Saturday, January 2, 2010


PHOTO (image not yet available), Jim Goldberg, The Orchard, 1979 (SF MOMA Collection).

I have a reverence for orchards.
Long the hallmark of a mature culture, they are part of my family landscape,
a direct relationship with human activity,
a source of sweetness.

In my childhood time they flourished. Pickers climbed slender ladders, and the fresh fruit was trucked to local stores, reaching family tables within driving distance. Macintosh, Pippin, Jonathan and Northern Spy.

No more.

As I drive through the countryside these days, I see dead orchards. Trees stand lifeless, limbs askew, leaves discolored. Suckers rise unpruned, the ground is tight with vines and weeds. Orchards lie abandoned, some wait for wood cutters, some for sharp-eyed developers. None expect a devoted orchardman [See Anton Chekhov, below].

My grandfather was a Hudson Valley farmer and called himself an orchardman. After a semester or two at Earlham College and Cornell, he chose a life of caring for his orchards, his long, staked lines of berries, and broad spreads of every imaginable vegetable. Through his efforts I learned the smell of freshly forked-up potatoes, the taste of a warm, ripe, freshly-plucked blackberry or yellow plum, the crisp green bean, only a moment ago on the vine.

I spent hours standing at the eastern
portal of our English style barn, from which I could see the orchard on the gently rising slope. Beyond sight, smell and taste were the words in my grandparents; conversations about discing the ground around the trees, pruning, summer droughts or the possibility of a killing frost and trips into town

On early mornings, my grandparents picked, sorted, and delivered half-bushels of apples to a large market in the city's business district on Main Street. By afternoon, customers were buying and perhaps eating apples that had been hanging on a limb a mere six hours earlier.

A half-bushel basket

No more, unless we acknowledge the cry, "Buy local, eat fresh."

Robert Frost (b.San Francisco, CA , 1874-1963)

I was fortunate enough to hear Frost read his poetry at the Rutgers University Voorhees Chapel when I was an undergraduate there in the early 1950s. He was introduced that evening by one of my teachers, another, poet, Boston-born John Ciardi.

I am reminded of Frost's poem, "Evening in a A Sugar Orchard" when, "in a lull in March," he urges the man boiling sap to let loose the embers and sparks for his delight. And that was a stand of maple sugar trees in New England.

But closer here is Frost's memorable "After Apple Picking," written in 1914. He describes the most
mundane of experiences and transforms them into a literary meditation. It begins

My long two-pointed ladder' sticking through a tree
Towards heaven still.
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple picking now.

Vincent Van Gogh, Orchard with Blossoming Plum Trees [The White Orchard], 1889

Jean-Baptist-Camille Carot (1796-1895) Orchard at Harvest Time, circa 1850-1860

George Wesley Bellows, Dead Orchard, 1919

Thomas Nash The Orchard, 1914

Mills Brothers Orchard Commercial Crate Label, Middletown. NY, circa 1975
Many labels, as a result of off-set printing, have become collector's items.
Gustav Klimt, Apple Trees, 1902

Camille Pissaro, Apple Picking, 1888

John Szarkowsky, Stayman Winesaps, 1997 (black & white photograph).

He is clearly the dean of American photographers. His book, The Photographer's Eye (1966, 1980, 2007), published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, takes us from a photo of an anonymous interior (from the Wisconsin's Historical Society's famous Iconography Department) to works by Eugene Atget to Lee Friedlander to Robert Frank
. His frequent use of images by unknown photographers underlines his thesis that it is "the thing [] itself " that is important.

There is also Misha Lenn (b. St. Petersburg, 1962), a talented Russian-born artist and graphic designer, whose water color, "Apple Orchard," 2001, is accessible on the Internet.

Literary Orchards:

Cormac McCarthy's 1965 novel, The Orchard Keeper, takes place in rural eastern Tennessee.

And, naturally, Anton Chekhov's play, "The Cherry Orchard." It premiered under the direction of Stanislavsky to great applause at the Moscow Art Theater on January 17, 1904 (his birthday) after much re-writing. He had but six months to live.

Above: The Ranesvskaya Orchard blossoming in May

The story is all too familiar: To save the Ranevskaya estate, the family must sell off the land for development (summer cottages), but they are distracted by class conflicts, personal animosities, individual romances, and of all things, a life in Paris. The play concludes with the off-stage sounds of chopping. The Pushskin Prize for literature in 1888.

Ivan Bunin "The Scent of Apples" in The Elagin Affair and Other Stories, 1925, 2005. The author of the famous story,"The Gentleman from San Francisco," won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933.

John [Winslow] Irving (1942 Exeter, NH) Cider House Rules, 1985

John Steinbeck (Salinas,CA, 1902-1968)
In Dubious Battle, 1936, his first novel of social protest and the plight of migrant workers, takes place in the Salinas Valley's apple orchards. Nobel Prize, 1939.

Nomi Eve, The Family Orchard (2000), a novel of a family in Palestine and Israel from the 1830s onward.


willow said...

I stumbled onto your lovely blog, while doing some research for a post about my fourth great grandfather's orchard. I'm so glad I did!

monaluna said...

Nice post! I love the imagery. I had the best Fuji I think I ever tasted yesterday straight from the farmers' market... they're not all dead!

Charlotte said...

Thanks for your comments and for posting the wonderful images of orchards in art. As an artist focusing on orchards as my subject matter, I know most of those art works and love them. If you would like to see a few of my orchard paintings, please go to my website: I wish you all the best.