Saturday, November 7, 2015

In the Orchard - A guest post by Jenny N. Sullivan

In the Orchard

I like to read memoirs. So often they are written by people who have lived lives of heroic virtue—like the saints. Adele Crockett Robertson is surely a saint in an apple orchard as revealed in her memoir, The Orchard, about her valiant efforts to rescue her family’s apple farm from foreclosure during the height of the Great Depression. A young woman of 32, Radcliffe educated, she left a job at the Hartford Museum when her father’s sudden death put the orchard, sitting on “glacial till and clay,” in danger of foreclosure.

Most of us will never keep an orchard, but this memoir deceives us into believing that we have. In her lyrical writing style, reflective of her deep love for the land, she takes us through the most mundane chores of the farm, and we find ourselves fascinated by how she gets the tractor, “crouched rusty and crusted with mud, just where last summer’s hired man had left it,into operation again.

She has the knowledge of a child who grew up on the farm, but a child with no intention of taking it over one day. However, this orchard was her father’s heart. Although he made his living as a physician, she remembers his farmer’s spirit and how he loved his apple trees and the smaller number of peach trees he also grew.

When we worked with pruning saw and shears in the orchard on winter afternoons, he studied the apple buds—how they lay close to the twig, folded tight, protecting the green heart of the spring leaf against the cold of winter. Or the triple bud of the peaches, in which were hidden the deep pink flowers that would precede the leaves when the warm winds blew and the snow melted.

Her only companion is her Great Dane, Freya, with whom she would spend the first long, snowy winter back home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, burning wood in the kitchen stove for heat, the kitchen being the only room in the house she could afford to maintain. But it is spring when she first returns and perches on that restored tractor, ready to begin the season. It is hot, and she has long hours, days, weeks, months of work ahead of her. But from her vantage point, sitting high on that most essential piece of farm equipment, she can feel “the breath of an east wind” and see “the lavender fog” offshore waiting for the sun to go down.

Her farming techniques might shock conscientious gardeners and farmers of today, the way opinions on the use of liriope can spark debate among garden club friends of long standing. But she was using the “best practices” of her day. She consulted other fruit growers, the county agent, and seemingly knowledgeable hired hands. She explains,

When I sprayed [with lime Sulphur and arsenate of lead], the trees looked as though it had snowed: every leaf and twig was coated with the powdery poison….The Sulphur and the broiling sun among the trees burned my skin raw.

But never mind that because

I sang and whistled and rejoiced as I rattled along on the tractor because all through that first summer, the fruit stayed clean and I stayed dirty.

The pleasures of this memoir continues with episodes about capturing a bee swarm to pollinate her trees, digging a well, learning how to harvest, pack, and market the fruit and to fend off the banker who came around from time to time hoping to take possession of the property. She commits to being a virtuous employer who will pay a fair wage in a time of national and personal economic crisis and makes important business and emotional connections with the community in which she now finds herself.

The memoir was published by Robertson’s daughter, who found the pages of it under a phone book on the bottom shelf of a bookcase after her mother’s death. It was first published in 1995 and is still in print. The Orchard is that kind of wonderful find on a library shelf that one hopes many hands have pulled out from among its companions and taken home for a gratifying read about a venerable woman and her mesmerizing orchard.

Jenny N. Sullivan is a gardener, author and garden club member in Northern Virginia, and the daughter of a storyteller. Instead of reading nursery rhymes and fairy tales to little Jenny, her mother told her about "the olden days," the 1920s in her beloved small hometown in south central Virginia. Those stories provide the atmosphere, the local color for Sullivan's first novel, From My Father's House. Sullivan grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, received a B.A. and an M.A. in English from Old Dominion University and went on to a long teaching career in the Virginia Community College System in the Tidewater area and in Northern Virginia