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 orchard where I work, on an industrial farm you can’t spray your four varieties of early-bearing trees one week, your nine mid-season ones two weeks later, and your dozen or so late-ripening types a couple of weeks later than that; you don’t dare diversify to such a radical extent! You can’t hand-direct a spray wand to the specific volume, height, age and current needs of each individual tree, thereby using up to 75% less spray to achieve the same (or better) effect.
In fact, many of our Ontario heritage apples and the venerable trees that bear them (some closing on 70 years old) are literally endangered species, like the ill-fated one that Weir describes near the end of THE ORCHARD. Having finally awoken her emotionally austere husband’s environmental conscience and concern for the disappearance of traditional apple varieties, they rebel and try to cultivate a stand of productive trees (a fictional composite called “Sweet Melinda”) without heavy infusions of chemical. They soon learn the profound heartbreak of trying to grow “organic” alongside factory-scale production. Simply put, it’s an impossible task. Their lovingly raised trees become vulnerable magnets for typical pests like the ubiquitous and persistent Codling Moth and must be destroyed.
It’s not the happy ending one wants to read, especially when placed against the author’s chaotic background of a childhood marred by parental neglect, substance abuse, poverty and broken relationships --- barriers that take more than half the book to describe and rationalize into a hopeful new life. When I finally got to the orchard-related pages, I then understood (and respected) the length of her journey.
While Weir lost a real-life battle to reclaim the authentic traditions of apple growing, she succeeds powerfully in conveying the urgency of re-thinking large scale food production. Between the lines, there is a passion for giving back to the land and for rescuing and preserving a genetic diversity that is so rapidly being lost. This is a passion that deeply resonates with my own, which is why I could not leave “my” orchard out of the experience that Weir’s book brought to me.
Out of some two-dozen different apples grown in our Oxford County orchard, more than 20 are never found on grocery store shelves, only (if you’re lucky) at the local farmers’ market. With hard work and dedication, perhaps these old varieties will still be around for future generations. I can’t help thinking that’s the kind of orchard THE ORCHARD really wants to be about.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on September 19, 2011