From the moment my son learned to walk, he had an almost psychic ability to find the first ripe fruit of each season. In an orchard with hundreds of trees, he could always come up with the first peach or sweet orange; among thousands of plants, he could find the first ripe strawberry. Over the years, many of his life passages were marked by the dominant fruit of the season. He was weaned on tree-ripe peaches, he first walked at the peak of navel orange season, and he started school with the last of the year's avocados sliced onto his sandwich.
My son is now 15 years old, keeps his hair cut close to his scalp, and wears clothes that are big enough to hand down to me when he is finished with them. Last year he came to me, full of emotion, and said, "Dad, I don't want to be different anymore. I want to be normal."
Our farm hardly seems normal in this neighborhood of tract homes and shopping centers. The way we live, the food we grow and eat, our work on the land: They are all different. So our evening meals of just-harvested vegetables were suddenly under question. The fresh goats' milk that we had raised him on was no longer okay, and he foraged at the Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and McDonald's that are within skateboarding distance of our farm. I let him go for it.
Last week, I knew that a shift back had begun, as we sat at the dinner table locked in a heated discussion. A large pile of peels and 30 Clementine mandarins later, we still couldn't agree on which outer characteristics were signs of the sweetest interior flesh. He had always maintained that the thin-skinned ones were best. His new, more sophisticated theory involved a close examination of the bumps on the skin. "Remember, Dad," he informed me, "you know vegetables. I know fruit."
I didn't teach him about fruit. He discovered their nuances for himself, toddling along the rows in the orchards and later climbing the peach and avocado trees or feasting under the pineapple guavas. He grew up with his senses kept alive through his daily exploration of the taste, smells, and sensations of a living farm. He ate tomatoes as if they were apples, the juice running down his chin. He munched on carrots straight from the ground with little concern for the rich topsoil that clung to them. The farm taught him about the natural interconnections in life and especially about his place in the natural world. His experiences of the farm did not come in sound bites, through films or television, or off a shelf in the store. He could see and taste cause and effect, action and reaction. He could observe the relationships among planting, nurturing, and harvest.
We assume that we teach our children with words, in classrooms, through books, and now with computers. But eating off a tree and out of the ground gave my son his most important education. Those first fruits provided him with more than tastes and smells. They melded him to life in a powerful way, one that will always be there underneath his choices and experiments. He-and all the other kids who explore our farm-will have this experience to fall back on when they tire of anonymous places and mass-produced products. The fruits that they harvest will be, I hope, antidotes to a modern culture that is slowly being pulled from its roots in the earth.
Author and photographer Michael Ableman founded and directs Fairview Farms, Goleta, California.