I felt true sadness this morning when I saw a notice in the local paper about the death of Dwight Miller, Jr., a veritable icon in the northern world of fruits and vegetables. When I lived closer to Miller’s orchard in Dummerston, Vermont, I used to go there to pick apples in the fall or even later, as he had a cold apple warehouse and up until the very dead of winter, you could go and buy a bag of crisp Macs or Macouns, which was always worth the trip up his long dirt road. I sometimes did that on my lunch hour, as I worked at a print shop nearby.
Apparently, yesterday, Mr. Miller was trimming grass at the edge of his driveway when his truck rolled backward and pinned him there, killing him. According to the paper, he was 84. I remember him as a cheerful man who was known as a consummate orchardist and sometimes called the “Peach King” of Vermont. His orchards were organic and the oldest of his trees, which stretched out across acres and acres of hilly terrain, were planted in the 19th century. All this on land his forebears kept as a dairy farm. It was Miller’s father who planted the trees on the rolling Vermont hills and Miller himself who kept them.
I don’t know any further details about this tragic accident but it does seem ironic, to say the least that sometime around lunch, this man who has worked outdoors all his life, and to whom a pickup truck is an invaluable tool and friend, should be struck down by same. Sudden and final.
I also realized, as I was reading this notice that yesterday at about the same time, I was out picking peaches in another orchard, one further north in the same river valley. I have not gone to pick at an orchard in years. The orchard where I was picking is new, by Miller’s standards, and created not only to be a farm but also a destination, where people can come and pick and events can be staged. The peaches were ripe when we arrived and a big green John Deere tractor hitched to the wagon of an old fire truck carried several of us with our baskets to where the trees were loaded with ripe peaches.
As we approached, the fragrance of peaches overtook us and stayed with us while we picked. The ground was littered with the big, juicy fruits, hazardous as banana peels beneath our feet as we eagerly moved around the trees, testing each fruit for their ripeness and readiness to be picked. Understandably, these beautiful pink and orange creations are the symbol for the state of Georgia but, in recent years, they have become more reliable up here in the north country.
As a diversion, I will say that I have never had a lot of luck with fruit trees. By that I mean that I have lived in various places where I always plant apples or peaches and the trees do well, but then I move, usually before there is a harvest of the fruits for which we wait so long anyway. This year, I went to buy a peach tree. I was looking for a Reliance Peach, which is the variety that does well in this harsh zone. But the plantsman I visited had only Elbertas, which I had never heard of. “Are you sure it will do OK in this zone,” I asked. “Well,” he replied, “Elbertas didn’t used to be hardy enough for our climate here but they have tested these and they’ve changed the zones now. That’s global warming for you.”
So I took a chance and brought it home and planted it where the old barn once stood. It joined two Macoun trees in the space that was left by the old structure. So, anyway, with this fledgling tree behind my house, I have not yet experienced this peach bounty which was all around us yesterday. While we picked, we talked about other orchards, the good old ones, and I thought about Miller’s orchard which used to be the only orchard I ever went to. I remember especially those trips there in near-winter, when Mr. Miller would be in the cold warehouse, ready to take my money for the bag of apples I had selected.
I know they shipped a lot of apples out of the back of that big bunker so that sale was quite literally small potatoes, small apples, but he never made it seem like that. It had been years since I’d been there but I’ve often returned there in my mind’s eye, remembering it as a place of great tranquility and gentility, a place that inevitably connected me with an earlier time, a simpler time.
An orchard, like a garden, is a movingly quiet place where the product slowly emerges and presents itself, as soundlessly as the clouds moving overhead. When we finished picking, we waited somewhat impatiently for the funky tractor transport to retrieve us. Our baskets were heavy and it was a long way back to the shop where they would weigh out what we had picked. The warm air around us was filled with the winey fragrance of the ripe peaches and those that had fermented on the ground around us. Tired of waiting, we flagged down a passing pick-up truck and rode on the tailgate back to our cars.
When we got there, beautifully dressed people of all ages were flowing toward a crest on one hill, evidently on their way to attend a wedding to be held in the middle of the orchard. The main house was crowded with tables, dressed in white, set for the feast. Several tractors with wagons were giving the guests rides to the wedding site. I thought at the moment that this was how orchards had evolved, a way they have found to survive.
Perhaps this is what was behind Dwight Miller’s father’s long ago decision to turn their dairy farm into an orchard. I know that many orchards in Washington state, one of the main providers of fruit in this country since the beginning of trade, have been knocked down, quite literally by the overwhelming competition from Chile, now the source of the great majority of the fruits we buy in our supermarkets. I’m glad to know that finally the idea of “buying local” had made inroads into this somewhat insane practice of shipping fruit from such a distant place rather than supporting what we are able to grow here. But the verve for local certainly is not strong enough to reverse this global trend.
Many orchardists in Washington state have cut down their fruit trees and burned them, reincarnating the land into vineyards and educating themselves to become vintners. This has apparently been quite successful for some but others have simply sold their land for development, the simple solution for any farmer who needs to find an income.
So perhaps this is the answer here in New England: host weddings under the boughs. I somehow felt sure they brought in more money from that event than they did from the scattering of us who came that day to pick or to buy a bag of apples from the stand. Of course, I have no idea. It is just something I pondered yesterday while lugging my fragrant basket of peaches to the scales and feeling incredibly lucky to be able to harvest something so delectable on such a lovely day as it was, blue skies and warm sunshine. And came home smelling like a peach.
It just seems odd now to think that at that very same time, Dwight Miller’s long and productive life was coming to an end in his orchard, where all his trees were gratefully bearing the fruits of the labors of his lifetime, spent right there in that very place. And two people, up on a rise above where we had parked, were tying the knot in a grove of apple trees, heavy with this year’s harvest. That is the kind of amazing confluence that life sometimes offers, as well as the opportunity for reflection, if we can find the connections.