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.