Small Harvest

My parents’ yard in Rochelle featured a pear tree in the back and a sour cherry tree near the front. I know my father planted them, but I have no idea when — perhaps before I was born, perhaps when I was too young to notice such things. When I was small I never doubted that they had always been there, and I do not remember either of them as anything but huge, and hugely prolific, landmarks. These trees brought us birds, squirrels, spring blossoms, and great quantities of fresh fruit. What the birds didn’t eat and my sister and I, and our friends, didn’t consume while playing in the yard, our mother converted into preserves and jams, which she stored in jars in the basement, and pies and cobblers, which we devoured much too quickly and which, alas, are now long gone except in memory.

Every year when the cherries were ripe enough and we gathered our pails to begin picking, my father would tell us how his grandfather required his older brothers to whistle while they picked: you can’t eat cherries if you’re whistling and it’s obvious what you’re up to if the whistling stops (Dad was still much too young to pick when the family moved from the Banat to Chicago). We and our friends, of course, were always free to eat what we wanted as long as we were not officially picking; and since the tree was so productive, and without a ladder we could pick only what a child could reach from the ground, there was never any risk of our eating enough to affect the family harvest.

Cherry picking

Cherry picking

Over the years the trees continued to grow and produce, ultimately overwhelming our ability to use any significant portion of the fruit. Birds, of course, kept the cherry tree clear of excess fruit. But the pear tree, when it had become so tall that we couldn’t reach above the middle branches, even with our tallest ladder, dropped its overripe pears directly on the ground. By the end of summer the lawn under the tree was matted with rotting pears.

Childhood soon drifts into the past. Trees grow old, become brittle and less productive, finally die. Eventually my parents retired, sold the house, and moved away. The yard changed in the hands of new owners. Both trees have been gone for many years.

I gained much from these two trees. The cherry tree left me with fond memories of plucking cherries directly from the tree and spitting their pits all around, and of the taste of my mother’s sour cherry pie. In addition the tree’s fruit imbued me with respect for the rituals of cherry pit removal, especially as preparation for pie making, and alertness for the occasional surprise encounter with a persistent pit. The pear tree endowed me with a lasting love of those hard, crisp pears that some people refer to as “not ripe”.

When we moved from Texas to West Virginia nearly five years ago I decided that our new yard had some space and we were now in the same growing zone as Rochelle, so perhaps we wanted to plant our own fruit trees. On an expedition to a local nursery our first summer in Clarksburg we found a baby Montmorency cherry tree and a baby pear tree. The Montmorency cherry is a traditional sour cherry, a “pie cherry”, and probably much like the tree of my childhood. I knew that my father’s pear tree had been grafted with at least three different pear varieties. I never knew what they were, but I think that one was Bartlett. The tree we found here has Flemish Beauty, Seckel, and Bartlett branches grafted to an anonymous root stock. In an obvious attempt to recapture some of the pleasures of my childhood I decided that we needed these two trees. We carried them home and planted them.

The cherry tree, unfortunately, was dead by the end of the summer, but the pear tree survived. In the spring I watch for its first blossoms, which have gradually increased in number each year, and, later, for the appearance of small pears, which were annoyingly absent at first. Finally, last year one pear formed, but it fell off the tree a week later.

Pears on tree

Bartlett Pears

This year, though, I was thrilled. Seven pears formed on two Bartlett branches, and they grew and stayed attached to the tree. By Midsummer they had become so heavy that I had to stake the branches up to keep them from breaking — it’s still a very young tree.

Each day I walked out to the tree to check the pears’ development. For weeks they simply grew gradually larger and fatter. But one morning last week I found that three pears were gone and part of a branch was broken — deer, I suppose — so I picked the remaining four to keep them from disappearing as well. These pears are just about the right crispness for me, but not as ripe as most people like.

Pears on the counter

Pears on the counter

Well, it’s a pretty small harvest, and it wasn’t allowed to ripen on the tree. But at least we got something this year. And we can look forward to increasing harvests in years to come. Someday the tree will be taller and more pears will be outside the deers’ reach. I wonder how long they’ll still be within mine.

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