Orchard Ladders and Perry Pears

Orchard ladders are beautiful. They’re mirror images of the trees they climb—wide at the bottom for solidity, and narrow at the top to fit between branches. Their form-follows-function design means the rails that hold the rungs have a pleasing, slow curve that looks as if they grew that way.   

Old orchard ladders were wooden, heavy, with only two legs. Burly men moved them from place to place for the slighter, more nimble pickers.

But modern orchard ladders, made of aluminum, are light enough for me (at not a lot more than five feet tall) to haul around unaided. And my ladder has three legs—two front rails and a floater at the back—attached at the top by a hinge. Adjusting where the third leg hits the ground, I can always make my ladder solid and stable.

It’s a shame most people never get to climb an orchard ladder; the view from the top of a tree is exhilarating. And although it might be easier to pick what you can reach from the ground, the best fruit is always high up.

I have spent many hours in the crowns of the century-old apple trees at Canterbury Shaker Village, picking nearly perfect fruit from trees that haven’t been pruned or treated for pests in decades.

These trees are “standards,” which means they grow tall, to their natural height. It’s like another country at the top of the ladder, sunny and dry, and the fruit is always bigger up there and healthier than the low-hanging fruit.

When my husband sold part of his business a few years ago and had some extra time, he began working with those old apple trees, pruning them, picking apples, making hard cider. He, as it turns out, is an excellent hard-cider maker.

He decided he wanted to learn how to distill that cider into apple brandy. To make brandy legally, he soon discovered, one has to open a distillery. Most folks, at this point, would turn to bootlegging. My husband began filling out the paperwork. And he imported a beautiful, gleaming copper and stainless-steel still from Austria.

He has decided he wants to make pear eau de vie. Not Poire William, which is made from a single variety of pears. No, he wants to make something more complex, distilled from “perry” pears (perry is to pears as cider is to apples). And perry pears, unlike cider apples, are simply not to be found around here.

So we have begun planting a perry orchard, with hard-to-find varieties such as Yellow Huffcap, Blakeney Red, Barland, Barnet and Butt. The British, who are at the vanguard of the modern perry and pear brandy movement, have a saying: “Pears for your heirs.” Because as it turns out, perry pears take at least fifteen years from planting before they begin to bear much. Some varieties take thirty years to produce a decent crop.                  

Thirty years from now, if I am still on the planet, I will be eighty-seven. My husband will be ninety-eight. It seems likely we will not be the ones to make pear brandy from our orchard.

But pear trees? They can easily live to be two hundred years old. And that gorgeous Austrian still? It should be nicely broken-in two centuries from now.

In the meantime, I have the pleasure of imagining a woman who will come after me here, in this place. She is high on an orchard ladder on a bright blue October day, picking pears from a tree I planted, imagining me, planting that tree. And she is smiling. 

Categories: At Home in NH