Left in Andover: All around the mulberry tree

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The night before I started 8th grade at Hawley Junior High in Northampton, Mass., my family camped out on the back of our farm truck parked out in a surrounding hill town.

We had driven down from Andover earlier that Labor Day afternoon, the truck loaded with mattresses, all household goods, even a piano and our cat. Having spent 7th grade in France, and the summer in between at Popplewood, I was not sure what to expect.

But I felt confident and prepared for anything as I dressed en pleine air for my first day at junior high. Red cable knit knee socks perfectly set off my favorite poofy yellow, Swiss dotted dress with matching bolero jacket — or so  I imagined.

Hawley Junior High School.

Arriving at Hawley Junior High on the corner of Main and South streets just in time for my morning line up, Dad pulled the truck up onto the curb and I hopped off. After repeating the process at Hamp High to deposit my older sister, and at Bridge Street School for my little brother, Mom and Dad had exactly seven hours to find a house to rent before it was time to gather us all up again.

Dazed, I navigated the noisy schoolyard, taking my place in a queue of mod-dressed kids waiting to go inside the forbidding building. It was the Tuesday after Labor Day, September 1964. I had no idea what the buzz was all about, but everyone seemed obsessed with some kind of beetle.

I peered around in vain for former classmates from my 6th grade class at Vernon Street, one of numerous neighborhood feeder schools throughout the city. I did not recognize the rowdy mob around me at all.

Although it was not broiling hot out, neither was it knee sock weather. It would take another six years, until 1970, the year after I graduated high school, for the dress code to permit girls to wear pants to school. In the meantime, I was determined never to shave my legs like the other girls. Polyester knee socks were my solution to this hairy problem.

I was 100 years too late to sport socks made of the fine silk upon which 19th century Northampton manufacturers had pinned their hopes. Indeed Florence, the outlying Silk City district, was named after the venerable Italian center of silk production.

A silk moth. CSIRO ScienceImage

In the 1830s, Northampton was hit hard by the sericulture bug — growing silkworms to produce silk. Silk worms eat mulberry leaves, so a mulberry tree planting mania drove the value of mulberry rootstock from $5 per 100 to $500. However, Northampton’s ultimate commercial success proved to be not raising silkworms, but spinning raw imported silk into thread. Until 1930, when the mills closed, this was Northampton’s preeminent industry.

At 3 o’clock, as promised, Dad pulled up to the corner by the school to pick me up. I noticed with relief that the truck was mostly unloaded. He had indeed found a rental on West Highland Avenue.

The mattresses I soon landed on, piled high in the living room, were a forlorn reminder that we had been on the verge of homeless. A few days later we upgraded to an apartment down by the dike on Henry Street.

The knowledge that we could always just load up and go back to Popplewood made our situation an exercise in stretching the boundaries of possible, rather than an exercise in desperation. The lure at the end of the rainbow for my parents was educational and cultural opportunity for us kids.

Starting in 1979, when I came back to live on our land in Andover for good, I went nuts ordering a variety of specialty fruit and nut trees. I planted northern peaches, sweet cherries, hardy nectarines, purple plums, Chinese chestnuts, Carpathian walnuts. All except the walnuts matured to bear fruit, then one by one succumbed to our USDA rated Zone 4 climate.

Mulberry tree at Popplewood.

What did survive, thriving beyond my wildest expectations, were my mulberry trees. I had read that birds prefer mulberries over blueberries. Hoping to protect the latter, I ordered six moraceae.

Forty years later, my mulberry trees are fully mature. Harking back to my days as a professional pruner at apple orchards, I enjoy cutting them back severely each winter. The leaves of white fruited mulberry trees make superior food for the highly temperamental silkworm. As luck has it, I did plant one of those. Of the others, three bear a prolific crop of purple fruit, and the remaining two are barren.

The birds and bees favor both colors equally. While in bloom and loaded with fruit, my trees explode with winged visitors. Thus far, I have only read up on sericulture, a 5,000-year old labor intensive specialized art in China.

Ultimately, New Englanders did not display the dedication and craftsmanship required to compete, despite the 2 million caterpillar shed of Northampton’s most noted enthusiast of long ago.

In the 1840s, a utopian community — the Northampton Association of Education and Industry — coalesced around the remains of the sericulture experiment. Sojourner Truth found a home there. Buoyed by this community’s support, she agitated with renewed vigor on the national stage for gender, racial and economic equality.

As for my knee sock saga, I suffered it out wearing them all through high school. At least in the old fashioned days long concealing dresses were de rigueur. In modern times, of course, pants are universally accepted. I came of age during the in-between, when sporting hairy legs barred me from being socially acceptable, yet displaying unshaved legs required more courage than I could muster.

After my first day at junior high, I buried my poofy Swiss dotted dress. Luckily, I learned to sew in home economics class and quickly made myself a wardrobe of stylish A-line Twiggy shifts.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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