This article was originally published in Issue 7 of Malus. Copyright 2019 Melissa Madden. For a print version, please subscribe!
On the Beauty of edible wildness:
prologue and introduction
by Melissa Madden
I want to take you to a place. It is not on a map; it is not a farm. It is a blurry boundary between wildness and cultivation, neglect and intention. Here live feral flavors. Here live the stories of the humans who came before and how they left or were driven from this place. These tales are written in Fall’s fruit.
To visit this place requires a bumpy drive and a hike, and a certain dedication and a high clearance vehicle. The road washes away with each heavy rain, and today it is bumpy with relics of past construction–a concrete chunk four feet long sticks vertically six inches up into the road. When I can’t find a truck to borrow, I hump my pack in.
Today, in mid Fall, a golden light filters down through the trees. All over the Finger Lakes there is harvest–grapes, apples, fall vegetable crops, hay, grains. My partners and I carve out time for a visit after work as often as we can. The days get rapidly shorter, and we hike bathed in the wistful sunsets of Fall–goldenrod yellow, pale orange, brilliant rose, deep purple, light gray. Tired and sore as we may be–from this, from other work–we are buoyed by the restful energy of this place. The work of wild gathering is an act of love, and we are energized.
At the end of the marginal road, old fences mark the fields. We clamber through the barbed wires wrapped around the old fence posts, through the “gates.” These makeshift openings are for the use of seasonal grazers from May to November each year. There are cows in these fields, but they stay back as we enter and rewrap the tangled wire behind us.
This place is called a “multiuse” space, a place for hikers and enthusiasts, hunters, biologists, cows, and equestrians. Nominally, the land is national forest, accessible to all, but it is leased for use to grazers who send their cows to graze the woods and fields in the warm and shoulder months. Later in the Fall, the hunters arrive. Today we take our turn, dipping in and out with backpacks and tarps.
Once through the fence, the view is broad. The long view reminds me of the Southwest, my first home. Unlike so much of the Northeast, this place is more savanna than forest, large swaths open for grazing with clusters of trees scattered here and there and long hedgerows marking dividing lines. These are the places we seek, where we find unmanaged bounty at certain points throughout the year.
Now, in Fall, apples and pears adorn the trees. Each season varies, some trees are bare and some are loaded with fruit. Which tree does what alternates annually. This year many of the trees lost their leaves early, an onset of a complex of fungal and bacterial diseases including Marssonia that affect cultivated and wild orchards alike. At this late seasonal hour, the fruit and trees can use a bit more time in the sun, with leaves converting light to sugar. The roots need their winter stores and the fruit, at least for my purposes, needs more time and energy to fulfill ripening. My concern for the orchard is partially wrapped up in my desire to interact with its bounty and press it into something beautiful and expressive.
For myself and my harvest partners, Fall is a mix of scouting fruit ripeness and orchard health. The cows are everywhere and as we shake the ready trees they circle around us to receive the drops. Nursing mothers, little steers and rambunctious heifers, they each contest us for the apples we’ve come to collect. Harvest is a point of tension between defensive action and gathering. We collect apples from the ground in a traditional approach to cider apple collection, although we shake the trees instead of waiting patiently for the fruit to drop from the weight of its own ripeness. The cows leave us no choice; it is us and our project versus them and their gobbling. We try to wait for our harvest until the fruit is balanced on its own edge of readiness, where the starches are converted to sugars but just before each tree releases its reproductive task for the year and sends the bounty to the waiting ground. We scout, we measure fruit sugars with our refractometer, we tarp, we shake, we haul. And so Fall goes along.
As Winter comes, the cows go home. They do so only after the fruit has dropped all to the ground, and the game is up. The space becomes quiet. The large paddocks are brown long before frost from a mix of mowing, grazing and long developed seed heads on certain grasses. The trees lose all leaves and the occasional conifers–cedar, pine–stand out among the hedgerows along the back end of each paddock. Once the time for bounty passes so does the haste and this becomes a peaceful place of more general inquiry.
Late Fall and Winter see hunters eagerly crossing the land in groups driving deer. There are homes scattered about the corners of this area gridded by roads and as the days become more quiet, the sounds of living become more audible. Cars roar on nearby roads, dogs bark, and the louder human discussions drift over the fields. Into the groves, no one comes. The question of possession between cows and ourselves is temporarily settled, and we dominate. Under the trees–leaf full or bare–the air is close. The sky is obscured by the busy branches crisscrossing eight feet above our heads. These are old standard trees, grown to their fullest potential as determined by their rootstocks. I believe most of these are not seedling trees grown up from a successful seed, at least not in the dense groves. Over time and through much work with neighbors and the local Historical Society, I expect to learn who planted these groves, and when, and perhaps even why. These old, strong trees stand twisted, each trunk self-supporting with branches starting four feet off the ground. To climb these requires attention to the many dead branches and split trunks, but most are infinitely climbable and sturdy. These apples and pears are real trees, now untended.
In Spring, bloom comes in scattered form. Some trees bear fruit heavily in one year and offer no blossoms the next, a deep set biennial habit particular to apple trees. Very young fruit, usually in June, will send a hormonal signal to the tree about the current fruit load, and if heavy enough the tree will be fallow the following year. To walk these groves during bloom is to witness and accept this pattern.
And then comes Summer. A rush towards harvest, heat shining off of the diked ponds where cows wallow and water. This year there were lush leaves on all trees until mid-August, and then with the onset of the bacterial and fungal disease, half the foliage dropped. A visit in July versus August in 2019 was an abrupt change in scenery; most apples had yet to color up to the reds and blushed red streaks of Fall. The groves’ color palette went from a lush green to the deeper grays of lichened, aged branches missing their leaves. The canopy with its sunlight and cleansing wind stayed foliated, the approach to the groves was a study in a vertical line of gray to brilliant, photosynthesizing green.
And so turn the seasons here. There is much that is the same, the annual nuances are where my love lies. Next season, how will these trees accommodate for the early defoliation of 2019? Which trees will bear in abundance in 2020? Whom might I encounter in the course of my own foraging? Because this is a public space, my own hopes for it are wrapped in faith and patience–unlike my farm, this place is not mine to control.
I write about this place I love as an introduction. Please walk with me here and take the next steps. We’ll investigate why alcohol does and does not perfectly express the abundance of this place. We’ll present our research on levers of territory and possession, and dispossession and displacement throughout history on this landscape. We’ll talk about personhood for human and nonhuman dwellers of this space. We’ll explore wildness and cultivation, and where humans fit in. It’s an opportunity to make the case for free access and true mixed use of public lands. It is a chance to discuss land reparations and how we make them. And through it all, it is a chance to revel in a space available to us all, full of bounty. Each visit for me is one of increasing joy and gratitude for my access to such a place.
I am engaging this place as subject matter beyond imbibables. The National Forest is our Commons. It has layers of history–a home to the Seneca and Cayuga Nations, site of Revolutionary War land grants, subject to deforestation, home of small industry and the rise of the wine region. Rich with meaning, it suggests questions.
This is the first in an ongoing series of articles exploring topics such as land rights and access, food sovereignty, cultivated vs feral crops, and systems ecology and interconnectedness through the lens of the GAYOGOH´O:NO´ lands in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.
Melissa Madden lives in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State on Seneca and Cayuga Nation land. She has owned, farmed and run the Good Life Farm/Kite & String Cider/Finger Lakes Cider House for the past 12 years. She is now a roving small farm consultant, wild-forraged cider maker, and advocate of regenerative agriculture. Find her on Instagram @fromcidertohere.