera
a cool
sun,
profound,
inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we
pour
oil,
essential
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper
adds
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
parsley
hoists
its flag,
potatoes
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
knocks
at the door,
it's time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.