The world we live in is vastly different from the one that most of us grew up in. It’s faster, more connected, and ultimately in danger of losing incredible amounts of information and ability. That last sentence seems at odds with the potential of the internet, a vast library virtually spanning the globe, bringing nearly every book, every article, every paper and message board written to your fingertips with just a few keystrokes, but it’s true. How much skill, how much information, how much ability is written not in ink but in ability, stored not in bookshelves or digital files, but in muscle memory and practice? How much is in danger of being lost as Time and the Grave claim our oldest and richest repositories of the Library of Experience?
Enter Eliza Greenman. I had the good fortune and extreme pleasure to hear her speak a few weeks ago, when she spent the day with the Backyard Fruit Growers in Lancaster PA. Who are the Backyard Fruit Growers? Well, they’re people who grow fruit in their backyards. They share skills and tips, scion wood for grafting and cuttings for rooting, seeds and ideas. In short, they maintain a Library of Experience of their own, sharing and conserving information on a subject they are passionate about: growing good, healthy fruit and preserving rare and antique varieties of fruit.
Back to Ms. Greenman. She refers to herself as a ‘perennial millennial,’ and has decided to return to the land, two generations after her family left it. She recalls her mother coming home from work, rubbing tired feet and complaining about how much they hurt, a memory that led her to decide she’d never follow a career that required that kind of footwear. Forestry requires a very different kind of gear, and for that reason, among others, she chose to become a forester.
Working in a ‘white, older male dominated profession’ and lacking a desire to make paper, Eliza turned her attention to food producing trees. She found herself living on an island in Maine, surrounded by hundreds of neglected apple trees, and did what any sensible young person probably wouldn’t think of doing — she learned how to prune one.
One thing led to another, and after pruning nearly every tree on that island in her free time, panicking over surely having killed them all, and seeing them bounce back stronger than before, she found she had lit a passion for organic, safe, sustainable apples. Since then, she’s apprenticed with several ‘grumpy old men’ who tried their level best to discourage her, renovated — and lost more than a few abandoned orchards, and discovered the incredibly deep rabbit hole of antique apples and pears. She actively seeks lost varieties, with help from search engines, a phenomenon she calls ‘The Quaker Trail’ and the opening line “I’ve got an incredible story to tell you!” Eliza has tracked down several candidates for lost varieties of fruit, including one that may possibly be Vermont Beauty pear. She won’t say that it is Vermont Beauty, but it does fit the description found in Pears of New York, it’s growing on the property of the person who developed it, and the tree she found is old enough to be that tree. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s probably not a chicken.
Along the way, she decided she wanted to visit the cradle of the apple and the pear, so she saved up her money — and visited Kyrgyzstan. There, she discovered managed food forests of apple and walnut trees grazed by cattle, wild forests of pears, hawthorn and sea buck thorn, and brought back a few thousand seeds, hoping to find more disease resistant fruit.
Back home, she has taken on the challenge of ‘selling ugly apples.’ “If you want affordable organic local apples, you need to be willing to eat ugly apples.” Golden Harvey is a perfect example, looking more like a tennis ball left in a storm drain for a few decades than a wonderfully complex and sweet taste treat, so heavily russeted it appears scaly. How do you sell an apple like that? In a word, cider. Cider makers are only interested in juice, and beauty is only skin-deep, with apples and with so many other things in life.
The demand for hard cider apples is so great; cider makers have been buying up all the second-grade fancy stock apples they can find. That does make good cider, but for great cider, you need cider varieties, more tannic, less acidic, and more well rounded than the Galas, Honeycrisps, and Red Delicious apples of the produce section. Which leads us back to Eliza’s fruit exploration. She regularly tracks down abandoned orchards, not just for potential renovation, but hunting for escapes. Some spectacular cider apples are the chance-pollinated offspring of orchard apples and wild crabs. They may not be much to look at, but they’re magic in the bottle, and in the glass.
Eliza’s biggest challenge has been finding a place to call her own. As a millennial, she struggles with a lack of land and a lack of startup capital, so she has on different occasions struck up ‘tenancy’ agreements with landowners to manage their old orchards. Tenant farming a vegetable patch from year to year is one thing, but an orchard is a commitment. Landlords don’t always hold the same emotional investment to the trees that Eliza does, and each one has eventually fallen through.
How do you move an orchard? There is a tree, located in an undisclosed location in Southwestern Virginia, grafted to 400 different varieties of apples. The landlord decided he wanted to plant squash in Eliza’s nursery field, and refused to consider any other plot. In a desperate bid for time, she top worked this one tree into a pomological ark to keep those varieties alive for the time being.
What is Eliza doing now? At the moment, she is caretaking an orchard in Loudon County, Virginia, managed with a small herd of American Guinea Hogs. She writes about her exploits online at Eliza Apples. She is also an associate of The Greenhorns, a group of ambitious young farmers in New York, working to reconnect with the land and help preserve the Library of Experience for future generations.