Urban Orchards as “positive graffiti”


Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

Photo by John Hancox, of the Commonwealth Orchard Project.

I wanted to share this very interesting piece about the community growing movement in Scotland, which has been working to hand neglected urban lands over to local residents and empower them to turn it into orchards and gardens.  One of the leaders of this movement is John Hancox, whose group the Commonwealth Orchard Project is providing resources and training to help local volunteers plant and maintain community orchards. The author of this piece, Max J. Muir, is arguing that this new interest in community orchards and gardens is one hopeful sign in an era when citizens are increasingly disengaged from electoral politics.  Here’s an excerpt:

Community orchards arise when disused public and private land is turned over to fruit growing and planned and maintained by the local community. Hancox is keen to stress that the significance of Scottish community growing lies mainly in its political dimensions, rather than its environmental ones. What matters is that local people are actively involved in shaping their surroundings, not that they’re shortening the food supply chain and eschewing pesticides. It is a low-cost, low-maintenance way of involving people in productive enterprise, putting Scotland’s vast reserves of vacant land into use.

“Positive graffiti” is Hancox’s term for it: when people are able to materially alter their environment through their own efforts, rather than relying on governmental institutions to impose a specific conception of what the public space ought to look like. It’s this inclusivity and empowerment that makes community controlled spaces different from those designed and laid out by the council, or allotment plots. Though individual allotments do typically provide creative fulfilment to those fortunate enough to have the use of one, that reward is essentially private. Community agriculture brooks a radically different notion of shared space – as an environment open to the exercise of direct and consensus-based control over its design and purpose.

Interest in this form of political engagement is growing- Hancox estimates that there are over 500 community orchards now operating in schools and on disused plots of public and private land in Scotland, plus tens of larger community farms in ForresFairlieAngusGlasgow and elsewhere, as well as intermittently active groups more overtly aimed at challenging traditional property rights – such as the Glasgow Guerilla Gardeners. Nor is this trend rooted only in agriculture: Scotland’s Hacklabs – “community-operated physical spaces where people with common interests can meet, socialise and collaborate”- in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Findhorn offer skill-sharing opportunities and community use of costly tools and machinery, thereby democratising access to high technology and education.

I love this term “positive graffiti,” to describe one way people materially improve their environments, even when at times it involves challenging or ignoring ideas about “private property,” which might otherwise restrict their opportunities to take an active role in making their own communities more liveable spaces. I am also intrigued by the parallels between Scotland’s urban orchards, some on privately-owned but neglected urban spaces and John “Appleseed” Chapman’s efforts to establish apple tree nurseries on the lands of absentee land speculators on the American trans-appalachian frontier. To some extent, both present modest challenges to the status quo at moment when property law was a barrier to building strong, healthy communities.

I urge you to read the entire article, and to check out the Commonwealth Orchard Project’s blog. Scotland’s COP is another example of the ways that the simple act of planting fruit trees is helping to create a healthier, more democratic world.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.

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Wildflowers or Apples? Can’t We Have Both?


city fruit logoA recent Op-Ed in the New York Times castigated advocates of urban gardening as “greedy,” and “short-sighted,” arguing that the recent trend of planting orchards and edible plants in cities is a threat to wildflowers and the pollinators who depend upon them.  Mariellé Anzelone is the Executive Director of NYC Wildflower Week, and she seems to think that urban orchardists, rather than asphalt parking lots, concrete freeways, and contaminated brownfields, are the real threats to native pollinators.  In advancing this argument, Ms. Anzelone relies heavily on an old nativist trope, describing most fruit trees as “imported,” and thus, we are to conclude, bad and environmentally harmful.  Yes, it is true that peach, pear  and apple trees–and some plum varieties–have only been in North America for four to five hundred years, as has the European honey bee, one of the primary pollinators of these trees. “Most commercial fruit trees, and food crops for that matter, hail from other ports of call,” Ms. Anzelone reminds us, and declares that “A monoculture of exotic imports offers little nourishment for our wild neighbors” as a specific variety of fruit trees will only be in bloom for a short time each year.

philly orchard project 2 colorThe problem with Ms. Anzelone’s argument that urban orchards and food forests are “monocultures” is that it doesn’t much resemble reality, and she could learn a great deal by visiting these sites and speaking with their volunteers. Organizations like the Philadelphia Orchard Project aren’t exactly planting acres of “monoculture.”  These modest-sized orchards typically incorporate a variety of fruit and nut trees and berry bushes, with each variety blossoming at different times, thereby offering pollinators an extended feeding period.  The Boston Tree Party’s “urban, decentralized orchard” is really just pairs of apple trees dispersed throughout the city. Seattle’s new Beacon Food Forest, currently just 1.5 acres with aspirations to grow to a total of 7 acres, explodes with edible plant diversity.  In fact, most urban orchards contain gardens of other flowering plants as well.

portland fruit logoAdvocates of urban orchards and gardens and the champions of wildflowers are in fact natural allies, not enemies.  Both are deeply interested in the health of pollinator communities. Urban orchard organizations are staffed primarily with committed volunteers, and are not profit-driven affairs, seeking to maximize short-term production without regard to long term environmental health and sustainability.  The kinds of people involved in them share the same values and perspectives that most champions of wildflowers do.

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Is this urban orchard in Philly a threat to native insect pollinators?

Instead of declaring groups like the Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, Seattle’s City Fruit, the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and Los Angeles’ Fallen Fruit collective to be the enemy, organizations like NYC Wildflower Week should be reaching out to them as potentially valuable allies. Certainly urban orchardists are open to learning about and adopting new methods for making their plantings more pollinator friendly, and given the modest size and dispersion of these orchards, it is much easier to make them pollinator friendly than it is to do the same to large scale rural commercial orchards which cover vast tracts of ground. Planting wildflower verges around urban gardens and orchards, and sowing clover or wildflowers in the midst of an orchard are some simple and practical ways of providing food for pollinators over a longer season. And I simply can’t imagine advocates of urban orchards actively working to replace urban wildflower lands with “exotic monocultures.” I would urge NYC Wildflower Week to reconsider their campaign against urban orchard, and instead to reach out to groups like Fruit TreesNY, who I am sure would be eager to work cooperatively to make the city a greener, more pollinator-friendly place.

William Kerrigan is the Cole Professor of American History at Muskingum University, and the author of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, which tells the story of the old world apple in America, from its arrival half a millenium ago to the present.

Apples in Porcelain


 

Drap d’or gueneme, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

Drap d’or gueneme, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

In 2009 and again in 2011, artist Jessica Rath visited the Cornell/USDA Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva New York, one of the most important centers of apple cultivation in North America. The result is a startling exhibition of porcelain pieces inspired by what she saw there.  Over at Edible Geography, you will find this wonderful interview Nicola Twilley conducted with Rath about the idea for her exhibition, the process, and the results.  As Twilley explains:

“Rath’s original goal was to create slip cast porcelain sculptures that embodied the incredible — and now endangered — range of the apple’s aesthetic potential; revealing the charms and qualities it has developed through co-evolution with humans as a reflection of our own desires and will. During her visit, however, Rath also became fascinated by the conjoined twin of Forsline’s apple archive: Brown’s speculative sisters and successful, selected clones, which she photographed as bare-branched trees against a white backdrop.”

Entitled take me to the apple breeder, the show is closing at the Pasadena Museum of California Art this weekend. Let’s hope it tours to other locations.  Twilley’s edited interview is available on Edible Geography and cross-posted on Venue, and is well worth reading.  I have included of few of Rath’s Geneva station photographs, and the porcelain pieces inspired by them below.

PI 588933.12 (unnamed cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

PI 588933.12 (unnamed cluster); photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

PI 588933.12 (Unnamed cluster), Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain and bronze, 2012.

PI 588933.12 (Unnamed cluster), Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain and bronze, 2012.

PI 594107.j5 (unnnamed—whiteness), photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

PI 594107.j5 (unnnamed—whiteness), photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit.

Whiteness, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

Whiteness, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012.

A Yellow Bellflower photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit. The Yellow Bellflower is thought to have originated in Burlington, New Jersey, and is still grown as an heirloom variety today. It is described as a “large, handsome, winter apple” that is equally delicious when used for cidering, baking, or eating out of hand.

A Yellow Bellflower photographed on the tree by Jessica Rath during her 2009 visit. The Yellow Bellflower is thought to have originated in Burlington, New Jersey, and is still grown as an heirloom variety today. It is described as a “large, handsome, winter apple” that is equally delicious when used for cidering, baking, or eating out of hand.

 

Yellow Bellflower, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. Rath explained that she focused on the Bellflower’s “fantastic curves and lilts. It was very muscular — even beefy — to the point where it felt almost as though it shouldn’t be called an apple, but rather some other fruit instead.”

Yellow Bellflower, Jessica Rath, high-fire glazed porcelain, 2012. Rath explained that she focused on the Bellflower’s “fantastic curves and lilts. It was very muscular — even beefy — to the point where it felt almost as though it shouldn’t be called an apple, but rather some other fruit instead.”

 

 

 

Old Southern Apples


Review of Old Southern Apples

arkansasblack

The Arkansas Black. A real alligator horse of an apple.

The Arkansas Black is a real alligator horse of an apple.  Bite into one fresh off the tree, and it will bite right back.  To describe its flesh as “firm” doesn’t adequately describe the fight in this apple.  Its deep red blush makes it perhaps the most beautiful apple God ever created.  And its rebel persistence serves it well.  In early March, when those grocery store apples pulled from their winter sleep  in a nitrogen-infused, controlled atmosphere storage facility taste bland and mealy, an Arkansas Black plucked from the cellar is a delight to eat, its sharp acidity and rocky firmness having mellowed with age.

Many Americans associate the peach with the South, and the apple with the North.  But the South has a long and proud tradition of producing distinctive apple varieties.  No man has done more to preserve the southern apple tradition than Creighton Lee Calhoun, who has spent decades crossing southern hill country seeking out the last specimens of old local varieties.

201102_11_Old-Southern-Apples

Old Southern Apples, by Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr.

The result of those efforts is his encyclopedic work Old Southern Apples.  First published in 1996, the book quickly sold out, and used copies fetched upwards of $200 on the secondary market before  Calhoun published a revised and expanded edition  in 2011.    The book begins with a nice history of the apple in the South, and is followed by a section on Southern varieties that are still available, and finally a section of extinct varieties.  In the middle of this handsome book are 123 beautifully reproduced full color plates from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, housed in the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. Old Southern Apples was an indispensable reference guide for me while researching Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard.  Anyone interested in apples, not just southerners, will find it chock full of valuable information, as many of the apples listed were also grown in other regions of the country.  It is also a delightful book to browse, and each return visit to the book rewards the reader with fascinating new information about Rusty Coats, Pippins, Limbertwigs, and other forgotten delights from the golden age of the American apple.  Peruse it with a local apple in your hand.  Just be careful to keep the juice from dripping on the beautiful watercolor plates.

For more about Calhoun, you can check out this three part youtube interview with the author:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three