Monday, November 4, 2013

Build an orchard, build community

Last spring, my husband and I decided to build an orchard at our newly-purchased home.
We could have put it in the back, but I proposed installing the orchard in the front. One of my goals was to make the orchard a focal point for the block, and a learning opportunity about growing perennial food, alternatives to grass lawns and to build community. One way to accomplish my goal was to include our neighbors in building it and harvesting from it.
Just about a year ago, I walked door to door introducing myself to everyone on my block. I apologized for the giant piles of dirt, wood chips and hay bales spilling into the sidewalk. I explained that we were about to install an orchard for everyone on the block to enjoy. And finally, I invited people to stop by to watch, and pitch in, if they wanted.
On installation day, 25 people from many circles of my life showed up, including five neighbors. In four hours, we moved seven tons of compost, spread 25 bales of hay and planted eight fruit trees.
It was, by all accounts, wildly successful.

More than a month later, another remarkable event happened. My neighbor, we’ll call her Gloria, walked by while I was in the front yard. She’s on a fixed income and has a hard time getting around and immediately apologized for not being able to help plant trees. I told her she was participating by enjoying it. Then she lifted a small pack of flowers out of her walker’s basket, saying she found them on clearance at a local nursery. I accepted them them as precious gems, and thanked her for the beautiful gift.
The flowers were, however, just the start of what she had to offer. She told me that she’d lived on the block for years, and had never quite felt like she belonged. “But since you did this,” pointing at the orchard, “and invited people to participate, I feel like everyone is so much nicer and like I belong here.”
Her words stunned me.
I asked myself, “Did the block really change that much?” Or had Gloria’s perspective changed? Then I realized it didn’t matter what changed. Somehow, eight fruit trees in my front yard helped Gloria feel like she belonged. 
Turns out, I didn’t build an orchard, I started to build a community.
Watch the four-hour orchard installation in six chaotic minutes.

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