The instant I laid eyes on the title of this book, I knew it was something I wanted to explore. For a dozen years, I have spent at least one day a week (often two) all year round, working in a friend’s rare heritage orchard near the small Oxford County town of Princeton, Ontario, Canada. Apart from the copious amount of windfalls and “seconds” that I come home with during our long harvests (stretching from late July through mid-October), I have amassed almost enough apple lore and hands-on knowledge to equal most of an undergrad agricultural college diploma. I can even be trusted to do a passable job of pruning a whole tree on my own and see the results in more and better fruit the next season.
"The instant I laid eyes on the title of this book, I knew it was something I wanted to explore."
I couldn’t even begin to describe how far removed this acquired avocation is from anything I was ever formally schooled or trained for: talk about relating, big time, to city-bred author Theresa Weir’s sudden immersion into orchard life! Growing up in suburban Toronto, and living for the past four decades in a fast growing mid-sized city, I never dreamed that the happy place of my middle age and beyond would be a small rural orchard that my farm-bred university girlfriend and her husband (also city-raised) patiently rescued and restored to its present perfection.
Compared to the industrial scale of the operation that Weir’s semi-autobiographical character encounters halfway through THE ORCHARD (after a whirlwind courtship and marriage to the grower’s oldest son and compulsory heir), some three-dozen bearing trees on just over two acres of land in southwestern Ontario don’t seem very impressive.
In fact, most commercial fruit growers today disdain what’s left of the family-sized orchards that once dotted mixed farms all over Canada and the U.S. --- places where people grew the hardy and dependable old-world varieties they loved, not the ones that produce in uniform excess to make money for distant grocery-store chains.
Sadly, most of those small orchards are mere abandoned remnants now, home only to neglected, dying and broken trees whose stunted paltry fruit harbors myriad insect pests, scab, fungus and who-knows-what. Worse still, the bugs, spores and bacteria from these neglected trees are the bane of big growers like Weir’s business-centered family in THE ORCHARD, who must battle the unwelcome guests with ever-increasing dosages of powerful retardant sprays. No, it’s not really your typical “big and bad versus small and good” tale, and Weir knowledgeably bypasses such superficiality.
But the environmental damage and cumulative genetic changes wrought by the necessities of mass production do become an increasingly urgent theme in THE ORCHARD, an issue the author struggles to articulate and despairs of changing. A major limitation of industrial production, for example, is a corresponding reduction in variety; spraying and maintenance for thousands of trees must be a one-size-fits-all routine. And the sheer volume of airborne chemical particulate can be almost unbearable, as Weir attests from having lived downwind of it, always wondering what the eventual health impact on her family would be; tragically, it contributed to her husband’s untimely death from cancer.
Unlike the tiny orchar