In praise of summer’s cherries |

In praise of summer’s cherries

Karla Arens
Special to The Union
This undated photo shows Nanking cherries in New Paltz, N.Y. Nanking cherries are borne on large bushes that usually bear enough sweet-tart cherries to thoroughly clothe the stems.
AP | Photo by Lee Reich/Associated Pr

Cherries. Plump Bing cherries. Fat wild cherries almost blueberry blue. Neighbor children giggling high on a limb of the old cherry tree, lips and small hands stained a sticky fuchsia.

The soles of our bare feet tinged crimson from trekking through cherries littered by the kitchen door. Jars of cherry jam thickening on the kitchen counter. A few precious bottles of wild cherry juice beginning its ferment in the dark of the pantry and a sweet cherry pie cooling on the window sill just as we have always desired.

The cherries made gluttons of us all. And for a moment or two in the palpable summer heat and dizzying happiness of buckets of cherries and good fortune, I imagined us, not as the tan California families in shorts and T-shirts on a hot summer day that we were, but as a characters from some other time or place with women in pale, long dresses lounging on the newly mowed lawn, cheeks flushed and full lips rouged with cherry juice, and the men in white linen suits and straw hats lifting their children to pluck from the tree. So passed the longest days of the year, the opulent month of June.

That summer turned out to be the last time my old cherry bloomed with such abandon. Even then in those heady days, I couldn’t entirely push away the suspicion that the bounty bestowed upon us might be a worrisome symptom that the tree’s life force was waning and that the generous flush of fruit was the tree’s last chance to pass on its marvelous attributes through a copious quantity of seeds.

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This thought proved to be sadly prescient as next season the tree barely bloomed and the fruit fell before ripening. We did what we could to save it. We pruned the dying limbs and watered, held back water and hugged. In the end, age proved an indomitable force to which we finally yielded and cut down all of what remained of the tree.

My neighbor, who at that time was in her late eighties and whose family lived on what had been a mining claim for at least four generations, told me that our cherry was the last one remaining of five that were planted in the 1800s.

Apparently, an aspiring young miner thought this site a good place to settle, knowing (hoping) that not only was there gold in Deer Creek just down the hill, but good soil and sun on the knoll. He had carried with him on a train from Pennsylvania five seedling Bing cherries wrapped in burlap, the offspring of an older grand cherry under which he had kissed his sweetheart adieu as he started west. I like to think that she caught a later train and followed him with a satchel of her own filled with cuttings of lilac sprigs and pink garden phlox whose wild progeny still blossoms along our stream beds in early spring.

By the time our miner finally arrived, there wasn’t much gold left for him in the creek. But the saplings he so carefully carried across the continent grew to a girth of seven feet in the loamy topsoil that was the gift of an old forest long ago harvested.

The stumps of the other four trees took some digging to find. The forest was consuming the old orchard and they were buried under an pungent tangle of kitkidizzi and pine needles. Our woodland was then and is now speckled with slender cherry saplings that for a few weeks in summer provide a tart feast for the birds that inhabit this watershed. Even though so prolific, it was hard to imagine that they could ever achieve the stature of their parents, whose remnants even so many years after their demise remained a decomposing yet enduring source of nutrients for the fungi and beetles that permeated what was left of the porous bark.

The fortunes of our cherry festival would not come again, but sometime around the winter solstice, I remembered the bottles we had tucked away on the back shelf of the pantry. We were primitive wine makers at best and our simple method consisted of layering fruit and sugar with a sprinkling of yeast.

One of the jars had cracked, but the scarlet juice in the others had fermented into a deep claret. In the late afternoon of a December day, we found just enough liquor to fill our glasses a time or two with the taste of a languid summer day, the nostalgic sweetness of wild cherry wine.

Karla Arens is a former gardening columnist for The Union, who recently came upon this unfinished essay that she revised into a historical memoir.

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