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Apples & History: a Q & A with Leila Philip

Rural Intelligence Arts
It’s not the usual reading and book-signing: Instead of taking place at a bookstore or library, it is being held in a restaurant; instead of a glass of white wine, there will be a complimentary apple tasting, courtesy of Philip Orchards, and guests will have the option of buying a dish of homemade apple crisp. The book, A Family Place by Leila Philip, is not a cookbook.  It is about the author’s family and the “gentleman’s farm” near Claverack where she and her ancestors from the Philip and Van Ness families have lived since 1732.  The reading is a benefit for the Columbia County Historical Society.   

After her father’s death in 1992, Leila Philip, a writer and professor of creative writing, her mother, and her siblings faced the imminent loss of the Philip Orchards, their 125-acre estate. In an effort to save the farm and the family home, a sprawling Federal-period mansion called Talavera, Leila took an unpaid leave from her job and set out with her mother to chart a future for their commercial fruit orchard. After fifteen generations of Philip and Van Ness men, it would be up to these two determined women to hold off the twin threats of bankruptcy and urban sprawl. Returning to Talavera led Leila on an unexpected journey into the past. Stumbling upon family letters, belongings, and secrets, she discovered a family history that was inextricably woven into three centuries of U.S. history. In A Family Place, Leila Philip brings to life the people and events that shaped her family and Talavera. 
Local 111
111 Main Street, Philmont, NY
Apple crisp, $6
 
As a preview of Saturday’s event, Leila Philip took time out from her busy teaching-and-farming schedule to talk about her book with Rural Intelligence‘s Marilyn Bethany:
 
RI: Years of researching three centuries of family history started as a quest to learn about the heyday of Talavera, “when the family was rich and the farm prosperous.”  What did you discover?
 
LP: That is a great question and in many ways it gets to the heart of the book and one of its main themes. I was looking for one thing but found another, and of course, after the initial disappointment of not finding what I was seeking, I would discover that what I found was much more interesting and rich in meaning than what I had been looking for. In A Family Place, I am telling a classic journey narrative—which since Odysseus set sail for Ithaca, has been about a search for home that leads to a search for self along the way.
 
In my case, I had grown up in the Hudson Valley with the knowledge that my family was strongly connected to the early history here. I mean, there were all these portraits on the walls, swords and other military memorabelia, the black social register in the library, the house, the land—things that conveyed a past era of great wealth, privilege and social status. And there was wealth and certainly great privilege of all kinds, but it was not the almost mythic wealth of the early Hudson Valley Aristocracy. Every family has myths about themselves, a kind of folklore, stories that define who they believe they are. My family was no different but the stories we had were those of the historic Hudson Valley and an era when a certain social class of people, the so-called Hudson Valley Aristocracy—families like the Livingstons who began as manor lords—held a position of great social, economic and political power.  Basically the English repeated a kind of feudal system in the Hudson Valley with manor lords on one end and tenants on the other. We hadn’t been tenants so I assumed we were of the manor lord class.
 
And In the 1800’s, my father’s family had married into the Livingston family so there was a kind of touch at a certain point with that social class, but really my family’s story was not that of glamorous wealth, it was an earlier tale of Dutch arrival and settlement and a lot of it entailed a pretty unglamorous story of hard work and farming and then through education (and a good marriage here and there helped) an ability to rise. In other words, as land-owning Dutch, the Van Ness family represented the beginnings of the middle class in America. If you think about it, that was a profound thing and just as interesting and complex as the story of the elite.  What is closer to our hearts as a nation than the possibility of bettering ourselves; it is after all, the heartbeat, however flawed and at times under assault, of the American dream.
 
So, after my initial shock—I mean, where was the money?—I realized I was sitting on this incredible story, one that was much more interesting really than the story of how a wealthy privileged family lost that wealth.  The story of the Van Ness and Philip families, because they were not protected by great wealth, reflected the vagaries of history, economy and war—basically all the invisible forces that have the most impact.  As I said in the book, Van Ness sons could rise, but they could also fall. That kind of instability is the fate of the middle class. We sure have seen that in the last year of financial upheaval. So at first, while I as disappointed by the lack of great wealth in our mythic past, it became more and more interesting to track how in each generation Van Ness sons and daughters and then later Philip sons and daughters struggled to hang onto the land in Claverack, which as early as 1858 was felt to be “the homestead.”  After all, the farm had been founded in 1732 and the the Van Ness family had been here since about 1650.
 
RI: Your mother gave herself 5 years.  Within that time frame, she not only kept the farm going but brought it to new heights of success and acclaim, winning the blue ribbon at the County Fair. That 5-year mark passed 17 years ago.  At 84, she’s still going strong, and doing better than ever, partly through her own prescience in taking up the IPM method of insect control instead of relying solely on toxic sprays, and partly because of the locavore movement.  How has that movement impacted your farm’s fortunes and the prospects for Hudson Valley farming in general?
 
LP: My mother’s fruit won so many blue ribbons at the Columbia County Fair the year that I describe in the end of the book that she was named Grand Champion Fruit Grower for Columbia County. She has continued that practice, not always doing that well, but this year, she won so many blues again that she missed the title of Champion by just one. That spirit of not giving up, of trying her best every year sums up my mother’s attitude toward the farm and is why the farm has been successful. She has gone through hard times. We have gone through hard times. When the book came out in 2001, it was one of the darkest hours for small farms in the valley. But as I write in the epilogue in this new edition, things are turning around, and there is an exciting new moment for small farms here. People are realizing the importance of knowing where their food comes from and the great value of being able to get local food. We are not organic, but our customers get orchard fresh fruit grown with a minimum of pesticides, so our customer base is growing and growing locally. That is huge.
 
Ever since I was a kid we have had people driving from pretty far distances to pick fruit at our farm—from New Jersey, Long Island, Massachusetts—but now we see many more local people. It makes sense from so many angles but up until now I think many people took local farms for granted and let’s face it, one stop to the super market may not be healthier, but it is still easier and so for working families taking time to get their food more directly from farms has meant a shift of priorities and that has taken effort. It is like cooking, you have to decide to make time for it rather than go for convenience. Everyone is super busy, too busy so making time is not at all easy, it involves a re-evaluation of priorities and goals in an ongoing way. The slow food and locavore movements and all kinds of education programs to help people become aware of local agriculture have helped. I do believe that policy change starts with bumper stickers.
 
Finally, and maybe most important. My mother was a kid in the depression era. She knows how to save money and how to do without. She didn’t fall into the trap of bigger is better, she didn’t believe in the spend more to make more mantra of the eighties and nineties. She resisted marketing fads and stuck to what she knew how to do best—grow good frult, with an emphasis—to go back to the blue ribbons—of always trying to do better each year. In short, she has been true to herself and that I think has been the key to her success, that and managing the farm on a tight budget.
 
Rural Intelligence Arts
The author with her brother John, son Rhys, and mother Julia.
 
To be successful at a small farm, maybe at any farm, you can’t be a worrier, and you can’t be a perfectionist. There are just too many big things like the weather that are out of your control. My mother is a pragmatist and also wonderfully free of pretense.  She could have a leak in the ceiling but until she gets money to fix it, she’ll put a bucket under it, move the chairs and have her dinner party anyway. She just won’t care what anybody else thinks about how she does things. I think that is part of what gives her the tremendous energy she needs to do what she does at her age.
 
RI:  You say, “farming is war.”  Indeed, the Battle of the Insects your mother wages daily throughout the growing season would bow Patton.  Are all crops as difficult as fruit?  If not, wouldn’t some diversification be in order? 
 
LP: Well, certainly traditional fruit growing is a kind of war, but it is pretty well understood now that many forms of crop farming invoke that dynamic. It has to do with volume. Once you begin growing a large amount of one thing, you get a concentration of pests. I think we’d all love to see the farm go organic one day, to be able to farm in better harmony with the land and with the environment. But the reality is, without some pesticides, we couldn’t produce apples on the scale we do, and our farm would go out of business. To eliminate pesticide use altogether, we would have to pretty much completely redo the farm and start again with a different pattern of crops and fruit. That would be great, but it would take the kind of capitol investment we don’t have right now. One day, I’d love to see the farm re-invent itself. For now, we are trying to hang on.
 
RI:  You describe the closets at Talavera after your father’s death as being so crammed with the dandyish sports, business and evening clothes of bygone eras that there was no room in them for your generation’s far-less resplendent gear.  A nifty metaphor.  Much later in the book, your sensible mother declares that the house has been “silly” since the day it was built—presumably too big, too expensive to operate and maintain, maybe even too pretentious.  In the future, what if you were to conclude that the farm is viable, but the house is not?
 
LP: We talk about this issue of the house and the farm all the time. None of us has a clear answer. It’s a dilemna because, on one hand, we are keenly aware that Talavera represents a kind of landscape heritage that is larger than our family. Its architecture and landscaped grounds are a piece of Columbia County history. That history belongs to everyone, so we have a kind of responsibility to steward the house. That is just a fact.  But it is also our home, so the idea of selling it, or turning it into a museum in some way, brings up mixed feelings, to say the least. But looking to the future, we will have to make some decisions about it because it is so expensive to maintain and so time consuming. As for me, I love the house because it is home, but I’d rather be out pruning trees than caring for it.
 
RI: Of course, the question your book leaves dangling is, what does the future hold?  Do you ever think about moving fulltime to Talavera to assume your mother’s role, as your father clearly expected or at least hoped you would?
 
Like most families, we are muddling our way toward the future. Farming the land at Talavera one day is a dream I have, for sure. But the reality is that I have four siblings, and we own the place together. The future is something that we all have to work out together and for a family of keen individuals, that’s not easy!
 
RI: In your research, you unearthed a family secret: Prior to his marriage to your grandmother, your grandfather had fathered the child of a Talavera servant.  Though he appeared to have been in love with her at the time, he not only did not marry her, but eventually abandoned her financially.  By the time you discovered this, your step-aunt was 87 years old.  Yet, when you visited her and invited her to Talavera, it meant the world to her to finally be “legitimized.”  It’s relatively easy now, for us, to do the decent thing.  Shame isn’t what it used to be.  But how do you think your proud, old-school father would have reacted to this revelation?
 
LP: My father was old school in many ways and conservative about the things he felt were being abandoned by the the larger culture—protocol, manners, social rituals of all kinds. I remember getting in conflicts with him all the time as a kid over things like table manners and later, as a teenager, for bigger issues of social etiquette. But he also was a keen individual, really as rugged as some old Vermonter on that score. If he felt something was right, he didn’t care a fig what others thought. I mean, after all, many people must have thought he was crazy to leave a prospering job in Manhattan to spend his energy maintaining a family place. So, while he was concerned about maintaining a kind of status quo in many respects, and the discovery of Anna would have triggered all kinds of strong and probably difficult and even conflicting feelings for him, I know he would have put Anna and her humanity first. It is sad to me to think of him never knowing Anna and her not knowing him. I think he would have valued getting to know her as much as my mother had.
 
RI:  One of my favorite characters in your family saga is you.  We only get glimpses of that barefoot tomboy with a blonde braid to her waist, tearing around the countryside on her horse, Peter.  That under-supervised, almost reckless abandon reminds me of my own childhood.  Your son Rhys spends most of his weekends, as you had throughout your childhood before moving there full-time, at Talavera. Does he exercise that freedom, or is that a quality of childhood that is irretrievably lost? 
 
LP:  Boy that is a hard question to answer. I hope I can pass on some of the sense of adventure that I was lucky enough to have, but it really is hard to be a parent in today’s world. All of us probably over-parent. One thing both my husband and I stress is giving our son time in the outdoors. Rhys spent a lot of his early years catching frogs and snakes and turtles and, even now, just goofing around in a tree house. You learn invaluable things about yourself and your own capabilities when you are outside and dealing with nature. And your parents aren’t nearby!  We hope that gives him something of the sense of freedom and possibility that I was so lucky and privileged, really, to grow up with.
 

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