Friday, September 4, 2009

Orchard Dreams

"I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods." (Wendell Berry)

I've commented here before that I'd like to plant an orchard on The Farm. Nothing grandiose or industrial in scale: perhaps five or six apple trees, as many cherry trees and perhaps some pears. Planting an orchard is a sign of hope, an act of confidence and optimism about a future unseen. He who plants an orchard makes a long-term commitment to a specific piece of ground. He gives a gift to his children and his children's children.

The Farm--this Farm--is a little patch of rolling hills, where the natural state of the landscape is a patchwork of woods and grassland. To plant an orchard would woo the nature of that particular place, cultivation most in harmony with the character of the land itself, and therefore holds the promise of being both fruitful and happy. No sense trying to grow what the land doesn't want to bear, or planting against the grain of the soil.

Besides, I like apples, and almost everything made from apples. Ditto cherries. Less wild about pears, but one needs variety, right? I dream of getting a cider press and bottling fresh juices on a crisp October day. As a dabbling homebrewer, this could put me in touch with cultures around the world where cider fills the culinary niche occupied by beer in other places. Brittany, Normandy, and southwestern England, in particular, cherish the venerable art of cider making, as do the Basques and the hill tribes of Rhineland-Pfalz.

Getting from here to there is another matter. Choosing, buying, and planting trees is the easy part. The little saplings won't survive long if we don't protect them somehow from the ravenous local whitetail population.

My first thought was to fence the whole orchard area with 7- or 8-foot deer fencing. Nice idea -- until a little research put a pricetag on that project. It turns out it's pretty easy to spend over a thousand dollars to protect a dozen fruit trees, and that is just too much (unless we're aiming at commercial production, of course; then we could recoup the investment over several years of profits).

I think we'll have to settle for improvised solutions, using whatever old fencing and posts we can find around The Farm. And this does not diminish the pleasure of dreaming hopefully toward my orchard. The art of cultivating with the nature of the land instead of against it involves compromise between what we want and what the land can provide. And there is another kind of compromise to learn: between a theoretical ideal and the affordable.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Farm in The City

I saw this column while very far from The Farm, on a plane from Philadelphia to Zurich to be exact. It's not that often that my agricultural leanings are fed from the venerable pages of The Gray Lady. This may be another sign of something -- I'm not sure what! -- or a clue to the puzzle of this thing we call popular culture. It might mean something like this:

The line between urban and rural is not sharp and clear. Because we live on the earth, even in those densely packed, overbuilt, and artificial environments we call cities, the earth has away of breaking through and re-asserting itself. Our technology and our architecture lay a thin crust over the ground, and given the chhance, the ground will do what the ground does best: send seedlings up through cracks in the pavement.

I suppose someone will quibble that the New York Times piece on tomatoes in Brooklyn is not really about farming but about "gardening," as if the two are clearly distinguishable. But what is a city garden but a farm painted on a very small canvas, and what is a farm but a garden that got out of hand? Both share the same media, the same instincts, the same struggles, the same culture. My favorite little magazine Hobby Farms is launching a new publication called Urban Farm, which sounds like an oxymoron, but is really just another clue in this puzzle i'm trying to work out.

I remember sitting in a classroom in western Kenya while my students scribbled away on their final exams. Looking out the window I savored the sight of the lush Kisii hill country in the distance and the bountiful vegetation surrounding the building. Vines had found their way in through one of the windows, and seemed to be flourishing happily inside the room. I got the impression that, in Africa at least, all our development and building amounts to little more than a temporary clearing of the natural growth on the hills. As soon as we turn our backs, the vines are in at the windows and start their work of reclaiming this little patch of earth.