“How’s an orchard an artwork?” asked Sam Van Aken, artist and professor at Syracuse University, to a mixed group of farmers, sculptors, and students at a lecture held on November 17th at Lafayette. He answered himself, stating that changing how people think about food could be done through a fundamental approach. By that, he meant that our concepts about food production can be completely flipped to accommodate beauty, fresher taste, and rare varieties unlike what we see in our current industrial food system. And even more mysteriously, Van Aken does so by collapsing entire orchards into one tree. One of which, in two years’ time, will bear fruit on Easton’s own Karl Stirner Arts Trail.
The Tree of Forty Fruit, a pet project designed by Van Aken, has garnered him respect not only amongst artists for its multicolored blossoms, but also from food ethicists and conservation-minded environmentalists. Van Aken grafts multiple antique and heirloom varieties of stone fruit onto one fruit tree. Cherries, apricots, and plums all bloom together, once the tree has been fully grafted and formed.
Originally an effort to create a “transubstantiated tree” or a hoax, similar to some of his other art projects, the Tree of Forty Fruit is now revered as a way to save species from extinction. After all, one of the original orchards he grafted branches from, now no longer exists. By continuing 2000 year old apricot species on his trees, Van Aken preserves varieties that many people have never tasted or seen. “The fruit that you eat [from grocery stores] is awful,” he said at the lecture, explaining that many times, fruit is not grown for its taste or nutritional content, but for how easily it ships across the country. The Tree of Forty Fruit allows these to thrive. In fact, with his artwork, he allows them to actually be eaten, donated to food pantries, and shared.
Earlier that day, Van Aken took the time to meet with Lafayette students, faculty, staff, Easton Area High School students, Karl Stirner Arts Trail members, and other community figures to plant the first fruit trees along the trail. It was an unseasonably warm November morning, but the perfect time to plant the saplings. He later remarked that his work on multiple Trees of Forty Fruit has made him very aware of the effects of weather patterns and climate change. More than ever, creative ways to protect plants, and the culture surrounding them, will become necessary.
Nearly ten different stone fruit trees were planted on the Arts Trail by Van Aken and a crowd of 30 people. In the spring, Sam Van Aken will return to host grafting workshops and begin his work constructing Easton’s Tree of Forty Fruit – not only as a way to showcase the allure of ‘forbidden’ fruit, but to share it as well.