The besieged writer – director Woody Allen once offered that he did not want to achieve immortality through his work, he wanted to achieve immortality through not dying. Planting an apple tree is about as close to that as one can get.
When the work of resurrecting Nye Hill Farm began, the first question was “Where do we do just that, where do we begin?” Stone walls that once contained livestock now rested, content, camouflaged in forest. The foundation of the original homestead slept soundly, undisturbed, deep in woods. Pastures concealed themselves in tall grass. An orchard masqueraded itself as a poet’s metaphor, one lone gnarled tree standing in a wide-open, wind-swept field. An old timer was once asked “When’s the best time to plant apple trees?” He answered, “About ten years ago.” There was our answer, that’s where we’d begin. We planted the new orchard, that very first year.
We work with the trees all year long. We prune in late Winter. Courting a single leader, training a scaffolding of branches up and around it, we shape the orchard tree by tree. In the Spring we apply health-supporting sprays of natural oils, microbes, even molasses. We spray new leafs, first buds, branches and trunks. We spray the ground. Summer is spent weeding, compost mulching and sweeping caterpillars from lush canopies lest they quickly become not lush at all. It is a lot of work. But Fall. Fall, quite literally, reveals the fruits of our labor. You might be thinking apples, and you’d be right. But not entirely. Fall, as the leaves are turning colors and blowing about in the wind, as we are picking, Fall is when we see it. The trees have grown. Not just taller. Trunks are thicker. Branches are fuller. It’s now, it’s every September, that we really see this. But we don’t just see this. We are this. We have grown with these trees, through all these years, through sickness and health, in good times and bad.
The first trees we planted were substantial, in size and cost. Procured through a local landscape company that could source a commercial mix of Macintosh, Cortland and Granny Smith. They were delivered on flat-bed trailers, branches neatly bound tight with twine, root balls, weighing close to a hundred pounds each, wrapped in burlap. Trees like this you install more than plant. The installation took days.
From our kitchen window we looked out over sixty-five trees, neatly aligned in columns and rows, each tree standing tall, over six feet in height, on sturdy trunks, almost two inches in diameter. A substantial orchard. As that first Winter arrived, we tucked in, snug in our beds as dreams of apples danced in our heads. Ours, and the deer’s. While we dreamt of picking and pressing and baking apples, lots of them, the deer dreamt of eating, tender bark, all of it. Same farm, different dreams, an ancient dilemma.
Catalogs are filled with products to keep deer at bay. Everything from taste repellants to shiny objects. Sound machines. Coyote urine. Wolf decoys, with eyes that glow in the dark. This week CNN.com posted an article about robot dogs. Assembly lines in Detroit, warehouses in Seattle, dairy farms in Wisconsin are all being manned by people in polo shirts, khaki pants and comfortable shoes, sitting in ergonomically correct chairs, hovering over their keyboards and joy sticks. Factories, distribution centers and farms are now “business casual”. We’ve automated away workers, clerks and actual farmers and apparently we’ve engineered robotic dogs, perhaps to serve as emotional support animals for the computer operators who took the place of those skilled laborers. Why not, then, Livestock Guardian Animals? Reading the article, we pictured robotic dogs policing the grounds of Nye Hill, programmed to chase off marauding deer (and to not follow cars up and down the road, to not jump on small children and to not bark back at owls at 4:30 in the morning). Farm catalogs don’t yet offer robotic dogs as deer deterrents, but they do offer fencing. Wire, plastic, wood, all there, but the catalogs most highly recommend electric. Strands of electrified wire adorned with tinfoil strips baited with tasty peanut butter. One lick off one of those and even the most curious deer won’t chance the fence. No, not even the most curious, yes, but the most hungry? We would learn through observation that a hungry enough deer will go over, or under, or even through, all but the best constructed barriers, and our fence was not one of those. High snow and deep frosts utterly emasculate even the most electric of electric fences.
By the end of that first Winter, our kitchen window looked out over thousands of deer tracks leading in and out of an orchard full of trees stripped of bark. Stripped. Almost every one of them, the lengths of their trunks, now bare. We called Michael Phillips, highly respected organic orchardist, author of the equally highly regarded “The Apple Grower”, and later “The Holistic Orchard”, in which he writes of healing pastes. We’d heard him interviewed on NPR just weeks prior. Michael could tell us what to do, how to treat the trees, what medicinal salves to apply. He could save the day. He came right out.
“These trees are kaput.” We saw right through his scientific jargon, he meant dead. And he all but added “Just as well”, because he said “But now you might think about more interesting and heirloom varieties, and spending your time on care instead of just spending your money.” For a guy that may well have been at Woodstock he wasn’t all that laid back. He was very serious, at least about apple trees. He explained our trees weren’t entirely dead, they were only mostly dead. We waited for him to say “I’ve seen worse.” But he didn’t.
The trees were dead, but, as Michael said, only from the ground up. Below that, the root stock was viable. We could cut each tree down to a few inches off the ground and graft a thin, eight inch long scion onto the six inches we’d left of the trunk. Fedco Trees, the inestimable purveyor of all things apple, calls scions what they really are – twigs. We could graft a twig to each of the sixty-five six inch tall trunks of all that remained of sixty-five six foot tall trees. Actually, three twigs to each trunk, with an eye toward selecting the hardiest over the next few years’ growth. And just like that, where stood just months earlier an orchard full of impressive trees, nothing but twigs stuck up out of the ground, everywhere. That’s what we saw, twigs, sticking up out of stubby little stumps. Michael didn’t see that. He saw Cox’ Orange Pippens, Northern Spy, Ashmead’s Kernel and what would become our favorite, Roxbury Russets. At that time, he saw trees. Interesting and heirloom variety trees. We did not, see trees, of any variety. He was right, we were wrong. Eight years later, we see them out our kitchen window every day. Trees. We picked apples off them just this morning, St. Edmond and Black Oxford, a gentle lift and the slightest twist. To do that, we did have to first let ourselves through the eight foot tall high-tensile fence.
Our copy of “The Apple Grower” is inscribed and signed. On the title page of the book, just below the printed “MICHAEL PHILLIPS”, the author wrote “To Nye Hill Farm – You shall overcome!”. And with his help, we have. We see it most clearly in the Fall, in the thick trunks and full branches of tall trees. We’ve grown.