Last week, T and I stopped to get some fruit from what we thought was a wild crabapple overhanging the road. As we were picking, we looked up and realized that we were on the edge of an old orchard. Several varieties of apple trees towered over us, some as tall as pines. The apples stretched back into what is now forest and thick brush, but judging by the new-growth tulip poplars, must have once been a clearing, possibly with a homestead.
I’ve been surprised to see a number of these abandoned homesteads and farms in the region. Some of them are only recently neglected, with slightly out of date building styles and barns in need of painting. Others were obviously deserted many decades ago, homes and outbuildings tilting precariously off the mountainside or disappearing under mounds of kudzu. Sometimes these are just old shacks or log cabins, but some are classic, well-built two story farmhouses, now beyond repair or restoration, with gorgeous wrap around porches and shuttered second story windows. Sheds, barns and silos rot and sink into the earth. Pastures are overgrown, or even reclaimed by new forest. Occasionally there is a rusty but occupied trailer home on the same plot, but often the land has clearly not been touched by the family or owner in many years.
In the New Mexico desert, such abandoned homesteads, farms, and ghost towns are common in the arid, open landscape. There, the dry climate slows both the decomposition process and creeping vegetation. These sites always seemed beautiful and romantic to me. Though I was aware that there must be a sad story behind the ruins, it seemed like ancient history to me, and that story was part of the fascination. I reasoned that it was folly for a farmer to have thought those conditions could support a life.
These Appalachian ghost farms have given me a different perspective. Perhaps it is because they are so unexpected here, in such fertile, verdant land. Ghost towns were something I thought unique to the American southwest. But that seems awfully obtuse, especially when I think back on the specter of blighted and boarded up city blocks in my former home of Baltimore; nineteenth century row houses with gorgeous masonry and carpentry, empty and rotting, haunted by gangs and the homeless. And of course, small towns across America (and I’m sure this is not exclusively American) are perched on the edge of ghost-townness as industry and manufacturing are exported to other countries.
Perhaps I am moved by these desolate farms because we are currently dreaming of our own homestead. Right now, a little piece of land to make our own seems just out of reach, and yet homes and land seem to stand tauntingly vacant and unproductive all around us.
Fortunately, somebody already thought of this, and is trying to do something about it; a resource that we may end up using ourselves.
Meanwhile, we’ve got a fridge full of apples, both from the abandoned orchard and a generous neighbor. We’ve been having a blast trying to find ways to use them, including apple coleslaw, variations on apple pie, and, thanks to my fearless mom who ventured into canning for the first time with me, apple butter. That was an experience that deserves its own post, which will be coming soon.