The Okanagan Lake
Before Eyebright, I was a horticultural consultant, and before that, I was travelling to gain horticultural experience. One of the perks of that life, was that I lived in some lovely places. Climates that suit horticulture also suit humans. The place that could well have become my permanent home was the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada.
Soon after arrival in 1979, I went to a field day at a research orchard, and had the good fortune of meeting Jake Van Westen, a highly regarded cherry orchardist, and was offered a job.
Soon after I started, his other regular worker left. Consequently I was given his position, and I had a job that would see me through the summer and winter, and possibly beyond.
Okanagan means ‘Long silver edged lake glistening in the sunlight, like the waters of paradise’, and that describes it to a tee. Okanagan Lake is 135km long and averages 5km wide. With orchards and, more recently vineyards, gracing it’s shoreline terraces. The precipitation is a third of Nelsons (330mm vs. 1000mm), but it has an enviable water resource for irrigation.
The Van Westen orchard was near the village of Naramata, on the eastern shore of the lake. The highway north and south was on the other side of the lake. The Naramata in 1979 was much like Mapua, minus the agrochemical plant Mapua had at the time. Naramata had the added benefit of not being on a through road.
In my experience, you find lovely communities on dead-end roads.
Jake arrived in the Okanagan Valley in 1954. His only assets were enthusiasm, energy and a diploma from a Dutch agricultural college.
When I met him, he and his family (wife, daughter and two sons) had a nice home overlooking the lake, with much of their thirty-two hectares of orchard, before them. In the living room, above the mantle-piece was a sketch of Jake’s first Canadian home; a shack that he shared with one other.
Jake never moralised or consciously mentored me, but, like a sponge, I soaked up the lessons he unwittingly taught me. To this day, while working in the garden, tending one of the Eyebright crops (Christmas trees, dried flowers, gourds, sunflowers, sweet corn, peas) or trying to decide whether raise myself from the dinner table to shift irrigation, answer an email, or attend to a repair job, I ask myself ‘What would Jake do?”. The answer usually “get off your chuff, and get on with it”.
Jake told me that you just need ‘one break’. His was a hail storm which wiped out much of the valley’s cherries, but spared an orchard he was leasing. The shortage of cherries elevated the price, giving Jake a financial toe hold. That was good fortune. But good fortune doesn’t come looking for you. You have to get off the couch to be where it can find you. Had Jake not taken on the lease of that orchard, he would not have benefited from the hail storm.
As I have been involved in horticulture all my life. It was inevitable that that I would meet a lot of Dutchmen. If horticulture is your vocation, you’re going to meet Dutchmen.
In my encounters, I have repeatedly come across the same Dutch four step formula for prosperity and security and a well-rounded life. It goes like this:
1. Emigrate. 2.Work hard. 3.Go back to Holland for a few months. 4.Return with an attractive wife.
It sounds clinical, but saves expending a lot of energy chasing local girls who mightn’t be interested in share your disciplined life.
While Jake was a role model for me, I suspect his Canadian boss had been the same for him. On one of the lakeside terraces, Jake had a block of apples planted in a style that was two decades ahead of its time (close spaced trees, supported by posts and wire). Earthworks were required before the spring planting. Extreme cold and snow drove most of the valleys orchardists indoors. Jake said that while everyone else was watching TV, his boss was on a bulldozer ‘getting on with it’.
Like me, he had held his employer in high regard, and it seems that the reciprocal was true. Hence, Jake was given the opportunity to buy the orchard.
Jake Van Westen
This photo is from the internet.
He was twenty five years younger when I knew him.
After the apple harvest. Jake advised me that I may lose some days due to snow and cold, making pruning impossible, so, with his approval, I took on another job as community recreation director, for Naramata.
That meant organising events, and herding kids. I would finish my days work on the orchard, grab a quick bite, and then head down to the gymnasium for my evening job. The local scout troop needed a leader, so I took that on as well.
As it turned out, we had an ‘open’ winter, and I didn’t lose a single days pruning due to weather.
Then there was Patty. It was a novel, pleasant experience to have a woman in my life. She would have come back to New Zealand with me in a shot.
I had it all. A superb place to live., healthy outdoor work, respect in the community, and a girlfriend. Also, my parents had returned to Canada and were living on the coast.
I had, however, the stated intension of returning to New Zealand. My plan was to head to Central Otago and emulate what Jake had done. That is: become a cherry orchardist.
My last day in the Okanagan arrived. It was early spring. I finished pruning, and stood looking across the iron grey lake, to the arid slopes beyond. I felt the evening chill, savoured the life changing moment, and muttered “Shit”.
Every fibre in my body said ‘Stay’. But I decided to block out my internal cry and press on.
I made it back to New Zealand six months later, after a time with my parents, another job, and long lonely bike trip in Quebec.
From the Alexandra youth hostel, I started rebuilding a life in Central Otago, and then started yet again in Nelson.