In ten years I’ve never witnessed a harvest like this. Usually we have aphids, who clump the leaves together with sticky webs and fall down your shirt when you visit the composter in that corner of the yard. Usually the cherries ripen reluctantly and are prohibitively sour until the evening we decide, “tomorrow they’ll be ripe”–and the next morning we wake up to see the tree shaking with squirrels, beating us to it.
This year there’s enough to go around. Every limb is weighted down with glistening clusters of gorgeous red fruit. Most of them are way too high for us to reach, soaring above the telephone wires and exploding upon impact when they fall in the back lane. The color is deepest where the trembling sprays hang over the neighbor’s garage roof, whose easy access has prompted the kids to name it the “Cherry Gold-mind.”
To my mind, the cherry is the perfect fruit. It’s mouth-sized, for one thing: you’re not tempted to scoop a handful at once, like with blueberries; nor do you face the peach-related peril of skin wedged in your teeth and juice dripping down your chin. The cherry offers a pleasing, weighty smoothness rolling on the tongue. Biting down meets first with a pert resistance, then is rewarded with a dam-burst of intense, winey nectar. And what’s left is a stone–not a grenade of jaw-wrenching bitterness like apple or pomegranate seeds, but a lovely inert sphere to fire into the hedge (or, if you’re Son #1, onto the hood of the neighbor’s minivan).
l feel responsible towards this bounty, regretful of having none of the equipment or skills for proper stewardship. Isn’t a “cherry picker” a kind of forklift? Didn’t people in olden days used to pick, pack, process and put up for winter? I watch the cherries get larger and darker and I feel increasingly anxious. I break up the kids’ cherry fights as wasteful, but I can’t fit any more fruit in the freezer.
The birds are frantic, too–or possibly drunk, if they’ve been tapping the overripe ones on the ground. A robin will pierce the skin with its beak and then shake its head frenetically to carve out a chunk of flesh. What’s amazing is how many times it can do this to a single cherry before the weakened stem finally lets go. The yard is littered with eviscerated fruit.
Lots of urbanites have fruit trees in their yards. We glean mulberries, raspberries, blackberries, pears and chestnuts from our lane alone. In fact, a few groups in Toronto have organized to ensure that all this stuff doesn’t go to waste, like Not Far From the Tree, who claims to have picked 8135 lbs of residential fruit in 2009. Their approach to urban gardening is brilliantly simple: match up the trees of too-busy-to-bother property owners with crews of eager volunteers. Maybe I’ll register my tree and see if someone shows up with some of those telescopic wooden ladders or pincers on poles.
Meanwhile, I have borrowed my neighbor’s canner and am learning how to make preserves. My first batch of Cherry-Hazelnut Conserve didn’t gel, so I’m calling it “Cherry Haze Syrup” and suggesting people serve it over waffles. Cherry-Currant Chutney infused my whole house with the sensuous aroma of cinnamon sticks, cardamom and orange rind. And did you know that Pickled Cherries–the stems are left on–make a fantastic accompaniment for roast game?
As in olden-days harvest season, everything else stops to get this work done. The porch is not painting itself while we hold ladders for each other in the backyard. Fortunately, Son #1 seems to enjoy using the cherry pitter, an exciting-looking spring-loaded contraption that nonetheless pits only one cherry at a time. Today another neighbor ordered six cups of cherries for making pies, and Son #2 dutifully filled his backpack for delivery.
This is thrilling. This is the healthiest, cheapest fun we’ve had since our trip to the sugar bush in March. This must be how vegetable gardeners feel all season long.