Driftless Terroir: Restoring Spirit with the Cycles of a Fruit Farm

Leslie Damaso

By Leslie Damaso

The last time I saw Mike Manogue was in early July. Twice! Once was on the Fourth in Mineral Point. He had won the annual run in his age category for the 11th time and proudly carried his trophy, a mug specially made for the event by Diana Johnston at Brewery Pottery. He came to my studio, took out a little whiskey from his backpack and we toasted his victory at 10 in the morning and laughed like maniacs. This is just one of the many times I’ve felt what I like to describe as moments of maximum aliveness with my dear friend. I sent him home with a nosegay of lavender, chamomile and lemon verbena from my garden.

He has one particularly prolific pear tree called Harrow’s Delight that is always the first to ripen each season. One branch was getting a little heavy so he put up one of the first supports. By mid-August, there will be about six to eight sturdy logs with v-shaped tops supporting and surrounding this tree, making it look like a crown decorated with jewels of green and orange blush fruit, a regal signal for picking season to begin. Besides seeing that particular tree, the only other purpose of our time was to dig up some of the best potatoes in the world for me to take home. My box was filled with red potatoes, red onions, white onions and my can’t-live-without allium, garlic. I also ended up with a bouquet of wild daisies, bee balm, pea flowers and mint. I like to boil the potatoes, dress them simply with melted butter and salt and savor them as slowly as possible. In spring, he’d usually send me home with plum blossoms, purple asparagus and the reddest rhubarb stalks. The first pear of the season, wherever you are, you’ll want to bite into as soon as it is ready and let the juices drip down your chin, down to your elbow, to the ground. Everything seems to feel as if you are discovering something for the very first time when it comes from the Tippy Top. 

Mike Manogue likes to call his farming method “beyond organic.”

Late May is probably my favorite when you pass by the walls of lilacs on the way to his orchard in Clyde. In summer, each side of the road is thick with all the shades of green, punctuated by wildflowers, and you might spot the most enticing creek once you turn onto Mill Road. You would not be able to spot the orchard until you are actually in the driveway. Keep going beyond the apple trees and you’ll see the string of colorful Buddhist prayer flags up above. The house he built partially with materials from an old barn nearby is to the right. After the flags are some pine trees and the shed to the left. Pass the gardens you’ll see the pear trees and the Driftless hills. If you’re lucky, you might catch a sunset behind those hills. Sometimes it seems like you are looking at the world through a padparadscha sapphire: a mix of pink, orange and golden color, each in varying concentrations depending on the intensity of light and where you are looking. Mike planted over 350 pear and apple trees over 30 years ago. What could possibly make a person want to do such a thing, to have a life in this way? I knew the answer immediately since I saw the orchard for the first time 11 years ago, and that answer has only aged and expanded more gracefully over the years. 

At Tippy Top orchard I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, inhaled the concentrated scent of the flowers and heard for the first time the symphony of bees celebrating the peak blooms.

Last year toward the end of May after being in lockdown for over two months, I was feeling quite numb and thought a visit would be good for my soul. I only ever saw Mike twice a year before then. That morning I read an article about Pauline Olivieros’ “Sonic Meditations.” In the composition, there was an instruction: “Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.” Another part said to sit awhile and listen to one sound then keep adding. There was a ladder against one of the apple trees. Mike told me to climb, look toward the sky and to just close my eyes. I felt the warmth of the sun on my face, inhaled the concentrated scent of the flowers and heard for the first time the symphony of bees celebrating the peak blooms. I wept. 

I decided to visit more often partially to restore my spirit and to really see the cycles of a fruit farm. I learned to recognize which buds would become the best fruits, how to give space between the branches and to trim, how to get rid of pests, how to determine which excess fruit to get rid of to ensure a good harvest and how to share with the birds among many other things. He likes to call his farming method “beyond organic.” How do you pick an apple or a pear? First, you put on the pack in front of your chest and make sure the bottom is folded and locked in place. Take the ladder where you need it, stay away from the wild parsnips, put one foot on a step and press the legs into the ground a little bit for stability then go up. Hold the bottom of the fruit with your dominant hand, lift it up slightly, make it bow toward you until the stem snaps off, then place it inside your pack. When it is full, release the bottom of the pack and carefully transfer it into a bucket or a box. If you have more than two boxes, you might need to ride in the back of a truck, hold on for your life, apples and ladders until you get to the next set of trees. While we were picking last year, I was so proud of myself and how fast I was going. Mike asked why I was in a hurry. He said there will always be something to do, go slow and steady and actually enjoy the moment. 

After harvest, the apples have to be sold and distributed. Mike opted out of selling at the farmer’s market because of the pandemic. I helped a little and sold about a dozen 30-pound boxes just by texting some friends. There are Asian pears, Harrow’s Delight, Mutsu Fuji, Jonagold and more. The fruits are so beautiful and flavorful; one type of apple even tastes slightly like Concord grapes and has fuchsia veins. Each has a unique flavor and texture. If you really want to experience and celebrate the incredible flavors, make a tart or pie with at least four varieties of the apples (do not add cinnamon or other spices, just butter, flour and sugar) or get David Lebowitz’s recipe for French apple cake. I got the tip from Halee Wepking at Meadowlark Organics. My little secret for that cake, though, is to add pear brandy instead of the rum.

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.

Leslie Damaso is a musician, artist, educator and owner of Buttonhill Music Studio in Mineral Point (lesliedamasomusic.com).