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My friend Janet asked me what I thought about having a poet-in-residence at the Pear Necessities orchards in Kent. Janet will say more about her experience being a poet at the orchard, herself. I’m going to talk about what it’s been like as a food grower to involve a poet. At Pear Necessities, we grow certified organic pears, apples and plums. We sell the fruit through Growing Communities farmers’ market, and Growing Communities and Local Greens veg box schemes.
I love poetry and it has helped me out at many difficult times in my life. Mary Oliver is my go-to poet for most occasions, though Rumi gets a look-in too. When Janet approached me, it felt like an exciting development for our work in Kent. We were at a time of transition with Pear Necessities, we four owners deciding whether and how to go forward as a partnership. Janet suggested that poetry, rooted in the place that is our orchard, might offer a new perspective.
Orchard stewardship connects me strongly with the seasons; dormancy and growth dependent on warmth and light. Trees that grow food seem to be the best of all worlds, locking up carbon in their wood as they grow, yet providing us with the beautiful blossom time and that most delicious of edibles – fruit. Keeping a tree alive and flourishing involves less work than growing vegetables or animal husbandry – pruning and mulching are the key maintenance tasks once the trees are planted and growing. We aim for a balance between creating the best possible conditions for fruit crops while also caring for the land and the more-than-human life it supports.
We often invite people to the orchard in Kent, to get involved with the work. People say they love coming, and there are a group of regular volunteers who are up for braving mud, wind and rain as well as enjoying the Summer’s milder conditions. That’s how Janet first came to know the orchard, volunteering to pick pears on a sunny September weekend. Last year was aparricularly poor harvest, only a fraction of what we usually get. In her poem, The Poor Harvest, she reflects on the words we use to value what is offered by the trees:
…How rich and resourced we might be
if harvest could conform itself to need.
My hope is that the people who take part build up an understanding of the relationship that food has with the earth and living beings. My further hope is that we can help visitors grow that connection by joining us for regular tending and attention-giving – the nourishment that all relationships need.
Janet has spent more than a year coming to the orchard, attending workdays, spending the night occasionally, and has produced a body of poems about our orchard, its visitors, and place that surrounds us, the High Weald of Kent. Her commitment to joining in with the seasonal tasks and her keen eye for the detail of the plants and insects that are part of our orchard community, shine out through her poems. I particularly love the one inspired by poplar catkins that starts:
There’s a point towards the end of winter
when green starts to look a little crazy
like carpet in a bathroom, luxury
Over the year, she’s led writing exercises and informal workshops, helping we owners and our visitors, create our own poetry. We hope to do more of this in the future.
Hosting Janet as our poet in residence has given us a unique collection of creative work that reflects what is essential about our orchard. The poems belong to Janet, but the fact that she has immersed herself in our small piece of this incredible world and shared her response to it is a gift to be treasured.
You can read some of her poems here.
One sunny morning, mid-pandemic, I was mulling over a perennial question – what’s the point of being a poet? I asked Tash what she thought of a poet-in-residence at the orchard; at her warm and enthusiastic response, I rolled my sleeves up ready for the task.
According to poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Poetry is life distilled. In poetry, all that we wonder at and think about can be made visible and something to share. It seemed that, at the orchard, poetry had the potential to untangle thoughts and impressions and lay them out in the light.
It also helps that an orchard is an easy metaphor – it represents the cycle of the year in a way we can relate to. It makes sense to have poetry involved because you can compress so much into a poem where you can look for an essence, some detail that isn't in the everyday narrative. It gives us a moment of pause, to think differently and get closer to what we find so hard to define.
In September 2020, I began by reflecting on the space and the countryside generally. Whatever we see, there’s always more and it would be my job to read the ‘hieroglyphs of bark’ around us. One of the first poems I wrote started with a huge and lovely Black Poplar tree standing in one corner of the orchard. I had read that many female poplars have been dug up because they shed that fluff you sometimes see drifting in circles, messing up the grass. In ‘A Picture Perfect Day,’ I was thinking about how the countryside has been modelled as a rural idyll, without mess, without people working, a place where nature behaves itself. I concluded that
truth lies somewhere in the shade
a reminder of the part that dark has played.
We’re living at a time when we’re often disconnected from each other and the world around us. In some of the poems, I’m looking at how being there gives opportunities for connection with ‘nature’ and each other. In others, I’m reflecting on what I have learnt about the politics of food production and the changes that are needed to make us all understand the realities of where our food comes from.
When I have asked other visitors for their thoughts on being at the orchard, it’s been about how they feel in a natural environment and how they contrast that to their real or everyday life. Working on a task like planting or pruning, brings these parts of their life closer. It mends a break in the connection.
I have loved working there, letting my mind drift listening to people chat, birds getting on with their stuff, the sounds of industry that eventually brings us fruit, an iconic, essential part of the food chain. I’ve loved learning how to do some of that work (with support from the experts there!) and enjoyed the poems that have emerged. I’ve also loved having time to notice – something also lost in the disconnect. The opportunity to stare at mushrooms in their various stages of exuberance and decline is worth all the muddy boots and wet feet in the world. In ‘Sometimes’, in which I reflect that ‘nothing rhymes in the countryside’, the poem ends with
But sometimes after days of rain and thunder
when everything’s been jostled clean,
the trees all seem to sing in perfect verse
words that fall like leaves, blossom, fruit
all in surprising, wondrous order.