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.

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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. 

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The Earth, experiment with found object, watercolor, and bronze figure, LH

The Muse

Apples.jpg

Welcome to the New Year of Apples, Art, and Spirit!

After two years of weekly posting, I am going to change it up a bit. Posts will still arrive on Sunday morning, but I might miss a few. When I am not writing the blog, I will be finishing a memoir about moving to Old Frog Pond Farm — how apples came to take over so much of my life, finding a spiritual path — and lots of art.

Meanwhile, the renovation of my studio has taken longer than anticipated. With no shop space, I’ve gone back to watercolor — a medium I find challenging and delicious. And what do I find I am drawn to paint? Apples, of course! I’ve been taking a class with Sandy Wilensky in Maynard. Sandy has us make a blind contour drawing before we start painting. Contour means following the outline of the object; blind means looking only at the object we are drawing, not at the paper. The drawings tend to be refreshingly off, the lines don’t necessarily connect, but the intense concentration of really seeing makes for a drawing with lines that are alive. It’s not about drawing our idea of what an object looks like, but drawing what the eye really sees. It’s fun and you have to trust the process. I highly recommend it, especially if, like me, you don’t feel confident about drawing.

Here I’m experimenting with color, shape, and transparency. 

Here I’m experimenting with color, shape, and transparency. 

I’m also testing the medium and using the watercolor paint as if it was acrylic.

I’m also testing the medium and using the watercolor paint as if it was acrylic.

Sandy’s classes are super supportive. She creates an environment where her students feel at ease. She slides in some technical information, but the focus is on finding your own expression and trusting it.

I'm also taking a workshop with Martha Wakefield, one of my favorite painters from Wild Apples days, the journal I published and edited with friends Susan Edwards Richmond, Sophie Wadsworth, and Kathryn Liebowitz. This series of Martha’s classes are all about color  —  we explore its technical properties — hues, tints, shades, saturation, for example.  Martha gave us homework after the first session to use only one color with black and white, and paint a simple still life. I’m so undisciplined when I paint it is helpful to have these restrictions.

Here’s my apple using only three colors:  M. Graham’s  Green Gold, Chinese White, and Mars Black. 

Here’s my apple using only three colors: M. Graham’s Green Gold, Chinese White, and Mars Black. 

Soon I will be back in my studio. It’s been lovely to explore color before I return to wood and metal. If you desire to move in a new direction with your art, or open the faucet to new creative energy in the New Year, I recommend trying a class or workshop in a new medium. Be a complete beginner, it’s humbling and freeing. And give yourself lots of space. A Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, taught: "To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.” Give yourself lots of space, don’t limit the possibilities; there is no right or wrong, no watcher judging, only your own mind putting up fences.

Here's to freeing your muse in the New Year!

Two Bad Women and One Good Apple

The Apple Was a Northern Invention

When she ate the pomegranate,
it was as if the seed
with its wet red shining coat
of sweet flesh clinging to the dark core
was one of nature’s eyes. Afterward,
it was nature that was blind,
and she who was wild
with vision, condemned
to see what was before her, and behind.

The poet Eleanor Rand Wilner has a different view on this most well-known ‘apple’ story. I’m not referring to the pomegranate versus apple question — that debate we may never resolve, but to Wilner's portrayal of Eve as ‘wild with vision,’ a seer and a mystic. The poet completely uproots the traditional portrayal of Eve as a fallen women unable to resist the tantalizing offer of the serpent. 

The story of Adam and Eve is a collective, cultural invention. However, in my personal version, our sister Eve has been condemned for two thousand years because she satisfied her desire to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because she wanted to know the deep truth about who she was and the meaning of life.

Our Eve had much in common with Lalla or Lal Ded, the 14th century Hindi mystic poet, who also experienced her own expulsion. Married at twelve, starved, beaten, and abused by her husband and in-laws, Lalla was finally able to leave that household when she was in her twenties. She found spiritual teachers and eventually, her own divine wisdom. 

I Lalla set forth blooming as a cotton flower
Then the carder and the cleaner kicked me again and again
Next a woman spun me and lifted me from her wheel as gossamer
And in the weaver's room they hung me as warp on the loom
~ Lalla 102

Then the washermen beat and dashed me on the stone
And rubbed me with clay and soap to whiten me
Then the tailor cut me piece by piece
Now, as finished cloth, I have found my way at last to Freedom
~ Lalla 103

Tr. Jennifer Sundeen

Lalla had to tear off the cloth of the society in which she was born and, piece by piece, remake herself from within. She danced naked through the streets, uttering verses that were remembered and passed down, adn then finally recorded 400 years later. A rebel, a seeker, she gave up the comforts of hearth and home to wander, always loving and always teaching. She didn’t follow a prescribed path or religious dogma, but discovered her own truths from within her own body.

Photo: Carol J. Hicks

Photo: Carol J. Hicks

Then there is Reinette Clochard, an old French variety, an apple we grow in the orchard. Reinette means ‘little Queen’ in French, and a clochard is a bum, a vagabond, a homeless person. Not only is this a strange name for an apple, but it is an odd juxtaposition of social classes. And why the queen and not the king? The apple is small in size, giving meaning to ‘little’ queen; but her mottled yellow color of skin is more like a wild apple found in the woods, an apple without regal color, one that Thoreau would have grabbed, bitten into, found to be hard, and delighted in its ordinariness. Reinette Clochard’s flesh is pale and soft, creamy, the opposite of the crunchy sweet apples preferred by many today. She can be kept easily at room temperature for several months. That’s why she used to be loaded onto ships for sailors to eat, their only fresh food. 

Reinette Clochard Apple.png

 In France, Reinette Clochard is making a comeback. She comes packaged in wooden boxes and is sold as a specialty apple. In our orchard, people disdain her. They don’t know what to make of the name or her appearance.

The apple season at Old Frog Pond Farm has reached its fullest expression. Pickers have been walking the orchard rows, counting the color-coded blocks on their maps to find the Honey Crisp and Crimson Crisp. Once these were picked out, they began picking Liberty and Freedom. Reinette Clochard remained on the tree, her ripe fruit finally falling to the ground, until I went out and rescued her.  

And now, you may be wanting to ask, what does Eve, the mystic poet Lalla, and this old French apple have in common? 

Apples originated in the forests of Kazakhstan, traveled along the Silk Road in horses’ bellies, and in the pockets of Roman soldiers through Europe and to England, and eventually to America. The apple carries within its skin poetic, mythological, geographic, social, and scientific history. As women, we belong to the lineage of expulsed women seers. We carry the seeds from these early destroyers of social conventions. We need to clamor loudly for what we want. Can you imagine being named little homeless queen?  Surely no woman named this apple. We should reject the labels that society assigns us.

When I think of Eve, I see her as a nonconformist, a woman with the strength to go against convention. The same is true for the wild mystic Lalla. Sometimes I forget the lessons they both exemplify. I don’t allow myself to do what matters most to me, what connects me to my deepest roots, or speak my truth. And Reinette Clochard?  We shouldn’t forget the girls and women all over the world who are without education, who are demeaned, abused, or locked into confining roles, who still need our help.

Two of the newer apples we grow in the orchard are named Liberty and Freedom. Odd names for a fruit, you might think, but these are disease-resistant varieties. The suggestion is that the orchardist is free from the concern of scab, liberated from the fungal disease that makes growing apples in new England so challenging. These names reflect the significant changes in plant breeding in the last century. If only changing the human heart was as simple.

Today is our last day  for apple picking. There are only a few Liberty and Freedom apples on the trees. We need more of both in this world. We need to remember the Eves, the Lallas, and the Reinette Clochards. We need to remember all those, both men and women, who sought knowledge and freedom and did not settle for less.

Ripening Fruit

We have been coming to this little cabin near the beach in Wellfleet for the last ten years. We have the opportunity to rent it in late June and though our minds say, no, you can’t leave the farm, we rent it anyway. Otherwise, we might lose the opportunity.

And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

Then I received an email from an orchard consultant, Kathleen Leahy. ‘Bad weather’ the subject line said:

Hi all,

Looks like a bunch more hail came along today and knocked out more of the crop – not all precincts have been heard from but quite a few orchards seem to have been affected. . .

This consultant reminded growers to spray strep, streptomycin that is, within twenty-four hours.  “And of course, call your insurer ASAP.” Hail pierces the skin of the apple and leaves an opening for the fire blight bacteria to enter. Fire blight can be a horrendous problem for growers. It enters the fruit and then the tree, and can also spread to other trees, killing them in a season. For the organic grower, there is little to do. Early season, we spray copper to clean any residual fire blight; but we do not spray streptomycin. We can only look for the telltale blackening of the leaves and a shepherd’s crook bend to the end of the twig, signaling that it is time to get out the loppers and remove the branch before the bacteria moves into the rest of the tree.  Damage from hail on the fruit amplifies the danger fifty-fold. I had to go home and check on the fruit.  

It’s already been a difficult season for some apple growers. Too much rain makes spraying difficult and scab (Venturia inaequalis), one of New England’s most challenging apple diseases, has been especially difficult for me to control. The scab fungus overwinters in the orchard floor under the trees. After a warm, rainy period, millions of spores float upwards into the tree like dust motes in sunlight. Landing on the young wet leaves, the scab begins to grow, first showing up as innocuous-looking dark spots on the leaves. Gradually, these black cloudy patches grow darker and spread over the leaf surface. Unchecked, the fungus becomes rampant and jumps from leaf to fruit. The apples will develop brown crusty scabs, be misshapen, and eventually crack.

This year, every time I thought about spraying for scab, it was either raining, going to rain, or too windy.  I didn’t get enough sulfur on the trees, and when I did spray, it was immediately washed off. Sulfur is, at best, only a mediocre material to use compared to modern chemical fungicides. Sulfur works by changing the pH of the leaf surface, making it inhospitable to the scab fungus. I could use lime sulfur; it’s stronger and burns the fungus on the leaves. It’s the harshest material I have in our arsenal, but I haven’t used it in many years. Four years ago, I opened the jug, and its contents had thickened into crystals. I tried to pour off some of the amber-red liquid, but the color reminded me of the chemo drugs I've taken and every pore in my being rebeled at the idea of spraying it.

Macintosh apples are scab magnets.Our Macs are among the oldest trees in the orchard; they are large and densely planted. Even spraying in an ‘easy’ year, I have a difficult time controlling scab on them. Every year I vow to do better. But this year, our Macs look terrible. It’s doubly sad because they are in the first few rows – we have lots of beautiful and healthy fruit farther back in the orchard.

Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Arriving home from the Cape, I pulled into the driveway, let the dog out of the car, and immediately went on rounds to inspect the fruit. Blase had returned a day earlier to hill potatoes and had already told me that he hadn’t seen any hail. I started in the raspberry patch; all looked fine there. I pulled some weeds, found a little of the troublesome dodder, and noted that it looked like we would have quite a lot of early raspberries. The blueberries, heavy with fruit, were still a week away from the beginning of harvest. The Macs with their scab hadn’t improved; no amount of wishful thinking would do that. But I was relieved — no hail damage!

The next morning, one of the meditators who sits regularly in our meditation hut behind the orchard told me she had hail and that her neighbor’s garden flowers were completely ravaged. Then an inquiry came in from our local paper. Joan Eliyesil writes about farms and farming in Harvard and she had heard from Frank Carlson of Carlson’s Orchards that the crop on their Bolton Road apple trees was decimated, likely only good for juice. Libby Levinson, another apple grower in Harvard, told me that Bolton and Sterling got hit badly. She wanted to know about our orchard.

We were lucky this time. But there are still two months for the apples to ripen before harvest. Fruit growing is a long season of perpetual concern, like that first year your teenager drives at night and you don’t sleep until you hear the car door close. Fruit growers experience this anxiety every year. Maybe that’s why a good fruit harvest is such a cause for celebration.  Fingers crossed!