About a year ago we took our 16 year old dog to a country cabin near Bellingham, Washington. It was a rare sunny mid winter weekend and our cabin overlooked a beautiful mountain range. Soaking in the sunshine, the vibes were so relaxing, even the dog look naps in the van which was very rare since she had suffered from anxiety with her Canine Dementia.
At the time we were seriously considering moving and finding a place where we could "Dig In" to a small community and really be a part of something small. We liked the idea of settling in where there was a juxtaposition of city and countryside, which Bellingham seemed to offer.
But I don’t think we were ready to dig in but we knew we needed to further explore the concept.
Several months later, I was speaking to a colleague about place and community. He was from Vermont and talked about how the hilly landscape created tight little pockets of community. We had already purchased our Airstream and I shared with him my theory that NOT being part of a community can allow me to experience people more fully. As he was quite content with his long lived tiny villages, he disagreed with me, but I tried to explain my thoughts on the comfort of strangers and the aggregation of several different groups of passing friends to span a life.
Being anonymous has its advantages. On this journey I have found myself talking to the checkers at the grocery store more, asking questions of random people around the street, sitting at the bar and talking to strangers. I find without a place I am listening and not just asking for help just to move myself along. Being without a place to call home frees my daily burden. And I am not lost without it.
A friend let us stay in his apple orchard in Watsonville this past week. He is the fourth (or possibly fifth) generation of apple growers in this very small community. Talk about digging in. His dad is even one of the members of a nearby Cemetery board. Their family grows a decent variety of apples, mostly Pippin, and some of the trees are over 100 years old which I thought was impossible. Turns out apple trees are a lot like us humans when they get old, they suffer a lot to make the fruit, but the fruit has a much better story, or so goes the consensus of some of the local cider makers. We pulled our Airstream right in the middle of a sleeping orchard at our friend’s place.
Watsonville is a working countryside with most every inch of fertile soil planted with apples and berries, and through the years the ratios have changed. And growing techniques have also adapted to the survival instinct of the farmer (and in most cases corporation). Strawberries that were once red on the inside and juicy to bite into are now grown for transit and size to maximize picking efficiency. It is exceedingly clear that there is a delicate balance between the small family farm and large corporations both adapting to squeeze money off of the land.
The drought in California has had a major impact on farming techniques. When there are large periods of low rainfall, the soil gets compacted and some farmers will till the soil in between the trees which will allow more moisture into the soil, but the razor sharp machines also cut back the roots of the trees, leaving them fingerless and struggling without their ability to pull up nutrients. Of course, with this year’s record rainfall, and the nearby dams and reservoirs that are overflowing with water, this next year will be different.
Per acre, berries make more money than apples, and so it may seem that the apple people don’t really like the berry people. Makes sense because everyone is competing for an ever shrinking work force. And if Trump has his way with the mass deportation of immigrant workforce, the valley will soon empty out and the ripe fruit will drop to the ground and rot.
We took a tour of the nearby Corralitos Brewery which is housed in a former apple storage barn built by our friend’s family years ago. The passion and work ethic of the brewers and growers is very evident, and with a full house, it is clear that the people in the town appreciate their hard work as well. The pride in the bounty of fruits and vegetables in the area is also evident, especially since the brewery has launched a series of beers infused with local crops, something beer purists might balk against, but something the local community celebrates.
Inspired by the tour, we spend the next day pressing apples into cider that were holed up in cold storage from their fall harvest. One case of apples produces about one gallon of cider and we pressed about 6 gallons total with various blends to get the best qualities out of each variety of apple. It was a lot of hard work, washing the apples in cold water, chopping them in the wheel, pressing them with a large stick, wheeling our spent apples out into the orchard in a large rusty wheelbarrow, but at the end of the day we looked back to a beautiful jug of brown cloudy sweet juice, that would soon tell the story not only of the land, but also the people and the day we spent.
Everybody in Watsonville knows everybody, since most of the people have lived there for multiple generations. You can sit back and watch the gossip spread simply by planting a row of crab apples (which is viewed as the wrong thing to do) and waiting for the story to get back to you. With so many generations living in one small valley, the community secretly craves innovation and you better believe they are going to talk about it. In the truest sense of the word, this is juicy gossip. (I couldn’t resist!)
My friend’s parents exemplify all that is (or was) good and honest in America. It is the sort of honesty that comes from passion and persistence. They met in high school and have been married ever since, living in the same house for their entire married life. Their home, with it’s several now empty rooms, overlooks one of their orchards. Meals are cooked from scratch and tablecloths are dropped on tables even at lunch time, home baked cookies are in jars, and of course applesauce made from apples on the farm, is served at breakfast. They are always ready to entertain, and do not even blink when offering to set an extra place for a surprise dinner guest. It’s just the sort of hospitality that is built into the thread of many generations digging in to the same soil, year after year. We are very thankful.