The Things We Raise

I drove the tractor down to the old apple tree and angled the loader under the limbs. I spent the better part of the morning pulling the apples off two or three at a time and filling the bucket with small, tart fruits. This year has been a good one for a multitude of things; blackberries, plums, pears and squashes. The apple trees are so loaded down with ripening fruits that the branches arch back towards the soil, and in the case of this one tree the main leader fractured under the weight of it and split all the way back to root line, ending its run of more than a century. When we had first come to see the farm my son and I had walked up the driveway scanning the hills and fields and stopped beneath the apple tree to pull off a few fruits to feed to the ponies that lived here at the time. We ate a few ourselves, sweet and crisp they helped to seal the deal and now, seven years later I harvested the last yield it would ever produce. When I’d filled the bucket to the brim I pulled the tractor back away from the tree and set to sawing the shattered limb from the trunk. The work went quickly and before long there was a stack of branches, still covered in green waxy leaves and pile of apple wood blocks that would be ready for the fire by Winter. I spent the rest of the day washing and sorting apples, cleaning up the ancient oak press and then making several gallons of sweet, delicious cider. I took the pommace to the hogs and watched them gobble the spent fruit with ardor as the last rays of golden sun dropped in glowing shafts through the leafy canopy above.

We have raised more animals than I have the memory to recall; litters of piglets that come in the Spring and the Fall, calves and lambs, kids and poults, chicks and ducklings. We’ve planted orchards filled with peaches and cherries, pears and apricots, apple, pluot and quince. We have beds of asparagus, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries. We’ve cleared forest to make way for pasture and we graze our herds and flocks on bluestem and orchard grass, vetch and clover. We harvested hemlock and white pine and turned them into boards and barns, sheds and fences. We’ve planted a thousand fence posts, built mountains of compost and wood chips and torn them down to spread on gardens and lawns. We’ve filled bushel baskets of beans and potatoes, year in and year out, dried herbs and garlic, onions and blue hubbard squash the size of laundry baskets. There have been fields of sweet corn, pumpkins and watermelons and tanks brimming with tilapia, and more than a thousand gallons of maple syrup. We turn the juices into wine, the fruits into jam, the ciders into vinegar and the produce into pickles and dried goods. The meats are frozen, smoked, jerkied and potted. Bundles of garlic hang to dry in the shed alongside the onions and hay. The products of this farm and its soil have kept us well fed and produced enough surplus to pay the bills as well. The question most people ask when they learn we are farmers is this: “What do you raise?’ I used to try and ennumerate from the list above but quit long ago when the obvious answer became quite clear. “A family.” I reply these days with a smile.

The old apple tree was, by my ring count, 140 years old. It was throwing apples in a time when soldiers fought an enemy that used arrows and the flavor of those fruits was no different then than now. It had suffered a series of limb loss over the years as evidenced by it’s burls and scars, but had managed to endure close to a century and half of harsh winters and dry summers before succumbing to it’s own profligacy. This year it developed apples with such profusion that each branch end carried clusters of three to five apples per stem. I collected over a thousand pounds of apples from that tree before I took the saw to it and laid the branches beside it to shred back into the soil with the aid of the chipper. I could see in that tree the life of the farm extending backwards in time through the Falveys and the Joneses, the Maxfields and the Shultis clan. I have seen photos of it at various stages courtesy of my neighbor — in full bloom sometime after the Second World War, as a part of a larger long vanished orchard in 1903, barely tall enough to provide shade for the children playing beneath its well manicured limbs. Its life cycle had come full circle and back into the ground the accumulated carbon of more than a hundred laps around the Sun would become locked once more in the soils from which it had taken root.

The Summer provided for us, dry as it was and we were fortunate enough to take in the bounty for both body and soul. There were two double rainbows over the house in July, a meteor shower unlike any other I had ever seen before in August. The calves came late and the hogs farrowed smaller litters than usual, but the berries were sweeter and more profuse than any other year so far. The cistern almost dried up, but we still got three cuts of hay. I roofed an old barn, installed miles of fence, went fishing with the kids, stood in the ocean for the first time in years and ate more than my share of clams and lobsters with people who enjoy them as much as I do. There are still a few acres of cleared land to be gleaned of sap wood, new taplines to be installed on the south slope and a corral to be completed down by the road, but all in all it was a good season. I gave it my best efforts even though they too are slowing with the advance of time and I understand full well that like that apple tree, everything that lives on this farm, no matter how productive, will finally give its last yield. You can count your success by your harvest, but what’s more important than that is how it’s raised.

This afternoon our friends are coming with their children and together our two families will press as much cider as we can, husk and blanch and cut and freeze bushel after bushel of sweet corn for the freezers, play with the hose, clean up our mess, grill some meat and some more corn for our dinner and maybe light off some end of Summer fireworks as the darkness falls again. It is the closure on our season of growth, the annual rite where we say good-bye to the bounty — although more is yet to come — and prepare ourselves for the darkness ahead. There is planning, but there is also joy. There is the nod to the past, but also a glimpse into the future. I will miss seeing that single ancient apple tree every time I drive up the lane to the house, but I have saved a few pieces of its burled wood to cut into blocks and later whittle into chess pieces for my children. I trust that I have done well by this land based not only on the things we harvest, but on the things we raise.

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