When the land feels too large I head to the orchard. Yes, the orchard is four times the size of my vegetable plot. But the trees are countable. The nectarines end and apricots begin. The apricots end where the figs start. The small section of figs presses against the peaches. In the orchard I can’t see the horizon line, and feel cozy within its confines.
But the orchard always requires a fight. Four acres is equivalent to 600 trees. Ten rows that run in columns of sixty trees–a skinny swath of land compared to the tomato and asparagus fields that surround it. We weed by hand. We pruned each peach tree, each nectarine tree. Each time we irrigate the orchard, we walk through to check the sprinklers for leaks. We have spent many days in head-to-toe protective gear, spraying organic sulfur on the trees and wishing that the world would stop smelling like rotten eggs. Even if for just long enough to eat lunch.
This weekend, the north wind swept vigorously through the farm. I kept a hand on my hat all day, and leaned heavily to cut through the gusts. I expected the orchard to be calmer than the veggies. But the apricots trees are tall. We didn’t prune them, and their branches stretch twenty feet high. The limbs are full of fruit. Some branches look more like grape clusters than apricots—something I used to think was a good thing. But the wind bullies these trees. Pushes them around and pulls at their weak spots. We found trees nearly snapped in half, limbs broken and akimbo. Some of these apricots have brown rot, a disease that seeps into branches and produces honey colored, gummy cankers and weaken the trees. Those trees worst infected broke apart in the wind. Others were just so heavy with fruit that they leaned and bent, trying to put some of the weight down.
Mending the trees felt like scooping buckets of water out of a flooding basement. Frantic. We propped trees up with wooden splints. Pulled fruit from heavy branches, hoping they would spring back into place once the weight was gone. But sometimes that wasn’t enough and we had to prune out heavy branches. The orchard was loud and we had to yell to be heard. I was disoriented from the wind. Amazing how quickly we could move through the orchard when a sunny-skied hurricane blew through.
To calm myself amongst the chaos, I thought about the orchard’s longevity. If this year goes poorly, the orchard will rest for the winter and give it another shot in the spring. Like a bad school year, saved by a summer of laying poolside. Seasonality, even in the sometimes season-less Central Valley is part of my attraction to this work. I can divide life up into recognizable segments, and can associate memories with which fruits were ripening at the time. I might not remember whether I met you in March or April, but I remember that the strawberries were starting to flower (early) and I fought to keep them from being choked by bindweed.
The apricot trees are propped in place with wooden boards and will have to be pruned back before too long to salvage the healthy branches. But in a year’s time, most of them will be strong again, maybe even stronger now that we know more about what it takes to keep 600 trees alive. I am curious to see them then, and hope that when I think of the orchard hurricane, I will remember that when the winds died, we walked through the orchard and ate apricots that tasted like bergamot, and the year’s first round of juicy peaches. Maybe that wind just has to stir things up a bit before summer can officially begin.