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Know the West

The orchardist rescuing fruit trees in New Mexico

Once-diverse apple varieties are declining. Gordon Tooley wants to save them before they are gone.

Settlers bound for the Southwest brought fruit trees — new arrivals, like the people who planted them — to the Rocky Mountains and throughout the Colorado Plateau beginning in the 18th century. Hardy varieties of apple, apricot, pear and peach trees travelled in wagons through rugged terrain to newly claimed homesteads, and, over generations, flourished in orchards and backyards. They spread roots along the Rio Grande and beyond, transported through Mexico on El Camino Real and out east along both the Santa Fe and Mormon Trails. Eventually, some 14,000 varieties of apples grew across North America and were used for traditional ciders, pies and sauces.

 

By the time orchardist Gordon Tooley got to Truchas, New Mexico, in 1991, half of the apple varieties were lost, thanks in part to fewer varieties being grown commercially for the sake of efficiency. “When you look at it,” said Tooley, “I can’t think of very many species that can afford to lose half of their genus.” Now, he and his wife rescue old varieties from across the Southwest and cultivate them in their thriving orchard. They hope to mitigate the rapid disappearance of genetic difference, which leaves trees highly vulnerable to disease and insects.

“When you look at it, I can’t think of very many species that can afford to lose half of their genus.”

Tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it’s not just trees that matter on the small 15-acre farm. Tooley’s land is lively: The rich soil is home to diverse species of grasses, insects, pollinators — and, of course, trees. Crucially, no ground is left uncovered, the groundwater level is kept at high levels, and bats and birds feast day and night on would-be pests. Everyone plays a role, and Tooley uses his encyclopedic understanding of the land to teach others how to work within the ecosystem.

Gordon Tooley stands with one of his apple trees. He uses cuttings from these trees to graft onto saplings in an effort to keep heiloom varieties alive and disseminating throughout the region.

It was this relationship, the attention to biodiversity, soil health and the well-being of all the land’s residents, that Santa Fe photographer Esha Chiocchio documented throughout 2020. Chiocchio is determined to capture the orchard’s use of traditional knowledge of regenerative agriculture — something she believes is key to the future of an imperiled food system with enormous issues, from climate change to widespread soil erosion. “When I look at all the different climate solutions,” Chiocchio said, “I keep coming back to regenerative agriculture as not only a solution for climate, but for land and food issues.” –Theo Whitcomb is an intern at High Country News.

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Esha Chiocchio has photographed around the globe for publications, nonprofit organizations and commercial clients including National Geographic, Newsweek and Bonefish Grill. With bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and French and a Master’s degree in sustainable communities, she uses her photography to highlight societal and climate solutions. Chiocchio lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, their two children and their dog. See more of Chiocchio’s work on Tooley’s Trees.