It’s a feeling we often get when we visit orchards but it’s particularly visceral in the autumn, when we’re harvesting the generous quantities of fruit that Mother Nature delivers. And we know it’s Mother Nature that is responsible because we only use unsprayed fruit, by which we mean trees and fruit that haven’t been inundated with chemical fertilisers or inflicted with any insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, herbicide or any other -cide one can think of. It’s not the boffins at pharmaceutical firms or the high-tech wizardry of modern agricultural equipment that is responsible for what we harvest; it’s nature. And the feeling we’re talking about isn’t sophisticated in any way, it’s very simple; just a sense of wonder. Wonder that the combination of leaf and root and soil and sunshine and rain and wind and chlorophyll delivers several hundredweight** of fruit every year, year in, year out, with little or nothing given by way of help from us. Just wonder … and gratitude.
Perhaps perry pears engender most wonder. In spring, it’s the all-encompassing blossom on these magnificent, stately trees, visible from miles around. In autumn, it’s the sheer volume of fruit. It’s said that an oak tree spends 300 years growing, 300 years resting and 300 years declining gracefully and whilst not of the same antiquity, perry pears are the oak trees of the fruit-growing world; a hundred years growing, a hundred years producing and a hundred years declining gracefully. There are perry pears where we harvest five hundredweight of fruit and leave the same quantity on the tree. That’s half a tonne of fruit, each and every year for at least a hundred years; more than 50 tonnes of fruit in its lifetime. And what have we done? Almost nothing. Someone who came before us planted a seed or a sapling 300 years ago and then nature took its course. We’re grateful to that forebear and we’re grateful to nature (and it may be, of course, that the tree is a gribble, it may be a feral tree, it may have seeded itself, in which case that forebear is in receipt of unearned gratitude).
Our rôle? Almost - but not entirely - nothing. At some stage, 300 years ago, someone looked after that young tree. Someone made sure the sheep or cattle or deer didn’t eat it. Someone cleared the weeds and grass and ensured it wasn’t choked to an early death. Someone, somewhere along the time-line, made sure it wasn’t ploughed into the ground or grubbed up to make way for an homogenous field of wheat (with or without a former Prime Minister running through it). Someone may even have pruned it. It may not be much, and perhaps the equation is a bit lopsided, but that intervention, small and irregular and haphazard though it may have been, was an adequate sufficiency of effort to deliver 300 years of life and 50 tonnes of perry pears. So, thank you forebears.
One plants trees not for oneself but for the next generation. Planting an orchard is a commitment to the land in the way that planting a crop of wheat or cabbage or kale isn’t. It might be a bit of an effort to begin with - planting, guarding, weeding, pruning - but with just a bit of a longer lens the rewards far outweigh the work; reward in fruit, reward in the gratitude of future generations, reward in the emerging sight and sound of birds and bugs and bees and wildflowers. We’re not etymologists and we’re not philosophers, but when gathering fruit from traditional orchards it’s impossible not to notice the plethora of insects, on the fruit, in the trees, down one’s back and in one’s hair (cue, “what hair?” from members of the family). All there, because someone planted an orchard.
It is what it is. It’s a phrase we often use in the autumn, because whatever the crop, bounteous or thin, beautiful or scabby, it is what it is. It’s a phrase that engenders a certain calmness. It’s an acceptance of what nature is offering. It avoids a sense of disappointment … and it isn’t fatalistic. There are reasons why nature serves us what she does - climate, weather, geography, aspect, gradient, luck - but she also responds to what we do … or don’t do. Keep the grass and weeds more or less under control, keep the tree in good shape, let light and air into the canopy and we’ll be rewarded, more often than not, with copious quantities of good-sized, well-formed, healthy fruit. No need for chemical intervention, just a bit of effort and nature will generally take care of the rest. Neglect the orchard and in due course one will be rewarded with smaller, scabbier, cankerous fruit. A mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship? Or a parasitic relationship? It’s up to us. It is what it is.
Given that both bushel and peck are old measures of volume (a bushel being equivalent to 8 gallons and there being 4 pecks to a bushel), it’s perhaps appropriate for us to refer to this old imperial measurement. A hundredweight is 112 lbs (pounds, for those not familiar with imperial nomenclature) or 8 stone, there being 14 lbs in a stone. A hundredweight is abbreviated as cwt. Twenty cwt is - or was - one imperial ton, making one ton 2,240 lbs.
Typically, the USA had to do things differently. Over there, a hundredweight is just 100 lbs, so their ton - still made up of 20 cwt - weighs just 2,000 lbs. This cwt is referred to as a “short hundredweight” in the USA and a “cental hundredweight” in the imperial system; the bigger British cwt is called a “long hundredweight” in the US, and is just called a “hundredweight” in the UK (or “imperial hundredweight”, more formally).
So, a hundredweight / long hundredweight is equivalent to 50.8 kgs. That’s two full sacks of apples, the quantity we could get from a good crop on a small tree, that we can handpick easily. We’d hope to gather 2 cwt from a large tree, that might require us to get out a ladder and our panking poles. A very large tree with large apples, perhaps a mature Newton Wonder or Bramley on M25 rootstock, may even yield 3 cwt. And, of course, a 200 year old perry pear will deliver us 4 or 5 cwt, each and every year, which really is a thing of wonder.
And in the unlikely event you've read this far, thank you!