I’m very excited to have my article, “The Architecture of Orchards” in Issue 14 of Malus, a mighty little publication spreading ideas within the cider industry. You can read my article here. It is available on my publications page as well.
I’m especially delighted to see my article in print right next to one by James Crowden. I discovered James Crowden’s book Cider the Forgotten Miracle while I was working at Goren Farm in Devon in 2004 as a volunteer through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I remember sitting in the barn near an ancient screw press and a barrel of cider while reading Crowden’s book. I was forever transformed. So I feel very honored to be included in a publication alongside him. Crowden opened my eyes to orchards as places of deep living, of stories, of tradition, and poetry.
Though I’ve thought about the material structure of orchards often, especially as regards the specific environmental benefits attributed to old standard orchard trees in Britain, I think there is much more to explore in thinking about them as architecture. The fields of vernacular architecture, landscape architecture, and cultural geography have tools for thinking about the intersection of natural and social worlds and how we construct the spaces we inhabit. I’m just at the beginning of this avenue of thought, and this article is an experiment. Tell me what you think!
I’ve been looking forward to Cider Week Finger Lakes 2016 all year, and here’s why: I’m hoping Cider Week 2016 will be an opportunity to learn more about the history of cider making and fruit growing from you, the public. The Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project is making its debut to ask what you know about the roles that orchards, cider, and fruit have played in our region’s heritage. I want to know about the old trees and orchards in your back yard, and the stories, anecdotes, experiences, and skills that are woven into the fabric of your fruit landscapes.
Cider Week has grown as our local agricultural entrepreneurs have rediscovered the craft of cider making and nurtured it in new and innovative directions. But cider was made in our region before, in the homes and on the farms of many people who settled the Finger Lakes region, travelling west from New England in search of better land. They planted fruit trees to supply their own families with food and beverage. And local people have made hard and sweet cider from them for generations. Keep your eyes peeled while you are driving through the countryside, and you might spot an old orchard you never noticed before.
Some of these old farm orchards still remain on our landscape today, and local cider makers, commercial and hobbyist, care for and use them, up to 150 years after they were originally planted.
What happened to these frontier farms? And the orchards that were an essential ingredient in their domestic economies? Some are still going, but many small hill farms that were unprofitable were abandoned during hard economic times. Some areas that were once farmed are now re-wilded as parks and reserves, like the Finger Lakes National Forest or the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area. And some of them have long been sources for cider.
Carl States, whose father owned the States Cider Mill in Odessa, remembers how local people went foraging in the abandoned farm orchards on Connecticut Hill when he was growing up in the 1960s. They brought the apples to be pressed at his father’s cider mill, which was still being operated by another family into the early 1990s, when it finally closed down when new requirements for pasteurization were passed into law.
“Most of the old timers would bring plenty of apples, more that what they needed, and then Dad would buy what was left over with, or they would just take it home with them in gallons or give it away. Apples were pretty plentiful then. A lot of people when I was a kid – all the old orchards were still in production on Connecticut hill, because all the old farms were abandoned in the depression, but the orchards were still there. So you could go up and get all the apples you wanted for free – just go up and pick them.” – Carl States
A few local cider makers who are at the heart of Cider Week today, including Ian and Jackie Merwin of Black Diamond Farm, remember taking their apples to be pressed at States Cider Mill. Places like these are now receding into memory, but it is here where the connection between our modern Cider Revival and the local heritage of cider can be made.
In addition to celebrating our amazing local cider businesses, I hope Cider Week continues to grow in exploring the history of cider deep in our region’s past, and nurtures the growing networks of DIY enthusiasts, home brewers, gardeners, and farmers who are renewing the spirit of cider making and cider drinking as a part of everyday life.
This Cider Week, I am hoping you can help me document our cider history through events hosted by the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project. This project, an initiative of the Folk Arts program at The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, will explore the fruit heritage of our region and highlight the agricultural and culinary practices that have molded our landscape, from apple orchards, to peaches, cherries, berries, and of course, grapes. I’m hoping to find more evidence about the history of local cider culture, in your stories and photographs, and in the apples growing in your back yard or on your farm.
Cider Week is a celebration of an agricultural and culinary craft brought back to life. Our cider future looks amazingly bright, and new orchards are springing up to supply it. But there’s still much to learn about the cider past, and how it’s shaped our local landscape, culture, and palate. I hope you will join the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project events to share your knowledge and connect our local cider history with our cider future.
The Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage Project is hosting three Documentation Days and one Apple Identification Day during Cider Week, and you are invited to come share your fruit stories and learn about their apples.
Documentation Days at the Elmira Wisner Market (September 29, 10am-2pm) and the Montour Falls Harvest Festival (October 1, 12pm-7pm) are an opportunity to stop by the Finger Lakes Fruit Heritage listening booth and share stories, photographs or documents for our archive of fruit heritage. Tell us about your memories of making cider, apple butter, pie, wine, preserves. Describe pruning, parties, people who were the local masters of theses crafts. Your stories will help us see the larger picture of fruit and cider in the Finger Lakes.
The Apple Identification and Documentation Day at Reisinger’s Apple Country (October 8, 9am – 12noon) invites the public to bring apples to be identified by our pomologist panel, including Dr. Greg Peck of Cornell University and John Reynolds of Blackduck Cidery. If you’ve been wondering what that old tree at the back of the property is, now is your chance to find out! Bring 3-5 apples from each tree you would like to identify. You can then log your finds and deposit any stories you have at the listening booth. For more information on directions and what to expect, visit http://www.earts.org/finger-lakes-fruit-events
These events are a project of The Folk Arts Program at The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes in collaboration with partners at Reisinger’s Apple Country, Schuyler County Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University Department of Horticulture, and Montour Falls Public Library. This project is funded in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
The blossoms have come and are now almost gone here in upstate New York. Since I last posted, nigh eons ago, I’ve relocated from Indiana to the Finger Lakes region of New York to start a new job. It’s been a big change, but an exciting one, with so much more cider now close at hand!
I said a dewy-eyed farewell to Oliver Winery and the Creekbend Vineyard in Indiana, where I had the privilege to work alongside some fantastic people, learn a little bit about viticulture, and become familiar with the dips and crests of the rolling landscape of the vineyard, and the personalities of each field. There were wet spots filled with mosquitos, the acres of Chambourcin and Chardonel vines devastated by the polar vortex, the finicky short rows of pampered vinifera, the acres and acres of hardy Catawba, and the bowl of land left over to wildflowers that drained into a stream leading into the woods.
Here in New York, I have much to learn about the local climate and its effect on apple and grape cultivation. The cider industry is young and exciting, with the Finger Lakes Cider House opening just last week. It seems like I learn about a new cidery every time I turn my head.
I look forward to turning this blog in the direction of more sustained writing about fruit, fermentation, and landscape in my new home. And I’m not alone! I’ve been delighted to be warmly welcomed by Meredith, author of the blog Along Came A Cider. And I have recently discovered the the Finger Lakes Apple Tree Project by Steve Selin, maker of South Hill Cider. Cider people are so friendly and welcoming! I’m also really excited about Cider Week Finger Lakes, and I hope to nurture some partnerships in the cider, arts, and heritage communities through my work. There are so many people to meet, ciders to drink, and projects to plan. I am totally the wide eyed new girl on the block, gazing in awe at all the bounty of cider projects around me.
Though New York City is still a good 5 hour drive from these westerly regions of the Great State of New York, I recently managed a trip down thataway and made the pilgrimage to Wassail, the new swanky cider bar in the Lower East Side. That deserves a post all its own, so I’ll return to it later.
But along the way, I ran ( maybe ambled is better) the Hard Cider Run at Warwick Valley Winery, home of Docs Draft Cider, and went for a drive up and down the Hudson Valley, where the orchards were blossoming their hearts out. It’s that ephemeral moment of spring, that you only get to see briefly before the petals fall and the fruit starts to swell in the long balmy stretch of summer ahead. Cideries take note – HUNDREDS of people signed up to run this 5k through the blossom, many of whom may have never thought about cider much before and were clearly just out for a nice day in the country. It was a little chaotic, but everyone seemed to have a great time.
The Blossom Time is the also the time for tree hunters, and I’ve been keeping my eye out as I travel around the highways and byways of my new home territory. I spotted these two ancient orchards during the winter by roadsides in Schuyler County, near the village of Burdette, and Chemung County, near the town of Horseheads. I happened to be driving by them again this weekend, and stopped to see if they had any blossom. They did! But barely. It is easy to see fruit trees young and old blooming near houses, cared for by homeowners. But sprawling old orchards like these are a rare find, as far as I can see, in this part of New York. I still don’t know who owns them, or why they have survived, or what fruit lies in wait there.
There are plenty of old barns slowly rotting away in the countryside here too, as these photos below attest. And plenty of old farmhouses, that look back towards a different farm economy, one that supported relative wealth and vibrant communities in places that are now the back of beyond. Who lived in these enormous old vacant houses? And why do they lie abandoned now? Who planted these old orchards, and what kind of farms are they remnants of?
The new cider industry here is clearly booming. I can’t wait to learn more about the landscapes that supported apples of old, and the new orchards, like these ones at the Good Life Farm, home of the Finger Lakes Cider House, that are rising slowly from the earth to meet a new market, and reshape the land with it.
During my research in England, I wrote some fieldnote observations (reposted below) about my encounters with mistletoe, and I recently got to revisit them in a conversation with Annie Corrigan on WFIU Radio’s Earth Eats Program. If you are interested in further information on mistletoe, please visit pages by Jonathan Briggs, whose work has brought the botany, conservation, and social history of mistletoe out of the orchard and into the 21rst century: Mistletoe Matters and Jonathan’s Mistletoe Diary.
December 8, 2011. Fieldnotes. It is a windy, rainy day outside, and at 3:30pm, I definitely need the lights on inside. I am perched on my little snug chair next to the woodstove. The darkness of winter here has definitely been one of the hardest things for me to deal with, and if left to natural devices, I would probably take a cue from the other mammals about and go into hibernation for the next few months. The days are definitely shorter here than back at home, but I think part of it is the fact that my fieldwork takes me outside a lot. Instead of being compelled to get to work in a lighted building for eight hours, I find the waxing and waning of the sun’s light has a much greater influence on my experience of the working day.
During this dark period, another product of the orchard has preoccupied me for the past several weeks, and that is mistletoe. I only learned that mistletoe favored growing on apple trees, and particularly in the south-west midlands of Britain, in October, when my wwoof host at the Hatch pointed it out to me as we were harvesting apples and pears from the orchard. He mentioned that he used to sell the mistletoe, but the comment escaped my notice until someone mentioned the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auction to me some time later.
The town of Tenbury Wells is located just on the borders of three counties – Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire. And allegedly, these mistletoe auctions have been going on for the past 150 years, though they were threatened with closure recently when the cattle market, where they were held, closed. In an effort to help save the auctions and retain one of the town’s claims to fame, some folks cooked up the Mistletoe Festival, complete with a mistletoe queen, a Druid procession, and various other Christmas activities. You can read more about it on their website here.
While the festival itself is, of course, interesting as a consciously invented tradition, I was actually more interested in the relationship of the mistletoe sales to the issues of orchard management. It turns out that mistletoe thrives in old and traditionally managed orchards. I sent off some inquiring emails to the estate agents who run the auction, and received a reply from a local farmer who was happy to talk to me.
Armed with my photographic equipment, I set off to the first auction, which happened on Nov 29th. Turns out I wasn’t the only one with a camera. There were LOADS of camera-toting people there, from amateur on-lookers to highly professional rigs. One guy, who turned out to be a floral photographer, even had his assistant/model, all dolled up in ‘authentic’ looking pristine wellies and beautifully matching fuzzy lavender hat and gloves, posing as if she was inspecting and buying the mistletoe. The place was just dripping in nostalgia, or at least that is what all the photographers seemed to be framing in their cameras.
The actual business of the auction, though, seemed to go on without much notice of the photographers and onlookers. And it was really business. The auctioneer, with hs portable loudspeaker and cadre of assistants keeping track of the lot numbers, bidders, and prices, moved up and down the rows of wreaths, holly, and mistletoe, offering a starting price, sometimes with a comment to the quality (“look at the berries on that”) and taking the bids from the small crowd of what seemed to be seasoned veteran buyers. People in the middle of conducting business transactions aren’t terribly interested in being interviewed, so this situation required a lot more courage, so to speak, on my part, going up to people and asking if they would answer a few questions in between hauling their green purchases to their vans, lorries, and cars.
The guys pictured here had driven all the way from Cork, Ireland and slept in their van and were filling it to the brim for the trip home, where they would sell it through their Christmas tree yard. They were very friendly. Many of the buyers were from florists and garden centers, along with some other small scale Christmas tree vendors. My best tactic for talking to people seemed to be to stand near the bidding action, and turn to the person next to me to ask if they were selling or buying, and launch into an uninvited conversation. The next week, when I returned for the next auction, I came armed with a printed survey in self-addressed, stamped, envelopes, which I could simply give to people to complete and mail back to me at their leisure. Even so, it was hard to get it into a lot of hands. I didn’t meet any sellers, but on my second visit, I walked up and down the rows of mistletoe and holly writing down the names and addresses of the sellers written on the tags of each lot. Not all had addresses, but it might be a start for contacting sellers and talking to them later.
One group of people whom I have not had the courage to talk to yet are the gypsies. Along with the farmers who bring mistletoe from their orchards to sell, there are groups of gypsies who gather it from farmers’ orchards and sell it on at the auction. I did walk up to two men who seemed to be lingering by the side of the auction yard among groups of people whom I took to be gypsies. As I tried to start a conversation with them, their first question was if I was a journalist, after which, one of them ranted for a bit about how it wasn’t all christmas cheer and roses harvesting the mistletoe. It was hard work, at which point, he pulled up his sweater to show me an enormous scar running across his side and up to his ribcage. I attempted to banter for a bit, and they seemed to warm up to me, but I decided not to push questions. Maybe later.
I did go visit one farm, Eastham Court Farm near Tenbury Wells. I was greeted, to my surprise, by a 22-year old guy, recently graduated from an engineering degree, who had moved home to his parents’ farm. And while he was sorting out what to do next, he had taken their mistletoe business in hand and set up an online direct-sales business, bypassing the auction. You can find his website here. He emphasized the need for farmers to change and adapt to new ways of doing business. He took me out into their orchards: organic, 60-year old orchards which he seemed to think were in definite decline. Even though they were lovely places to be, with their widely spaced, large, old trees, he didn’t think orchards like this would last much longer, as newer orchards with more closely-spaced, smaller trees were replanted. And there was the mistletoe, hanging in lacy green orbs from the branches of the trees, sometimes almost overwhelming them. The farmers have to cut it back every year, or it will sap the energy of the tree and decrease the apple harvest, if not kill it slowly outright. Piles of mistletoe lay on the ground, much of it to be discarded, as there was just too much even to sell.
I decided to pay a visit to a place very close to my heart: Conner Prairie Living History Museum, where I worked for about five summers during college. I had not been back in many years, and I was excited to find, in addition to familiar memories of my first experiences in orchards, some pleasing new connections to cider and wine.
Just north of Indianapolis, this museum has several recreated historic areas depicting the development of European settlement in the state of Indiana during the nineteenth century: an 1816 Lenape Trading Post, an 1836 Prairietown village and a Civil War era farm. I spent a lot of time here wearing excessive amounts of clothing while doing period cooking over an open fire, and it was here that I first fell in love with historic agriculture and cookery.
Though there are many historic and reconstructed buildings in the museum, the only building original to the property is the 1820s farmhouse built by William Conner – fur trader, settler, farmer, and entrepreneur – which overlooks an agriculturally advantageous horse-shoe bend of the White River.
I’ve always loved houses of this period: the high ceilings and large windows let in so much light and air. Even on a hot day, they are flung open, allowing the outdoor and indoor worlds to co-mingle. The kitchens, based around a hearth and a worktable, have room to move in – theatres in the round of culinary action, based around moving bodies instead of appliances. And there is nothing so alive as an open hearth, where cooking is a matter of well-honed instinct for the smell of baking (or burning) bread, and a sense of temperature according to the skin, rather than a thermometer.
One of the things I loved about working there was the effect it had on the senses. There are many criticisms to be levelled at living history museums – that they tidy up the past into a theme-park fantasy, focus too much on white rural settler narratives at the expense of other American experiences, and create awkward scenarios for visitor interaction. But I still believe in their fundamental purpose of introducing history as something that can be partially experienced through the body. The trick is in moving the experience beyond simple fantasy to sympathy, where one’s bodily, sensory grasp of the material conditions of the past inspires a more personal interior understanding of another individual’s possible experience. To walk in another person’s shoes, to cook at another person’s hearth. To press apples the way it was done in 1836. Sympathy is, I believe, a profoundly democratic aspiration, and a morally and socially complex approach to history.
Spending a good portion of the day working in an un-electrified environment with no running water slows down the pace of life immensely. Sometimes, during a few slow hours, I would just watch shadows creep across the floor. It profoundly changed my sense of light, colour, and visual perception.
Occasionaly on my lunch break, I walked through the old neglected orchard on the back end of the property, in an area that was at that time off-limits to visitors. The apples, a golden yellow variety named “Early Transparent” which ripen in July, would fall to the ground and begin to rot, making the humid air thick with the perfume of pulp fermenting in the searing Indiana sun. Since the museum’s expansions in recent years, it has been cleaned up, the old decrepit trees removed. Currently, only a few remain, but even these produce enough for the possibility of cider-making.
I played a number of characters in the historic village, each with varying degrees of museum-sanctioned, historically accurate biography, and a lot of material improvised during the everyday interactions of museum staff, where the lines between history, theatre, and everyday life were sometimes ephemeral and shifting. I often mused on the possible inner lives of the fictional characters I portrayed in short poems, including this one , about a young woman living on a new farm at the edge of the wilderness, dreaming of an orchard in the more settled, cultivated life she had left back east. Settlers on the frontier are usually portrayed as looking confidently forward, into the wilderness in the American Myth. But so much of the transformation of that frontier was created by looking backwards. The space on the zone of transformation, between forest and orchard, must have been fraught with excitement, regret, and trepidation.
I was excited to find that one of my old co-workers, who had started as a teen volunteer when I worked there, was now a full time staff member who seems to be influencing things in favour or historic beer, wine, and cider making! Witness this project in progress at the carpentry shop, a cider press apparently constructed after a historic design. I’ve not seen one like this before, so I am keen to find out more about it.
She had success last year with elderberry wine. The berries on the bush outside the barn look promising, and bottles labeled “Elderberry” sit temptingly on the shelves of the tavern room in the reconstructed Golden Eagle Inn in the 1836 village.
I hope to be able to report back about the progress of cider making at Conner Prairie later in the fall, especially regarding the historical research they are drawing on to portray cider making in nineteenth century Indiana.
I’ve been neglecting the blog lately due to some heavy dissertation writing, rewriting, and career hand-wringing. Many paragraphs have been relegated to the burn pile. Grafting new ideas onto old roots. Trying not to get swept away by some new theoretical position.
Cider is always on the mind, though, and I’ve been in on several conversations lately that hinge on the market capacity for craft breweries, cider, wine, and spirits. Speaking with some of my marketing friends, it sounds like keeping on top of the next big thing is increasingly fast-paced: new social media platforms to populate, new trends to mastermind. One day, it’s cider, the next, it’s craft distilleries. A colleague of mine with a more optimistic attitude is hoping to open another brewery here and is pretty sure that there’s more than enough space in the market, while another friend is convinced cider is the way to go now. And still a third thinks both are way behind the curve and the craft distilleries are the wave of the future.
It makes me wonder how fast trends are coming and going, and what incentive there is to get into the very long-term and labor intensive work of growing apples and grapes? I muck in on a part time basis at the vineyard here, and the losses from this past winter’s brutal cold are forcing the vineyard crew to pull some pretty long days dealing with the vine maintenance and replanting. It makes conversation about the ever-changing winds of market trends feel positively inane when you are cutting down vines in the early summer and contemplating the months of tying, training, shoot selection, and the years of re-growth before you get another harvest.
For me, the long term patience, and the care and cultivation that go into orchards and vineyards are what contribute to the magic of cider and wine. The importance and pleasure of the drink is not just in the taste – though that is certainly important – but in the mind, in the story of the place where that grape or that apple grew. The patience of wine and cider is something that appeals to my own personal sense of just being tuned into time and place and labor, where human stories and natural environments collide in agricultural artistry.
I see a parallel with organic or sustainably grown food, and my distaste for marketing that promotes it as a consumer choice for personal health or better taste. The importance of that enterprise is not increased nutrition, health, or taste – though of course these things are important too – but the knowledge that the food was grown and cared for in a way that was sensitive to the long term health of the environment and the economic and social sustainability of local communities engaged in this work.
I know good marketing is important for the success of a business and its ability to devote itself to the long-term care of its resources (trees, workers, community, as well as dollars). I still think that cider, in order to be viable in the long term, and not just another market trend or rising drinks category, needs to communicate its identity in a way that emphasizes its heritage, its sustainable environmental impact, and its connection to agricultural families, businesses, and communities. In order to do justice to the years of cultivation and care it takes to grow an apple, we need a message that can transcend the marketed, trending moment and put roots down for years to come. I’m more convinced than ever, after dragging dead grape vines to a burn pile and planting tender new ones for the future, that we need to be able to communicate the heritage, labor, and patience of cider orchards in the same way that the wine industry does for its vineyards and grapes.
Well, after that little missive, I’ve got to get back to the dissertation and the dirt.
I was sitting in a pub in East Hackney, London one January night a few years ago trying to convince a young man from Portsmouth that English people did in fact practice the custom of wassail. “Wassail?” he said. “I’ve never heard of that. English people don’t do that. I don’t believe you.” I parried his aura of certainty with my own indisputable fact: I had just travelled down to a remote corner of Devonshire to participate in a wassail. I had seen it for myself. We had traipsed round a village in the Blackdown Hills singing for cider and wishing good health to the farmhouse, the garage, the old vicarage, the pub, and finally the orchard itself. English people DO wassail. The young man’s incredulity about the existence of this custom is understandable, though. With a few notable exceptions of wassail celebrations that claim to have survived unbroken into the present, such as the one at Carhampton, Somerset, the custom seems to have died out or disappeared most everywhere else, surviving only as a festive Christmas drink or an obsolete word in a carol. In the past few years, however, a notable revival has been rising, and as several of my friends in England put it, everyone seems to want to have a wassail now. So why did wassailing die out in England, and why is it being revived now? These were some of the questions I set out to answer when I first trekked out to torchlit winter processions on the twelfth night of Christmas in Devon, and later Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire. Many people think of Wassail as a remnant pagan custom, and it is easy to see why, when black-faced Morris men lead hordes of otherwise tame urbanites carrying torches through old orchards to sing to the apple trees and scare off witches with gunfire. It’s an enthusiastic performance of what some might think of as a primitive, superstitious approach to life, which might seem refreshing after the daily grind of rational civility. Being outside after the endless indoor Christmas parties feels like a release, and the bonfires and torches light up the night in a way that wakes your tired soul from the dreary sleep of midwinter. And the cider, well the cider just makes you feel sublime, a bit euphoric. The torches seem brighter. The night seems blacker. And it feels like anything is possible inside the circle of trees that almost seem alive.
I think the custom’s visceral tactile appeal stems from the sensory stimulation of frost and fire and the imaginative tunnel of superstition usually silenced in a society based on scientific rationality. It’s an opportunity to get out and be a little wild for a night, and that’s what rituals and festivals are often good for, shaking up our everyday habits and injecting the mundane world with mystery and significance we don’t usually feel. Some of the people I came to know who had helped revive wassail over the last twenty years had a much less superstitious orientation to the custom, though, and their perspectives shed light on some of the social realities of rural agricultural life and highlight the enormous social changes it has undergone in the past century. Wassail, a custom historically based in rural society and food production, has something to teach us about the changing ways we work with each other, as well as the ways we interact with natural and agricultural resources. For Eric Freeman, a life-long farmer in the rural countryside of Gloucestershire, and his friends Pete Symonds, a former electrician from the Forest of Dean, and Albert Rixen, a plumber and engineer, wassail was a tribute to the work of the agricultural year and an emblem of the social contract between farmers and their agricultural workers. Pete Symonds is a skilled tradesman in a rural community whose livelihood suffered with the outsourcing of industrial work overseas. He saw in wassail the opportunity to celebrate the social bonds of working men and commemorate the cooperative nature of agricultural labor in an era before industrialization. Albert Rixen, devoted to restoring old steam engines, including antique steam powered cider equipment, also lends his workman’s approach to wassail and cider making, keeping alive the mechanical heritage of agricultural work. Eric Freeman, a tireless supporter of agriculturally-oriented social networks such as the Young Farmers and groups devoted to saving rare breeds of livestock, has dedicated much of his life to the practice of farming not just as a business or even a personal vocation, but a way of life still full of social and cultural richness.
For these men, the resurrection of the custom of wassail was not about superstition at all. The considerable labor involved in preparing the bonfires and torches and orchestrating the festival mirrored the kind of labor they wanted to celebrate – shared labor, social labor, the kind of labor that was necessary to keep a pre-industrial farm going. This is the kind of labor that makes work worthwhile, and which seems to be slipping away in a world of global markets, where labor is outsourced, rural communities are left slowly crumbling, and agriculture produces commodities instead of food. It’s also important to remember that the social contract didn’t always work, that standards of living for agricultural workers in the pre-industrial era were generally dire. But wassail was a moment when the contract was tested, when the workers held the orchard and the farm hostage for a night, demanding food and drink from their employers in return for performing the wassail and ensuring a fertile crop in the year to come. Superstition becomes bare social reality here, because without a satisfied workforce, the farm could not be productive. Without workers, there would be no harvest, no fertility. Wassail was a kind of symbolic labor negotiation, with the potential harvest hanging in the balance. And the next Monday after twelfth night, known as Plough Monday, work started again. The fields were ploughed for the coming year.
It all seems a bit serious for a rowdy evening of cider drinking, morris dancing, and bonfire lighting. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes one of the most obvious reasons to join in a wassail is simply for a good prank, a good drink, and an excuse to dress up in funny costumes and indulge in a little pyromania. But the interplay of superstition, social history, and a walloping good time is what makes wassail a tradition with depth and complexity that can appeal to people on many levels, even as they face adapting to economic, social, and environmental change in their communities.
Can wassail take hold in North America? A real, strong tradition here will depend on our own social needs and reasons for adopting a custom. It will be exciting to see how it takes shape as we begin to re-invest attention in our agriculture, our orchards, and our cider. In a way, the social contract we are now re-exploring with our food system, our environment, and our economies makes wassail all the more relevant, and the tables have turned. Wassail, in all its irreverent topsy turvy midwinter glory, reminds us that agriculture and food production, even in our industrialized, exploitative, globalized era is still a social, and an environmental contract. In an old-fashioned way, it poses the question “Are we in it together folks?” And its pretty exciting to hear folks replying: “Here’s to thee old apple tree.”
It’s November, and we’ve had our first snow here in Indiana. After the immersive and intensive dive into NY Cider Week, it’s been nice let my mind drift back to England as I spend time transcribing more interviews. Somehow, I can’t seem to get the Somerset Levels out of my mind. Maybe it’s the slant of light on the horizon that triggers the memory, or the temperature, dipping into the freezing temperatures. It was about a year ago come December that I was visiting there, doing some interviews in the midst of a phenomenal flood. It’s a landscape famous for its orchards and its cider, but one I’ve only visited, not lived in. This post is not about orchards and cider directly, but about a delicate landscape where they are part of a complex ecological and agricultural heritage.
I’ve been reading over Life on the Levels: Voices from a Working World, a collection of interviews with people whose lives are intimately connected to the unique landscape of the Levels, illustrated with elegant black and white photographs. There is something about this particular landscape that I find personally extremely compelling, slightly mysterious. The low-lying moors have been drained over the centuries, but the water still reigns here. It is one of my favorite places to meander around the lanes, always slightly lost in the winding turns that take you around the moors, stumbling upon the high pieces of ground that have been prized spots for thousands of years, like the almost imperceptible hill on which stand the ruins of Muchelney Abbey, where the monks must have been really glad of dry land. Or the Glastonbury Tor, or the Burrow Mump, whose slopes are surrounded by the standard orchards of Burrow Hill Cider. The apples, like the people, tend to cling to the high ground to keep their feet dry.
One interview in Life on the Levels, with RSPB Warden of West Sedgemoor John Humphrey in 1981, explores the myriad issues surrounding the relationship of ecological conservation and agriculture in the landscape with impressive breadth, opening with this quote:
“The progressive agriculturalist would see a traditional meadow here as really not being worth farming and would want to under-drain it, dry it out, plough it up and re-seed it….West Sedgemorr is a great mass of waterlogged peat which is…about fifteen feet deep. And you’re supported by a skin of vegetation – that’s all that’s stopping you from sinking into this morass…”
This seems to be one of those delicate places where the environment pushes back relatively quickly – lets you know when you’ve pushed the boundaries of ecological manipulation too far, which is perhaps what gives it that sense of self-contained power and responsiveness.
Flooded orchard, near Kingsbury Episcopi
Road through the flood
Frozen Flood 4
View from the top of Burrow Hill Dec 11 2012
Frozen Flood, near Kingsbury Episcopi 2
Frozen Flood, near Kingsbury Episcopi 1
View of Glastonbury Tor from West Bradley Orchard
Twilight near Wedmore
West Bradley Orchard
Burrow Hill in the distance
Birdlife on the Flood
Frozen Flood 3
When I was driving there last December, it was with some trepidation, as just days and weeks before, local people had been marooned in their houses, the roads impassible to all but tractors in the midst of the flood. When I came, the waters had receded enough that the main roads were passable, but many of the fields were still covered with water. Or rather, they were covered with ice, as the weather had turned cold and turned sections of the moors into sheets of glass. Birds flocked to the open places in the ice, and it was hard not to be awed by the quiet beauty of the mauve twilight settling gently over these great reflecting watery moors chilled to a frost -covered stillness. Though one could not forget also the agricultural and personal loss from these same floods. Here are some articles detailing the damage from the Guardian and the Somerset County Gazette.
I spied some orchards by the side of the road encased in the ice, their trunks sealed in. I stopped by Burrow Hill Cider just to climb to the top of the hill and look out over the vast icy lake that had formed in the moors below. Landscapes like this provoke us to consider how agricultural heritage has helped shape the landscape, but also forces us to face the limits of human change. Further into the book, another interview with details how aggressive drainage practices designed to promote arable agriculture can permanently affect the balance of the peat, cause the land the sink, and further exacerbate the flooding problem.
At the 2013 American Folklore Society annual conference held in Providence, Rhode Island two weeks ago, there was, miraculously, a session on Rhode Island orchard traditions. Ann Hoog from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress was on hand to talk about some of the archival material. Michael E Bell, retired from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission discussed the field research contributing to the film. Alex Caserta, the producer, was also present to talk about the making of the film.
Here’s the abstract from the program:
Vanishing Orchards and the Rhode Island Folklife Project. From July to December 1979, the American Folklife Center, in cooperation with several Rhode Island cultural agencies, conducted a field research project in Rhode Island concentrating on various ethnic, regional, and occupational traditions. The resulting documentation includes audio interviews and photographs of the Steere family, owners and operators of a fruit orchard in Greenville, Rhode Island since 1930. That orchard is featured in the new documentary film Vanishing Orchards: Apple Growing in Rhode Island. This session includes an overview of the 1979 project followed by a showing of the film. After the film, discussants will address the subject of family farms, agriculture, and changing neighborhoods; documentation of this changing landscape through fieldwork and archives; and the genesis of this documentation coming out of the collaboration of multiple Rhode Island cultural agencies.
The film was shown on Rhode Island PBS. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find a full version of the film online. However, there is a promo for the film available here: on the website for the film project. The film itself was full of interviews with Rhode Island orchardists discussing the challenges and opportunities facing orchards in the Ocean State as pressures on land from development make the economics and pragmatics of farming close to urban and suburban areas challenging. The loss of orchards is definitely a theme – many people interviewed recall orchards no longer present on the landscape. But the resilience and innovation of those who are continuing on is also impressive. Two orchardists featured in the film joined the panel and fielded questions from the audience. Surprisingly, hard cider did not seem to be an economic project for those present, nor did it feature in the traditions documented in the film. It would be interesting to dig more into the archival information to find out if there is anything there.