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Archive for February 28th, 2005

The Orchardmen (part 1)

It was the summer of 1972. I had just turned 19. I had
dropped out of a large midwestern university the previous spring to hitch-hike
around the country with my old travelling partner, Crazy Steve, who had just returned from a long trip, thumbing around Europe and North Africa. To give an idea of where I was in
those days, consider our two main destinations that summer: Earth Peoples’ Park
in northern Vermont, a sort of gypsy camp in the woods, too anarchic
to be considered a commune, and the first Rainbow Gathering in Strawberry Lake,
Colorado, a “gathering of the Tribes,” as they called it, an annual encampment
of every variety of countercultural subsect, a custom that continues to this
day.

I had set out with high hopes, a naive romanticism, as well
as a certain shadow: my draft lottery number was five.

Five.

That meant certain conscription after my nineteenth birthday
in July. I had no intention of fighting in a war I had long and ardently
opposed, but was not clear about whether I would choose exile in Canada or life
underground in the States. I granted, with Thoreau, that the State had a right
to imprison me for my civil disobedience, but as a skinny kid with
long blonde curls, I did not grant it the right to sentence me to almost
inevitable rape. So jail was not an option.

I had recently ended my involvement with leftist politics,
an involvement which had evolved from pacifism in early adolescence to a more
revolutionary attitude after I had been radicalized by the shootings at Kent
State.

I remember the exact moment of my disillusionment: I was at
an antiwar demonstration in DC when I spotted a contingent of doctrinaire
Marxists—Trotskyites, if I recall—marching behind their leader, who was
shouting chants into a megaphone, chants they would repeat in unison.

“TWO FOUR SIX EIGHT!”  (“two four six eight!”)

“REVOLUTION WILL SMASH THE STATE!” (”revolution … etc”)

As they got closer I got a good look at the leader, a little
steely-eyed, goateed man with wire-rimmed glasses. There was a fire in those
eyes, the cold fire of pure hatred. It hit me like a slap in the face: if this
guy came to power he would make Nixon look like a flower child.

I purged myself before he got the chance.

So in my travels that summer I was post-political but
pre-spiritual. I suppose I was in the first stirrings of a vague psychedelic
pantheism when I ventured off into the maelstrom that the counterculture had
become by 1972.

The summer was a disaster; the open road was now populated
by an assortment of speed freaks, petty thieves, junkies, burnouts and the
like. I sensed evil all around me, as well as in my own body, as I had
contracted salmonella, a nasty and sometimes fatal intestinal disease, drinking
from a stream in Vermont. I would seem to recover, travel some more, and suffer
a relapse. In the end I made my way home, having lost some thirty pounds off my
already thin frame, weak and disoriented, full of despair.

My folks, shocked at my appearance, took me in and got me to
a doctor. I slowly recovered and put the weight back on that I had lost. By
summer’s end I was sufficiently recovered to pass my preinduction physical. My
parents were hinting that it was time to get a job, and I was wanting to
get stronger. I thought I could do worse than finding work in one of the local
orchards, picking apples through the fall.

It was, after all, familiar work. I had picked fruit several
autumns in high school in the orchards that at that time dotted the hills south
of my small southeast Michigan town. They are mostly gone now, replaced by
suburban housing developments with streets named “Apple Blossom Way” and
“Orchard Hill Court” and the like. But at that time the orchards were still a
thriving part of the local economy and the orchardmen lived out their days to
the turning of the seasons, to the rhythm of blossom, fruit, harvest and
pruning, the cultivation of life-giving trees.

The care of trees is really a direct descendant of the
primal human vocation, if you think of it. Wasn’t Eden more orchard than
garden, in the description of Genesis?

And so I found a job working at Hilltop Orchards, just out
of town.

(to be continued)

Daniel Nichols

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