Please consider contributing to a permaculture demonstration orchard at the Leelanau Conservancy-owned DeYoung Farm property. Thank you kindly!
Since childhood, there has never been a day that I wanted anything more than to work with the land. Inspired in part from the magic of a childhood spent looking into long rows of cherry trees, where space seemed to disappear in the distance, swallowed whole by the vastness of the orchard. The bright red cherries looked like sparkling candy mid-July and the airplanes that flew overhead, dropped clouds that fell gently, and whined their way past the vanishing point of the horizon. I would wait and listen for the revving of engines as the planes banked out of site for a return swoop.
I knew nothing of the practice of farming; only the art.
In high school, I worked on farms and in college, lived in a beautiful farmhouse atop a hill dotted with cherry trees, apples, pears, peaches. Tractors wound their way through the straight, even rows, chugging those familiar billowing clouds peacock-fanned-tail-style. My knowledge of the pesticides made me weary of standing too near, though I looked on still in reflection of my youth.
It was about that time that someone asked, “What is your idea of paradise like?”
I didn’t hesitate, “An orchard. The culmination of nature and human c0-inspired thing of beauty.”
Not long after, I began working on an organic farm just a few miles down the road. It was the first in a series of experiences that would lead me to discover a new way of farming. A method more in line with not only with my own philosophy, but one interwoven into the very fabric of ecology.
I went on to study biodynamics, and discovered permaculture nearly by accident, when my mentor suggested we plant a small orchard atop a knoll on her property. A thoughtful seed was planted.
By this time, I had begun to experiment with farming practices in my own backyard, a property not much over an acre. The soil had once supported an apple orchard, and lines were still drawn in the soil from years of tilling. Only a few trees remained.
It was 2004. Studies were emerging supporting a correlation between ag practices and the increased incidence in lymphomas in farming families. I was working for a share of food each week, and following the story in the local papers about a young woman running for Cherry Queen while battling diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
When this brave young woman died in January of 2005, I began researching the link between lymphomas and the use of organochlorines and organophosphates on cherry orchards in Peninsula Township, Grand Traverse Co. Michigan. In September, 2006, I was diagnosed with aggressive form of the cancer.
During that time I struggled with how to move forward. The mother to three young children, my life had been turned upsidedown. The way forward no longer seemed as clear as it once had. Or perhaps for the first time, I was examining life with enormous clarity.
A thought had sprouted in my imagination – a vision of the orchard as a living being, a healing place. The thought was what moved me through those dark, dark hours contemplating the outcome of the treatments. I needed to find a way to heal the old orchards. To bring about change, I couldn’t sit around and hope someone else would do it; I needed to be the change.
Healing Tree was born. A small-acreage experiment in growing fruit trees without the use of biocides. It has transitioned through some significant life changes. And today is taking root at the Conservancy-owned DeYoung property.
But the path was not so obvious. And the source of inspiration? Well, that was something quite out of the ordinary…
Traverse City resident and urban farmer, Jill Kiteley, is telling people to “Eat at MANA’s” – that’s because her delicious heirloom varieties are now being used at the restaurant to make their heirloom BLTs this week, served with chips and a pickle.
Kiteley, who established her urban farm, Dream Acres on a third of an acre earlier this spring, is a great example of how local urban farmers can succeed in local markets.
Kiteley’s tomatoes are also being used in various dishes at the Towne Plaza Cafe downtown, and Kiteley hopes to broaden to other markets, including those without a profit-center.
The woman who now calls herself the “tomato peddler” opened her property to a neighbor in need of space for a small garden, and believes the best way to preserve a way of life that encourages local farms, requires a willingness to share knowledge and reach out to others.
Kudos to Traverse City’s tomato peddler who set out to start her own business, trading her lawn for food, and who serves as a fine example for others in the community interested in establishing their own back-yard farms.
To reach Jill and schedule a visit of Dream Acres Urban Farm, please call (231) 651-0340
I must find a man who still loves the soil
Walk by his side unseen, pour in his mind
What I loved when I lived until he builds
Sows, reaps, and covers these hill pastures here
With sheep and cattle, mows the meadowland
Grafts the old orchard again, makes it bear again
Knowing that we are lost if the land does not yield.
-Jeanne Robert Foster
Up an old farm road, some ways out of town, there’s a place that grows ideas. It’s a little unconventional (thankfully), and as the woman who owns the property has always said, “If you make it up the hill, you were meant to arrive.”
I could drive it, and sometimes I do, but mostly I prefer to park at the base of the hill and trace the two-track up through the still of the forest. A few days ago made the trek on foot and met up with a deer, all the while contemplating the juxtaposition between the system and game that is played in surviving via a new set of rules, versus the simplicity of rules laid out by nature. How one system deprives us of purpose, while the other feeds it to us in abundance.
The hill is my transition in and out. A time for me to process what I have learned, or while ascending, consider all that I have learned that has lead to my return. This farm is where I got my start in permaculture. It’s the place where I was given information, shown how to grow food, how to build soil, how to live and think outside of the melancholy of the free-market system.
A biodynamic farm. What happens here is dynamic, from how we build thematrix of the food web from that which we eat, to that which eats what we eat, to the larger picture of how we relate to the plants, each other, our place within this universe. This is where I first heard the universe described as “one voice, one song.”
And that word “dynamic” – I love how it feels to say it. How it opens my throat like a yawn. How intrinsic a vocal movement meets definition is this word, dynamic.
We have been asked here to help an old friend restore her vineyard, planted 25 years earlier on a bluff over the bay. The vines are still bearing, though many other plants have joined them and there is much to learn about the ever-increasing intricacies of this now self-regulating ecosystem.
And in returning, we are visiting the ghosts of our past. Walking past echos of ideas still standing. Thoughts pending. Heartbeats rendered through the undulating landscape where milkweed, vetch, and valerian have replaced annuals in the fertile soil. This is a living memory. And to think I felt sadness when I first looked upon it! When it has so thoughtfully produced in our absence! Lifted the roof off the greenhouse, and blanketed the orchard in a cloak of yarrow and gentle green grasses.
We have been charged with more than the responsibility of salvaging a vineyard for harvest.
That is too one-dimensional and careless a thought. We have been shown a path that will lead to wisdom gleaned from the harvest or from the goal of harvest. And what better way to begin, than to learn about a vine? A vine that is so careful to root itself in depth and breadth before reaching out to others for support.
We will not be saving a vineyard; we will be saving ourselves.
I awoke with a start, imagining for a moment what it would be like if we went to the grocery store for something as simple as bread only to discover the shelves emptied of all supplies and food. Suddenly our small acreage feels that much smaller and though deer do roam downtown, the unlucky four would become overnight a highly prized source of protein.
Our varied seed choices are great, but honestly, we have the luxury of experimenting, of failure, or starting over. What if we depended on every square inch of our garden as those just a few generations back did?
The crop I love to hate, Jerusalem artichoke, so easy to grow, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of, and a great source of iron and carbohydrates. It’s also very appealing, and may be harvested from the ground until the ground freezes.
Jerusalem artichoke is neither from Jerusalem, nor is it an artichoke. It’s in the sunflower family and stores sugars in large, edible tubers that taste like potatoes, and are prepared very much the same way.
What about protein? I’ve never killed an animal and prepared it for food, and many haven’t – it’s a skill also abandoned in favor of the convenience offered by grocery chains. Most grains require acreage and those without will benefit from amaranth, an herb that is entirely edible (the leaves may be prepared as you would prepare spinach), with seeds that make an excellent substitute for protein-rich quinoa or rice.
There are a few varieties of amaranth. Giant amaranth may supply a family with up to 10 pounds of seed off of as many plants. The grains are high in calcium, iron, potassium, zinc and vitamins B and D and may be eaten, popped or ground into flour for bread.
Alongside Jerusalem artichoke, it’s a very attractive plant, so your neighbors, prior to any apocalypse, will still like you, despite having traded your lawn for food.
Other great storage crops should also be considered including potatoes, onions, peas and beans, squash, pumpkins, etc. along with berries and fruit crops will help sustain the hungry family in times of need.
I grew up in a sturdy four square house nestled in the middle of a cherry orchard that spanned every horizon. The only tall trees I knew as a child were the two lone maples that framed the face of the house. Their canopies provided the shade that was my summer fort, where I could gaze into the hallowed depths of those infinite rows.
On the occasion, beautiful children wove their way between trees, while their parents worked, speaking in a language that was foreign and magical, picking cherries, and dropping them into buckets. How I longed to run amongst those children, but so foreign were they, I do believe, I thought them imagined.
Though I wasn’t supposed to wander from the yard, the dwarf trees ripe with red, sparkling cherries, standing in neat, tidy rows, were an irresistible attraction to my four-year-old curiosity. I ran down the rows until I could only barely make out the broad arches of the maple trees, and then back home again.
In May, the planes would come, dipping low from their perch in the sky, blanketing the orchards in a fine mist. On these days, my mother would lift me from where I played in the yard, and take me back into the house. From the front window, I watched the planes disappear over the horizon, listening to their motors rev and whine as they looped and lifted for a return pass. The air tasted strange, but the sight gripped at me and held me to the window.
My mother wandered the house, closing windows and cursing the men in the planes.
Later, before the cancer had settled into my blood, whenever someone asked me my idea of heaven, I explained to them the tidy lines of trees; my idea of heaven was the farm. What a perfect place; the natural pallet painted by the hands of humans and machines. It was the beginning of a life-long love of farming. There has never been a period of time when, like most of us who live in the greater Grand Traverse region, I have not in some way been connected with a farm.
At 26, I saw a photograph of a young woman in the newspaper. She was battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood while running for Cherry Queen. Something in her smile radiated out from the page. I sat with her photo for some time. Behind her, cherry blossoms clouded their branches. There, the neat rows beckoned.
Later that winter, I learned that the young woman had died. I ran a query for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer about which I knew nothing. Lauren had died of diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of the cancer, dubbed “the pesticide cancer” for its prevalence among agricultural families.
Before long, I was knee-deep in research into the links between the increased incidence of NHL and the use of organochlorines and -phosphates on cherry orchards. I studied DEQ maps of water samples taken in Peninsula Township, where Lauren had grown up, spoke with the Old Mission school that neighbors an active orchard, where the branches of trees overlap the playground, questioned residents, learned of the prevalence of NHL and leukemia among families living on or near the orchards, and suddenly the sweetness of those beautiful, perfect orchards had soured.
Two years later, at 28, with three young children, I began having dreams that I was dying. In each dream, I was on a ship in the Straits of Mackinac. In the dreams, my girls stood on the deck reaching out for me, but I was leaving them. My heart ached as I turned each time and walked into the light afforded by sun filtering through spray forming off the bow.
In a final dream, I looked down upon a body resting in a bed on the second story of a house. The house didn’t have any walls and large, fierce animals were trying to get at the body to eat it. The body was naked, and an intense light emanated from the right armpit. The light was so bright, you couldn’t look directly at it. I fought off the animals, to protect the body, and awoke shaken and crying. That morning, July 19th, 2006, while in the shower, I discovered a large lump within my right armpit. The lump felt dense and smooth and it sickened me to feel it.
In September, I was diagnosed with diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, the same cancer that had killed Lauren. My treatments began immediately.
Fighting cancer involves the poisoning of the body to destroy the cancer, while managing the extreme side-effects in a simultaneous battle to keep the body alive. Over the winter, I began chemotherapy combined with immunotherapy. I met with my darkest fears about dying. I accepted it might happen, but chose instead to focus on my babies. By the time farmers were gearing up to spray their orchards, I was completing my radiation treatments, and feeling a renewed commitment to farming.
In 2007, we established Healing Tree Farm in response to concerns over the use of chemicals on our food-supply. So began an adventure in farming using the principles of permaculture, a method of farming that mimics natural forest succession, in urban and country settings. Since then, we’ve helped build school gardens, began the first permaculture courses taught at NMC, and have held free workshops to educate and inspire people to question the system and make changes according to the lesson book nature has provided.
Today, divorce has uprooted the farm, but seeds have been planted in three different counties, and we will never stop helping others achieve their goals of growing food without chemicals. This year, Healing Tree hopes to locate land to plant an orchard. This orchard we hope will represent the future of growing methods, using innovative thinking, rather than relying on biocides to solve problems, and growing food that is truly healthful, not only to those who eat what the land provides, but for those who work the soil and live nearby.
It is our hope to heal the old orchards, to restore magic to a place I have loved for as long as I can remember. This is what is meant by our name Healing Tree. In teaching, we are healing, and in healing, we hope to inspire.
In the last year, we’ve picked up and moved to Charlotte. And while in Charlotte, from a studio apartment to a larger space and then from there, back home again. I was emailing back and forth with a number of permaculturalists this morning regarding artwork permissions for the Healing Tree website, when a few of them wished me well in our new space. This got me thinking, it isn’t over yet. Our current space which provides for a large garden area, is also temporary. The benefit here is that we may revisit the work we begin here since the property will remain in the family. We’re still an uprooted family. And in this economy, we’re not alone.
So, what can you do if you’re forest garden plans have been uprooted?
Firstly, stay involved. Participate in an online forum, write a book, speak at your library or local school, talk with others about those things that motivated you to begin this work. Secondly, consider a public piece of land or a family member’s land. Often people are more than eager to allow you to work your magic on the landscape. Forest gardens are beautiful, functional and add value to a space. Thirdly, take this time to read up on those areas of permaculture that interest you most. Think about all those books you’ve been saving for a rainy day; open ‘em up and start a refresher course for one.
This is the best time to learn to grow and forage for yourself and your community. Stay in tune with the process and notice the positive change taking place all around you.
Blessings and balance, Samantha
I’ve been brainstorming ideas to make this blog more effective and I’ve decided to build a website around topics discussed on the blog while maintaining the blog as a central forum for discussion and ideas. The website will offer resources to folks new to permaculture and also those more familiar with the “do no harm” approach to farming, including helpful links and articles written by me and those more familiar with the process.
Since we’re landless, we’ll be propagating a new kind of garden – with vital seeds of change – online!
We were exploring the outskirts of Charlotte the other day when we stopped at a little toy-store off Sharon-Amity Rd. Behind the toy-store we discovered a great art-supply store and a little shop that captured my attention. The shop, “Ten Thousand Villages”, offers the work of artisan groups having paid them fair-trade wages. Most of the employees are volunteers and were well-educated on the materials used to create these mostly practical works of art. All products are made using sustainable methods, which added to the general appeal of the place and the prices were very reasonable.
I was so excited to find a store like this that I began telling the man at the counter all about Traverse City and our wonderful fair-trade/sustainability-minded community when a woman standing nearby said, “I’m from Traverse City, too!” Talk about like-mindedness!
The girls and I planted our bulbs around a maple we planted when we first moved here. I’m eager for spring to see the beautiful tall flowers come up, if we’re still here.
I didn’t realize how attached I am to this project. It’s really stressing me out to think someone might come in and completely disregard all we’ve done here. The guilds dot the landscape and without their trees, they likely won’t make sense to most conventional thinkers. Or maybe that’s where I’m falling short – in my faith in other humans to appreciate this land, no matter how small, as a part of something larger. If they can appreciate Grandmother Maple, they can learn to appreciate the fertile ground beneath each guild.