Southern Living Magazine – June 2002
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A desire for simpler ways and good, clean country life led these big-city writers home to a rural Virginia Orchard.
Frank Levering rests a lanky elbow and one mud-caked boot on the rungs of a tall wooden ladder, then waxes poetic. “I love ladders” he says earnestly, his blue eyes cataloging nicks and scratches on one of his 150-strong arsenal. “I guess my worker gets attached to the tools of his trade. For me, owning an orchard, that means ladders-such simple, elegant forms. They’re like bridges between the ground and the sky, physical links between me and the fruit.”
Moving and propping the 20- to 26-footers take most of Frank’s time in early summer, when Levering Orchard’s pick-your-own cherry harvest attracts swarms of bucket-toting customers to southwest Virginia.
Nearly two decades ago, Frank and his wife, fellow writer Wanda Urbanska, looked to simplify lives grown far too hectic in Hollywood, California. Was it possible for two fast-track authors—he a screenwriter, she a journalist—to escape chaotic city life and succeed in an orchard high in the Blue Ridge Mountains?
Back to Family Land
Seventeen years, a half-dozen books, a few stage scripts, one child (Henry, now 5), and many fruit harvests later, the answer is clear. Between reaping and writing, the couple has carved a cozy niche. Frank and Wanda watch over the same hillsides that his parents and grandparents once tended, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Orchard Gap.
“My grandfather Ralph Levering started this orchard in 1908,” Frank says. “He farmed strawberries and sweet potatoes in Tennessee before, got tired of stooping for a living, and decided to reach for the sky here instead.” He picked the location for its prime growing conditions, especially a so-called thermal belt that forms naturally at a certain elevation and protects fruit from damaging frosts in spring.
Frank’s father, Sam Levering—a dedicated Quaker just as Grandpa was and Frank is today—worked the family orchard nearly his whole life. “When I was a kid, Dad would send me climbing ladders to the tops of the trees to pick fruit,” Frank recalls.
The youngest of six children, Frank left home to climb a different kind of ladder. He studied would religions and writing at Harvard, met and married Wands, and headed to California. She reported news for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and wrote a book called The Singular Generation: Young Americans in the 1980s. He crafted screenplays and prowled the film studio party scene, networking with agents and producers to sell his scripts.
Increasingly girded by the material trappings of success, Frank and Wanda noticed that something as missing. In the mid-1980s they moved from slick Hollywood to sleepy Ararat, Virginia—and in the process became gurus of the “voluntary simplicity” movement.
Glad They Returned
Come cherry-picking time each June, many people are glad Frank and Wanda returned. Under their care, Levering Orchard has grown into the largest cherry orchard in the South. Other fruit thrives—apples, nectarines, apricots, and more—but nearly 4,000 cherry trees, in 40-plus varieties on some 30 acres, reign as the trademark Levering produce.
Months of pruning, fertilizing, mowing, and worrying about bud-nipping frost and fruit-splitting rains lead to June, when the harvest season begins. Cherry picking lasts a month or more the sweet kinds ripening first, followed by their sour cousins. Pickers arrive by the thousands, most of them repeat visitors who relish being out in the fresh air.
For Frank, a few friends, and hired hands, it’s a season of dawn-to-dusk ladder moving. He meets and greets visitors, distributes containers, and offers tips on where, what, and how to pick. Then he helps load brimming buckets into car trunks. He insists that people eat plenty of cherries as they work, even though they only pay for those weighed and bagged when they leave.
“We see two main types of cherry pickers,” say Frank. “The hard-core ones take it seriously, quickly filling as many buckets as they can. They put up preserves, freeze a bunch, bake a lot, and give some away. Others have a recreational approach, eating almost as many as they put in buckets, enjoying a day outdoors, bringing picnics, and setting up playpens. For them, it’s and annual tradition.”
In the Packinghouse
Wanda spends these busy days in the packinghouse, a cavernous, tin-roofed holdover from the orchard’s earlier heyday when it served a s a major apple-shipping center. She and some helpers weigh pickers’ bounty on secondhand scales, then transfer cherries into homeward-bond bags, boxes, and kettles.
Unfailingly cheerful Wanda—tall and thin, her blond hair tied in a ponytail, cherry earrings dangling—answers a steadily ringing phone. She assures pickers the orchard is open, give directions and weather updates, lists what’s ripe when, and explains the you-pick prices.
Visitors linger at the packing-house, trading stories. “I brew cherry beer,” one picker says by way of introduction, leading to talk about an old-timer who makes cherry brandy. “We’re nuts about fruit,” proclaims a regular. His wife explains, “We have to pick two buckets in order to get one bucket back to the house.” Another woman offers this: “Cherries are so beautiful on the trees, hanging in clusters, glistening. To eat them right off the branch is a joy that can’t be duplicated.”
Picking and Penning
Orchard work keeps them busy, but Frank and Wanda still ply the literary world as well. They’ve coauthored books about living simply, adjusting to small-town life, and cooking with fruit, publishing some through their own Orchard Gap Press. They’ve also appeared in PBS documentaries with titles such as Running Out of Time and Escape From Affluenza: Living Better on Less.
Writing, reaping raising Henry, and moving ladders keep the couple happily occupied. In all these pursuits, they rely on the collective wisdom of friends, family members, and past generations that helped to build the haven they now share. “My dad passed away a few years ago,” Frank says, “but every day, in the orchard, I hear him talking to me.”
Levering Orchard nestles 2 miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Orchard Gap, 75 miles southwest of Roanoke and 10 miles north of Mount Airy, North Carolina. Cherries ripen in June and early July; apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, and pears in July and August; apples from July through November. Contact Levering Orchard at 163 Levering Lane, Ararat, VA 24053; 276.755.3593 or www.leveringorchard.com.