Saving the Orchard

I’m waiting for the fire to take. May 13th and we’re still lighting the woodstove for heat. We had snow two nights ago and last night dipped to 30. The question is, will the apples freeze tonight if the cloud cover lifts?

The cool, moist spring has brought a beautiful show of blossoms but one frigid night will nip them in the bud. Good to know what that old saying really means: if the cold enters the tiny fruit at the center of the blossom, the emerging apple will freeze and blacken. Cold this late in the season means potential devastation for our vulnerable old trees. Until the weather turns, we’re living on the edge.

It’s not like our livelihood depends on apples, not like a commercial orchard would, or like growers during the Depression who needed every piece of fruit to survive. Until I read The Orchard by Adele Crockett Robertson, I didn’t realize that apple rustlers of that time would sneak into orchards to steal fruit.

In Robertson’s memoir, she writes of trying to save her family’s land in Massachusetts by saving the apple orchard. Robertson was in her early 30s, college-educated and unmarried, when she convinced her doubtful family that she could manage an apple business after her doctor father’s death and Depression-era debt reverses the family’s fortunes.

Like farmers today, Kitty, as she was known, faced challenges both human and natural—growing debt, cutthroat competition, broken machinery, insect infestation, and unpredictable weather. She even faced down rustlers with a pistol—unloaded, but they didn’t take the chance of finding out. Robertson paid her small crew of immigrant laborers above-average wages, earning their loyalty and respect when they saw how hard she worked. But was her persistence and courage enough to save the orchard? I won’t give the answer away except to say that it’s sexism, not her own failings, that determine the story’s ending.

What’s most remarkable is that Robertson wrote her memoir and then stuck it away at the bottom of a bookcase, never published. Her daughter found it after Robertson’s death and fortunately realized what a treasure it was. Whenever I worry about our apples, I can’t help but think of Kitty Robertson, a daughter of privilege, skin brown from the sun, climbing ladders, peddling apples, and trying her level best to save a piece of land from Depression developers exploiting the misfortunes of a family and a nation.

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Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing

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