Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The promise of a tiny orchard

Meet the cherries

By
July 14, 2009

As much as possible, I try to live in a fully animate, democratic universe. It’s my way of living out Aldo Leopold’s environmentalist creed, which asks humans to see systems rather than isolated individuals, and processes rather than lone events.

If the problem is that humans tend to see their own problems as central pivots of the world’s motion, then a solution that might improve our species’ odds of persisting on this planet is to reduce one’s self to a nub on a gear or strip of metal on a shaft.

Thus, when I look at stones and carrots and chickens, I project them backwards and forwards in time and imagine them in relation to the objects around them. I can’t do this with everything I encounter (too time-consuming!), but it’s useful to do it with food (part of the ongoing “eat local” challenge).

A veteran at shorthand might reduce this belief system to one part mindful treehugger and two parts Darwinist, and I suppose she wouldn’t be far off the mark.

Keep this in mind as I tell you about the cherry trees.

The cherry orchard.

We have two sour cherry trees; the sweet cherry died this winter. The survivors are planted in the spare lot, just east of the garage, which is mostly turf with a large sweet maple at the far end and a growing rhubarb compound along one side.

Because whitetail deer are abundant in Menomonie, each tree has its own metal cage. When my husband is making a cage, I call him the “Mad Max” orchardist. Deer strip leaves from trees, and they also decimate spindly trunks to remove the velvet from their antlers in the fall. So the hardware, though not eye candy, is necessary.

Because the spring blossoming was profuse, we let ourselves hope we’d get cherries this year. Imagine a five-foot dwarf so covered in flowers that it looked like it had just snowed. Then read the Housman poem. That was our backyard for a fragrant week in April.

About two weeks after the mad flowering, green baubles descended the branches, bulged, and turned pale yellow, and my mind raced to birds. I knew that robins and chickadees and a host of other flyers spent more time in my tiny orchard than I did. I feared that, if we did not protect the fruit quickly, it would disappear in mere hours.

So I began to nag my husband about netting. I lay awake in bed envisioning dark beaks gulleting pink cherry flesh. Opening and closing and opening and closing.

After a handful of nights watching my sleepless thrashing, my husband wrapped the silver cages in black plastic mesh.

Safe from the birds and deer, the cherries grew red and shiny. As I inspected them, I thought about the evolution of human vision and how the color red floats in front of other colors in the spectrum. I wondered at our attention to ripeness and how that attention has pulled us through time.

Eventually we removed the drape of netting and worked open the Byzantine system of locks that protected Fortress Cherry. The cherries slipped from the stems easily, some of them sliding from the pit without warning, so slim exclamation points were left clinging to the tree.

We tasted our first few cherries as we picked, of course. Sour cherries deserve their name. A U-shaped area near the back of my tongue swelled and crackled as the juices ran from the flesh and my saliva came rushing to meet them.

Using a chopstick trick gleaned from a friend, I pitted those first fifty cherries and made doll-sized crisps the night of the picking. The look on my husband’s face as he ate his dessert was similar to the night he first tasted maple syrup of his own making. It was the tired and happy face, the one trying to ascertain every detail of experience before it evanesces.

When you die, so the cliché goes, your life passes before your eyes. I will have to see if that’s true. But I can say that when I tasted those sour cherries, I saw birds’ nests and deer startling from the roadside and ticks walking a wire-tight rope and rain after weeks of drought and cars slowly passing by at dusk and a thousand other things that touched upon other things as the cherries grew. Splendid.

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1. by marybeth on Jul 14, 2009 at 2:58 PM PDT

Sour cherries are almost vanished where I live and we are hoping to plant a couple trees this fall. How many years will I be from picking enogh fruit to make pie(s) and jam?

2. by joanmenefee on Jul 14, 2009 at 5:58 PM PDT

I noticed that Bittman talks about the rarity of sour cherries in How To Cook Everything. What a shame. Our smattering of cherries came from trees planted one and two years ago. Much depends, of course, on region and seasonal temperatures, but my husband says that under the right conditions you can have jam-worthy harvests by year four or five. Good luck with the planting!

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