Sunday, August 3, 2008

Trees I have known

A couple weekends ago when I was visiting upstate, as I wrote on my my other blog we went to the Saugerties lighthouse which has a deck behind it that is virtually over the Hudson. Growing at one end of the deck is a mulberry tree. A. picked some of the ripe berries and shared them with me. "Are these blackberries?" he asked [a city-boy born and bred]. "No, mulberries. My grandmother had a tree. I remember eating them, staining my hands and bare feet because so many had fallen on the ground, and my clothes too. I made 'ink' from their juice." The words just popped out, all facts that came back to me in a rush. I thought also about seeing a mulberry tree on 91st Street near Columbus and another in Central Park near the skating rink. "They look like blackberries," he said. "Yes, but blackberries grow on brambles."

I've been thinking about mulberries which I've just read are spread throughout the US and grow prolifically. Why aren't the berries used in jam or pie or eaten with cream? Why aren't they a cultivated crop? They're very delicious when ripe. I've been thinking too about the validity of my memory. I cannot place that "remembered" tree. Which grandmother's house? I trust the spontaneity of my memory but most of my memories have a very vivid place-picture.

For instance I remember gathering black walnuts in a specific pasture. My father was there with a milk bucket and I think my mother also. The walnuts had a rough green covering with icky "fruit" between it and the nut. I was told one could use the outer part for dying fabric brown It dyed bare hands brown too and did not wash off for some time. We let the nuts dry for a while and ate them usually on quiet Sunday afternoons. My father had a flat stone, perhaps six inches across. He would lay the nut on it and hit it with a hammer to open it. The shells were thick, sometime it took several hammer blows to get all the meat. I thought these were much more delicious than the hickory nuts we also collected. Black walnuts are another food that seems to have disappeared. They've been replaced by the dull, uninteresting English walnuts.

That same afternoon we spoke of mulberries, we passed another familiar tree. "That's a plane tree," my companion said. "In Indiana we called it a syacamore," I said. "You can tell by how the bark peels off," he said.

Again I agreed and said, "For a long time I read about plane trees in writing about central Asia and wondered what they looked like, I was happy to find out that plane trees and sycamores are the same." There's a row of them in Central Park west of the boat basin at the upper 70s along the drive in the park. I always get a warm, slightly nostalgic feeling when I see them.

We seemed to be stuck on trees for a while. "People say they don't like ginkgos because they stink," he said. "They stink like vomit -- but only for a couple of weeks," I said. "Ginkgos have male and female and the famale has berries with pits inside that are used by the Chinese for medicine." "For memory," he said. "Ginkgo biloba." The berries fall of and I've seen Chinese women in Central Park with plastic gloves on as they gather the berries into buckets." "They have beautiful leaves," he said. "Yes. But the ones in my neighborhood are not pretty trees, they are very awkward with branches going every which way. They are among the oldest trees in the world -- before the dinosaurs.'

Trees -- we who are not desert people take them for granted. We glance at them and forget that they were wonderful when we were small. Maybe remember climbing a favorite one, maybe even having a tree house -- or wishing we had a tree house. Naybe we remember falling out of one and getting hurt. Sometimes, it's good to stop and think about trees. I could write, easily, at least 10,000 words about "trees I have known and loved" It's good, on a Sunday afternoon, to let the mind drift over those strong, silent parts of our world, they remain wonder-full to this day.


Tess said...

Mmmm, very evocative post. I don't think I've ever tasted a mulberry, but I remember in my aunt's garden there was a very old gnarled greengage tree. I don't know if you know the fruit - it's a cultivar of the plum. When I was a girl (hmmm, that might be a title for a new blog!) greengages were common in England, but you hardly ever see them now.
I remember how common it was to have fruit bushes in domestic gardens: red currents, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries. Just one or two of each, even in small gardens.
And lots of gardens had one or two apple and pear trees. As you say, not the boring variety you see today, but crisp and tasty. I used to love seeing the windfall apples that were too rotten to pick up, with caterpillars feasting on them. And the glorious tension of never quite knowing whether, when you bit into a home-grown apple, it might have a tiny worm in it - symbol of no chemical sprays.

Tess said...

Oh, and I forgot - quinces! Again you hardly ever see them now because they're bitter and slightly hard work, but quince jelly with cold meats is magnificent!