Last week, an item about a fruit thief appeared on Nextdoor.com. A description of the suspect, whom the poster believed to have stolen 30 nearly ripe nectarines from his tree, was odd. It struck me as a sinister poem:
“I have a sense a guy I just walked
past on the road might be the
eater. He was a rude guy with a big hook like stick who was munching on some
fruit he had gotten further up
the road. Yellow weather proof coat on. Walked right past me with some bad energy. Never seen him before.
Any fan might be immediately reminded, as I was, of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say,” which concerns a plum thief closer to home. I mean, I’m sorry about Nextdoor guy’s missing nectarines (unless they were hanging over the street, which is fair game). But we should appreciate a colorful villain when one appears.
All of which is just to say that I have fruit—and the cosmic magnetism that exists between humans and plants in general—on the brain. I’ve been dipping in and out of three books, each one alphabetically ordered by plant. They contain passages that vibrate with all the interconnectivity and coincidences (some fruitful, some sinister) of the universe. To read about nature in this haphazard way, regimented by the first letter of a plant name, is to embrace an episodic sort of reading—good for these slow, hot days punctuated by thunder and lightning.
Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with recipes) is a new compendium of 26 essays on non-basic fruit: think durian, quince and elderberry. Lebo, who has published both poetry and a pie cookbook, sways seamlessly from culinary tips to memoir to measured spoonfuls of philosophy in every chapter. (Local author alert: for Italian plum jam, Lebo presents a recipe adapted from one of Willa Cather’s.)
A chapter on cherries is more concerned with the presence of almond flavor in cherry pits (amygdalin)—which is also cyanide. True maraschino liqueur is distilled from Marasca cherries and crushed pits, then blended with cane syrup and aged. Lebo takes us through the process, one she’s mostly derived from trial, error and the European Food Safety Authority, of living dangerously by creating her own cherry-pit extract to flavor pies with just a dram of bittersweet…well, poison. (Along the way, we’re treated to the anecdote of a neighbor who never picked her sour cherry trees and erected a high chain-link fence around them so no one else could, either.) Lebo ends with a meditation, watching her homemade maraschinos ripen in jars: “Summer glow and fair warning, true cherry and almost almond, the promise and poison from deep in their seeds.”
Lebo’s book takes inspiration from a gardening classic, Eleanor Perényi’s 1981 Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. It’s an alphabetical essay collection, too, written with a ripened elegance derived from the author’s 30 years of amateur gardening.
“I know something about a lot of things and not enough to call myself a specialist in any,” Perényi writes. “I grow herbs but am not an herbalist, roses but am not a rosarian.” If only more people in the world thought of themselves this way.
Green Thoughts begins conventionally enough, with annuals and beans, but takes deep, diverting breaths of the surrounding elements. In the “Partly Cloudy” chapter, Perényi puzzles over the enterprise of predicting the weather, “a force we have lost touch with” and are barely equipped to handle physically, much less psychologically. She writes of the power of ancient food systems, too, and the difference between an Iowa farmer who uses six pounds of soil to grow a pound of corn and his Native American counterpart, who wouldn’t dream of it.
That Indigenous plant knowledge is at the heart of Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science. Published last year and written by educator and ethnobotanist Enrique Salmón, who is Rarámuri (Tarahumara) from Mexico, this beautifully photographed and comprehensive encyclopedia is rooted in thousands of years of handed-down Native American plant wisdom, stories, uses and preparations. Wrapped around each plant’s narrative is the Rarámuri belief, known as iwígara, that all life forms are connected to the point of sharing the same breath.
In the section on piñon, Salmón recounts an Apache creation story that shares this collective view. In advance of a flood, the Original Being (creator of land, animals, and people) made a tall piñon tree. A person called Girl-Without-Parents rolled a gigantic hollow ball from the tree’s sticky pitch. When the flood came, “Girl-Without-Parents and all the insects and other animals gathered in the piñon pitch ball and rode out the flood.”
Put together, the gleanings from these plant-based books can make for a pretty fantastic feast. But as Perényi writes in a chapter called “Magic”: “The lesson for the gardener is not to swallow everything he reads in books.”
The best plant wisdom may come from some weird characters, she advises. “Better to consult the old lady down the road, the one whose porch is covered with moon vines.”