Blossom Time in New York

IMG_0835The 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 IMG_0103little 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.

Relegated to the Burn Pile

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.



Preamble, With Feeling

I was encountering some writer’s block as I’ve been trying to work my way into writing, and today a conversation with a colleague unlocked some words for me.  Here’s the result.

ImageOne summer afternoon in July, 2013, I was sitting on the front porch of a 19th century farmhouse in southern Indiana, watching a terrific thunderstorm roll in from the northwest.  The slate blue clouds billowed across the sky, heavy with rain, as a preamble of cool wind swooped down through the heavy hot humid air in ferocious drifts, lifting the tendrils of the grape vines that lay in orderly rows across the rolling, hilly farmland.  I had been working all morning in the vineyard, but we were dismissed after lunch as the threat of the storm wiped out any possibility of continuing outdoors through the afternoon.  So I decided to watch the storm roll in on the farmhouse porch, set myself up with some books, and determined to accomplish some academic reading in a solitude away from the internet and other distraction, cut off from the rest of the world by a sheet of rain.  It was on this porch that I found myself entering into another rich landscape through the page – a landscape I had inhabited in England, living in the deep countryside of Herefordshire, where my habitat was an orchard instead of a vineyard, and the summer was cool and rainy instead of the heat-charged and electric climate of Midwestern thunderstorm.  To be in two places at once with such intensity was jarring.  Surrounded by the vineyard which I had grown to love through sweat drenched and exhausting work among the vines, accompanied by the camaraderie of the other vineyard workers, I attempted to burrow back into my memories of the English countryside through a dense academic rendering of theoretical conceptions of the rural.  But the Indiana vineyard had a physical hold on me in the present, even as I tried to rethink and replay the Herefordshire orchard I had loved so recently.  As so many ethnographers before have done, I felt deeply torn, emotionally and intellectually, between two places: trying to think and feel one place while thinking and feeling another place.  Perhaps some are better equipped for such multi-tasking, but for me, it was difficult – I felt a subterranean friction jarring the singular unity each place held in my emotional imagination.  One intense emotional place-memory recalled in the midst of another place, composed also of senses and feelings.  How can these compositions of experience coexist, one rupturing the wholeness of the other, simultaneously heightening the intensity of both, and then their loss.  Of such feelings is nostalgia born, but this is more than just nostalgia.  It is an attempt to hold two experiences intact, but their collision creates an excess of each, a calling forth of references and relations, so that one memory cascades from another.  In the midst of a Midwestern thunderstorm, I remember the floods on the River Wye, and all my days walking next to it, and all the farms and people on its banks.

It is feeling to which I turn in this preamble because feeling will play out in the remaining parts of this work frequently, and it is this deeply-felt connection to a unity of people and place which characterized both my fieldwork experience and my own evolving sense of the ways I uniquely and personally experience my world.  The reflexive turn in ethnography has allowed us to re-examine the personal lenses and biases which colour our own attempts to construct objective scientific study, and further has also allowed us to imagine and engage in critically emergent study – research in which we come to recognize our biases and the interesting questions they present in the course of our work.  Such research rejects the simple objective positivism of deductive reasoning, where a hypothesis is generated and then tested through a pre-conceived and vetted methodology.  Positivism has its uses and its place, but emergent and reflexive research suggests a series of discoveries about the types of questions we have asked, as well as the data generated by them.  This preamble of feeling then, is a first discovery, that my reactions to places are rooted essentially in deeply emotional connections to people in their places, connections that are experienced in a present-time rich and dense in the sensual perceptions which give texture to the social relationships enacted in the landscape.

Though these are my own personal tendencies, they are also windows into particular kinds of questions about social and cultural landscapes, perhaps questions which my proclivities can give particular insight into.  As academics, too often we forget to mention not only how our personal histories, biases, and experiences influence our research, but also our personal talents. It is as if our scholarly talents are a given, separate from our personal lives, a set of intellectual exercises refined by our scholarly disciplines.  Reflexive scholarship could increase its potential to enrich academic life by helping to inform students and professors alike not only of their intellectual, cultural, and political biases, but also how their personalities and talents contribute unique approaches to the questions we consider.  This would seem self-evident, and yet methodology does not usually require us to ask how we approach and process our experiences in highly personal ways dependent not only on unique social and cultural experiences, but on temperament, talent, and character.


So what is the quality of feeling and affect on our experience of places and landscapes?  The following chapters will attempt to tease out a few strands of thought relating to the causes and consequences of feelings related to the landscape.  Feeling, emotion, and affect continue to be difficult subjects to attend to in scholarly study.  David Matless, in his essay “Doing the English Village, 1945-1990: An Essay on Imaginative Geography” organizes his argument around the importance of attending to beliefs, myths, feelings, and impressions related to place:

This essay, by contrast, critically embraces the many imagined realities of the English village – its sentiments, its fantasies, its dreams, even its sugar-sweet pond ducks – as things real, powerful, political and moral; things serious and of importance in the culture of the country.  Its purpose in doing so is in part to establish a complexity in the discourse of the rural. (Matless 1994, 8-9)

Writing against what he calls the “rhetoric of reality”, Matless foregrounds the imaginary construction of the landscape, including the affective and emotional aspects of the imagination, as real entities, no less important or powerful than the realities of poverty or isolation with which some sociological studies (useful and important in their own right) have dried to debunk the myth of the rural idyll.

So I walk through the vineyard, tying up vines, pruning, shaping the growth of the place, feeling the sun, the heat, the electric thunder and the enjoying the chatter that we toss to each other across the vines like so many clusters of grapes. And loving this place, I try to conjur up an orchard in England, in the valley of the Wye, and I try to unlock the feeling, the imagination of a place where the orchard pressed out cider and laughter too, where the river floods, and a glass is never empty for long.