Annie Lord’s ‘The Neighbouring Orchard’ has expanded the idea of what an orchard can be, writes self-proclaimed apple dork William Arnold.
I recently started a new teaching role. This is mostly good news as I had wanted a job at this institution for years. It has not however been all plain sailing and of course the old ‘grass is always greener…’ adage sprung to mind as I at first spent little time on teaching or planning and an awful lot of time navigating my way through an unfamiliar institution’s bewildering array of bureaucratic channels and dysfunctional IT systems. While I know that this sort of stuff is par for the course to some extent in a new job, there was definitely a day at the end of ‘week two’ when being bounced back between timetabling, room booking and computer services for the umpteenth log-in fail bug report that I truly wondered whether the comfortable lack of progression and lower pay scales of the last job might have been worth sticking with!
What does this all have to do with apples, or Annie Lord’s fine Neighbouring Orchard project?
Well, tucked away in a quieter part of the state-of-the-art purpose-built campus is a Victorian walled garden, a relic from the country estate around which the modern university is built. It is a verdant and peaceful oasis of echiums, dahlias and banana plants, neatly tended beds, a student allotment, a dye garden for the fashion department and one restored old glass house. All in all, an enviable place to eat a packed lunch but the centre piece is the orchard of bountiful, yet mostly geriatric apple trees festooned with moss, lichens and common polypody fern. You can help yourself to the apples and I will. An eco-student society holds a juicing day some time in ‘week four’.
There are many cidery windfalls turning to vinegary mulch but many of the mid and later season regional varieties — planted mostly pre-war I am told — glow against a deep blue sky and I give myself a bit of a stomach-ache sampling each one, for I am a fully committed apple dork and believe wholeheartedly in the apple tree’s restorative powers, as evidently does Annie Lord.
I am heartened that with higher education such a brutal numbers game these days, the university sees the value in maintaining this difficult to quantify, I’d say priceless asset. I am sticking around.
With few exceptions, owing to the extraordinary diversity of Malus domestica some sort of apple can be grown almost anywhere in the British Isles, and since the launch of Apple Day by Common Ground in 1990 (a ‘celebration and a demonstration of the variety we are in danger of losing, not simply in apples, but in the richness and diversity of landscape, ecology and culture too’) community orchards have been planted nationwide. All the while traditional commercial orcharding continues a decline.
The benefit to the lives and happiness of the people who participate in the picking, pressing, pruning and wassails is hard to measure, and the benefit to biodiversity of a well-established orchard is huge. Overall, however, these much-loved community spaces would not consider themselves an ‘art project’ and I wouldn’t be writing a review of a beautifully produced accompanying paperback.
So, what makes Annie Lord’s Neighbouring Orchard in Edinburgh special?
It is an unusual piece of participatory artwork and sits in that rare category of project that has ended up much stronger for the upending of original plans occurring due to the heavy limitations of working during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and has genuinely created a new community, in a decentralised yet potentially very durable form.
The genesis of the project was worthy enough — artist embarks on a residency researching the dusty archives for pomiferous clues to the agricultural past of a now heavily industrialised region — lists of archaic names and horticultural practices, echoes in the contemporary street signs and housing estates.
Good people are found doing interesting things preserving this heritage in a community orchard and plans are made for another where the work can be continued. Then the drip feed of the news of early 2020, exponential curves, no more coughing in public and lockdown. Game over.
This is where a spark of inspiration leads the orchard to branch out in altogether more interesting directions.
‘The original concept — one orchard in one place — was no longer viable. Instead the Neighbouring Orchard would span 6 miles of suburban Edinburgh from east to west. Individual growers would each plant a tree in a public facing place: gardens visible from the street, patches of land reclaimed by the community, play parks, doctor’s surgeries and more, all close enough to be linked together by pollinators.’ – Annie Lord
An initial 110 trees are handed out at a masked meeting at the local allotments and the growers take over. Impressively, all but two of the trees survive the first year and are on the way to future harvest.
Throughout the book we meet the growers and hear their stories — reflections on childhood memories and reflections on growing on coastal land amidst climate anxiety and a rising sea level. Meanwhile Annie writes knowledgeably and poetically about apple cultivation, the history and geography of the places where the trees will grow, setting the scene for the orchard’s diverse sprawl.
A particularly thoughtful section linking the orchard’s trees, though not by root and branch, imagines the passage of a honeybee that may visit any of the orchard’s trees but will also pass by the city’s existing garden trees and feral specimens unencumbered by the restrictions on human passage of that year.
Apples nearly always need a second and sometimes third pollinator to set fruit yet will often do so a surprising distance from the nearest kin.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Annie and well photographed by Ellie J McMaster. It is typical at this point of a review to offer up some critique and while I could nit-pick a little some of the typographic choices, this is all-in a fine document.
Community orchards are all valuable spaces, but this project has expanded the idea of what an orchard can be and has woven a particularly fine web of individual narratives, pasts and futures.
Read an extract from ‘The Neighbouring Orchard’ here.