An apple tree was concerned
about a late frost and losing its gifts
that would help feed a poor family.
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.
It was mud season when a realtor showed me A&M Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts. Winter’s old snow and patches of bare ground met my eye. The farmhouse needed paint, the outbuildings begged for repair, but I was captivated. I was leaving a marriage of almost twenty years and looking for a new place to live. I’m a sculptor, but a friend suggested I look at this small farm; she loved the place—for she had grown up here.
“Where are the apple trees?” I asked the realtor.
He gestured casually across the street. We followed an old cart road that bordered the orchard, and I gazed down through the rows of bare branches.
“What would you do with the apples?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’d have to learn,” I heard myself say.
“It’s hard to grow apples,” he cautioned.
I could feel a small delight rise in me. Pears, cherries, peaches are all delicious; but apples are the luminaries of mythology, history, art, and even religion.
Could I grow apples? I wondered.
I Changed The Farm’s Name to Old Frog Pond Farm, after the haiku by the seventeenth-century Japanese poet, Basho. I made a new address postcard and sent it to friends—a photograph of the pond, and floating above it, I added an image of a frog. The caption read, Plunging into the unknown.
I’d encountered a similar instruction in Zen practice. My first Zen teacher com- pared the trust we need to cultivate for true spiritual practice as similar to a young child leaping into her parent’s arms. She trusts completely that she will be caught. It’s a leaping into life.
It was a grand leap for me to leave my marriage and move to the farm when I didn’t know anything about farming or apples. But we do need to leap, to trust the world, and, more importantly, to trust ourselves.
It Was The Beginning Of July when I took my first, solitary walk through the orchard as the owner of this rundown farm. I held in my hands the half sheet of paper the prior owners had left with the varieties listed by row—Macintosh, Cortland, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Blushing Golden. The trees all looked the same to me. I couldn’t see any difference between the varieties. They were all gnarly tangles of wood. Wild sumac and thorny brambles grew between them, and poison ivy snaked up the old trunks. But more unsettling—there was no fruit. Only a few rotting apples hung from the branches. I picked one with bumps of scabby brown. I picked another and it leaked golden ooze. Nothing you would even want to touch, and certainly not something appealing to eat.
I was in the midst of a dying landscape, and I didn’t know the first thing about being an orchardist. I realized I was looking at a perfect metaphor for my life. I knew as little about myself, my ability to love, as I did about growing apples. The realtor’s question, “What are you going to do with all the apples?” was a moot point. But I was determined to do something.
The books I consulted on apple care presented the orchard as a battlefield. The prospect of spraying pesticides that seemed to require a license was terrifying. Harvard is a town with many orchards, and I thought if I could find someone to help me get started, someone who could spray for me, then I could do all the rest.
My calls to two of the neighboring orchards were discouraging. Each time, the person who answered the phone had no interest in speaking with me. I finally found a voice of sanity in a book, Your Apple Orchard, written by A. P. Thomson over fifty years ago:
With the development of chemically synthesized pesticides, man had a shotgun that he could use to destroy virtually all pests in one blast. But these pesticides began to migrate into his food chain and destroyed much of the natural balances, hence creating even more severe prob- lems affecting the very basis for his own life.
I couldn’t imagine spraying a toxic pesticide on the wetland creatures that surrounded the orchard. I couldn’t imagine going to classes so I could get certified to handle toxic chemicals. But when I searched for a set of specific instructions on how to grow apples organically, it didn’t seem to exist.
Then I met Denis Wagner, who used to manage a local orchard. Denis knew about the apple pests, but nothing about an organic approach. He agreed to be my consultant. First he showed me how to prune, and he assured me that we would have a crop. Denis taught me about the myriad pests and diseases that apples get, especially in the humid New England climate. I signed up for the University of Massachusetts Extension Listserve and started receiving weekly bulletins about the progression of pests that would be appearing in the orchard.
Denis And I Found Organic materials we could use, and I proceeded to spray sulfur before every rainy period and white kaolin clay on the young fruit. I had an arsenal of organic pesticides and fungicides with kindly names like Serenade and Entrust; but they still took out all the insects — the pests as well as the beneficials. I was reluctant to spray, but then I didn’t want to destroy the crop. Everyone assured me that no spray equals no apples. Growing apples organically using only certified organic materials, still meant I was on a battlefield.
That’s when I had a run-in with a large caterpillar. The upper half of a young apple tree had no leaves. What could be wrong? Then I saw an emerald green, six-inch caterpillar. I had to get this leaf-eating monster out of the orchard. Its mouth looked like Jabba the Hutt, with folds of flesh hiding a rapacious opening. My hand shot up to grab this beast. I touched its tender belly with my fingertips, then tugged, but its legs clung fiercely to the branch. I couldn’t pull it off for fear its guts would explode in my hand.
I went to get loppers to remove the whole branch. On the way back to the orchard, I stopped at the house to look it up. It was easy to identify—a Cecropia caterpillar, poised to become the largest silk moth in North America. I bookmarked the page and returned to the orchard, where I lopped off the branch that held the caterpillar and took her out of the orchard.
Then, as I was looking for a place to put the branch, regret set in. What if this new home wasn’t safe? What if she wasn’t happy here? What had I done? I started reading about the Cecropia life cycle. It takes a full year, from larva to moth. More regret. This had been a rare gift. Cecropia became my mantra. Don’t respond too quickly. Don’t react with fear.
But the professionals all said that I needed to spray for the battalions of caterpillars, leaf miners, codling moths, indeed a very long list of pests. I wondered what to do each time a warning message came in an email. Should I spray the entire orchard? And if I didn’t, was I putting the crop at risk?
I Felt Like Everyday I was facing the unknown. Of course in spiritual practice we are told to embrace the unknown, but actually doing it—and knowing that there were indeed consequences—was different than reading about it. I took educated risks and delayed spraying, and I worried.
When I saw an array of red-humped caterpillars all over a young tree, I worried. But then I noticed that in large trees the caterpillars weren’t actually a problem. There, the tiny larvae grew into thick caterpillars, and then the birds picked them off. A few bare branches in the canopy of a tree wasn’t a problem. So I decided in the young trees to simply pick the caterpillars by hand. Yes, I killed them, but I didn’t spray the entire orchard.
Then I met a group of holistic apple growers who taught me about more sustainable ways to grow organic fruit. I began mixing batches of teas from nettles and comfrey that grow on the farm. I would spray these teas—the nettles to stimulate the trees’ immune systems and the comfrey to provide calcium. Even garlicscapes went into the mix to help with the absorption of the nutrients. And I started making compost tea!
The real turning point came when I learned that tree health begins in the soil. I needed to support the real farmers, the microbiology in the earth. Based on soil tests we began a serious remineralization program farm-wide. Minerals, like magannese, zinc, and cobalt, for example, are just as important for the plants as they are for human health.
The remineralization happened over several years and is ongoing, but the most amazing part is that the trees are becoming healthy enough to repel pests on their own. I haven’t used an organic pesticide in many years. Slowly, I have been finding a natural approach to growing organic fruit.
Of course in spiritual practice we are told to embrace the unknown, but actually doing it—and knowing that there were indeed consequences—was different than reading about it.
This orchard which had at one time been fed chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and then was neglected for a number of years, had struggled at first like an addict without her drug. Once I started spraying seaweed, minerals, and fish oil, the trees became healthier and the pest pressures decreased. With a reverence for life, balance was restored.
I Had To Learn To Trust the trees. They are all different. Some of them are struggling; some I find ravishingly beautiful with the twists and turns of age. Their green leaves transforming air and light and water into sugars, food that goes down to the roots. The tree feeds the soil microbiology, and these underground farmers, in turn, send minerals back up the trunk so that the trees can produce proteins, fats, plant metabolytes, essential oils—tree medicine. And when we eat food from these nutrient-rich trees, we get the essential minerals that our bodies need for optimum health.
In Zen practice, we are told that to study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to become intimate with the 10,000 things. I need to become intimate with everything I can in the orchard. When I first saw a yellow egg cluster on the underside of a leaf, I assumed it must be the enemy. A flick of a finger and it would be gone. But I was wrong. These yellow eggs hatch out to the most surprising looking larvae, miniature alligators, who transform into the common spotted ladybugs who, in turn, eat aphids, the tiny sucking insects who feast on delicate new leaves. I don’t want to interfere with the interconnectedness between all the creatures in the orchard. I need to allow for their reciprocal relationships.
Then I became excited by the idea of having a wild orchard. Inspired in part by Thoreau, and his disdain for apples grown in cultivated rows, I didn’t mow around the trees and I encouraged the wildflowers to grow. I added mountain mint, comfrey, asters, valerian, Jerusalem artichokes—a multitude of wildflowers and herbs everywhere. I loved the wildness, and this shift from monoculture to polyculture. Plant diversity encourages beneficial insects and attracts native pollinators. That fall, when we opened for apple picking, the apples were beautiful.
The season ended and, during January, heavy snow fell. The drifts were over three feet high. When warmer temperatures brought a thaw, I went for a walk among the trees. The snow melted first around the trunks, and my eye caught sight of gnawed wood close to the ground, a glowing bright orange color. Shocked, I reached down and brushed away more snow. The gnawed wood went deeper.
Voles! They had scampered across the crust of the deep snow, climbed over the eighteen-inch-high hardware cloth that encircles every trunk, and dropped down between the trunk and the barrier. There, they made soft, grassy nests, and ate and lived in the safety of their cozy burrows with a pantry of food close by. In tree after tree, especially in the back of the orchard, these rodents had eaten the bark, chewing their way around the base and down to the roots. Missing bark cuts off the sap flow between the root and crown. Girdling kills the tree.
I panicked and called in reinforcements. With a couple of friends, we started shoveling the snow away from the trunks. It was exhausting work. There was no way we could remove that much snow around every tree. When we were too tired to shovel, we stomped the snow down with snowshoes. It felt like a war zone. Our hats, coats, shirts, and gloves were scattered everywhere, but it was too late. The damage was done.
The voles loved this new, wild habitat of tall grasses. They came, they stayed, they procreated, and all winter long, when there was little other food available, they ate the very nutritious bark of the trees. We lost fifty trees to vole damage. Conventional orchards knock down the vole population with poison every fall. And they maintain an herbicide strip under the trees. I couldn’t afford to lose fifty trees again, but I couldn’t imagine putting out poison to kill the population, which then feeds toxins into hawks’ bellies, and through the entire food chain.
Are some creatures the enemy and others my friends? Should I try to control who can and can’t live in the orchard? I planted new trees and made sure there was protection around each one. Completely mowing down the grasses and wildflowers in the fall gave hawks and coyotes access to the vole population.
When I First Walked This Land, I remember distinctly saying to myself, “This place will keep me grounded.” I didn’t really know what that meant, but I sensed its importance. People who visit the farm today know that they are walking on land that is cared for and appreciated.
Living with the uncertainty of each new season has shown me how to accept impermanence in my own life. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, after the initial shock of the diagnosis, I was ready for surgery. Get this breast off of me. I knew from the orchard that quick removal prevents further spread of disease, and I trusted that my body would heal. When it came to the decision about chemotherapy, that was more difficult. I wouldn’t spray chemicals on the orchard, so how could I use them in my body?
I talked with my Zen teacher. There was no Buddhist theory, no Zen teachings in his answer. He didn’t bring up his vow to save all sentient beings; he didn’t talk about ecology or the earth. He looked at me and said, “If I consider not growing old with my partner, my sadness is overwhelming. I would try everything that is offered.”
His words came from the heart. He didn’t ask what I was going to do, but before we got up he offered me a tiny walnut box that held colored sand from a Tibetan sand mandala. He had kept this memento of impermanence on his altar for twenty years, and he placed it in my hand. I felt his love and was grateful. When I got home and looked inside, it was empty. The sand had somehow disappeared.
I Don’t Know If The Cancer has moved anywhere else in my body. There’s no snipping a branch to see its health. But learning how to be a good orchardist has taught me to hold a reverence for all of life, including my own. Careful agriculture is the ground from which healthy food and creativity grows. Feeding the body and feeding the spirit are one. Nurturing the land and nurturing the spirit happen simultaneously.
A group of local poets find sustenance throughout the year on the farm. They visit throughout the seasons, write poems, and in the fall, the public is invited to walk with the poets and listen to them read their poems at the sites that inspired them. In January, many of them return with new poems to wassail the trees. This old English tradition is a way to thank the trees for last year’s harvest and to encourage the new crop. We gather around one of the trees, sing and recite, and dip pieces of bread into a bowl of cider and hang them on the branches. We toast the trees and pour cider around the roots. When we serenade the trees, they listen. It’s a reciprocal relationship.
They can speak, trees,
They can say the sweetest things
Linda Shinji Hoffman, MRO, is an artist, writer and orchardist. She is writing a memoir about bringing back the abandoned orchard at Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard where she is the fruit grower.