Plums and Paw Paws

In 2012, back when I was young and the world was a different place, I planted a plum tree in my back yard. I had a dream – a vision – of finally making damson plum jam. This after years of scouring farmer’s markets and orchards for the rare English plum. It was audacious, to decide to commit to a mini-orchard in my plucky and not super bright tenth of an acre of land, but I try not to be limited by common sense too often. The story of my plum tree is familiar to many of you, since it might be just about the most written about topic in my desultory blog. There was one memorable year when the lectionary had the story of Jesus and the fig tree and no fewer than three pastors of my acquaintance asked my permission to use my bitter, hopeless plum journey as a sermon inspiration. Oh pastors, consider this permission to use anything I put on my blog in your sermons.

Wee small tree

And then I waited, while the tree grew. I discovered a saying “You plant a plum tree for your children, but a damson tree for your grandchildren.”* For years it flowered abundantly and never fruited once. It was lovely, but so far barren. I upped my game, my fertilizer use, and on one memorable night even rigged up a space heater as a suburban smudge pot to prevent a die-off when winter had one last late fusillade for us.

Yankee ingenuity – or possibly insanity
Hope in plum form

In 2018, I got really excited. There were all these little plumlets! Thousands! Tens of thousands! Even a 5 or 10% survival rate, and I’d be swimming in plums. I began looking up recipes for plum wine, plum sauce and plum puddings. But when we walk through a forest of acorns, it is a warning to us about how rare the success of life is in the face of the cruelty of nature and chance. By ones, and in great bunches, through every stage of life, I watched my plums fail. In the year of my greatest harvest, I had many hopes, but only in the end three plums, which I ate late – not understanding that my tree ripened to gold instead of purple plums. (Dammit, I’d bought a purple plum tree!)

The lone fruit

Then, that winter, I discovered the first knot of the blight that will kill my tree. Instead of having planting a gracious tree that will bring fruit to the world for the rest of my life, and for many years thereafter, I have planted this tree and I will watch it die. And worse, I will never get a single batch of jam out of the damn thing. I fought it of course, as we do mortality. I pruned and I fertilized and I read up on it. On the afternoon we learned a friend had two weeks to live, my husband couldn’t understand why I had to cut off the blackened cancerous growths RIGHT THEN. But from this vantage, both you and I can see it. This tree is not a garden object. It is a metaphor for life, for longing, for generations, and for mortality.

Black mark of deathly doom

I have come to a point, now, where I have passed through the phases of denial and bargaining in my grief for this tree – this metaphor for mortality. I no longer expect to eat a fruit from its branches. I do not believe I will be able to pull it through, or that miraculous healing is possible. I did not cut away the black places this summer – there are too many and they are too high to reach. I let the tree be, and only cut away the branches that made it hard to sit around it.

The main trunk has begun to weep sap. It will not be much longer now.

This moment of acceptance has in some ways freed me. While I planted the tree for fruit, in this long hot summer, when we spent so much time in the back yard, I came to love the tree for the shade it gave. I spent days sitting below its branches, sheltered under gracious leaves. The tree is home to an entire ecosystem of ants and bees and aphids and ladybugs. I admire its enormous elasticity, as when weighted by snow it will bend halfway to the ground and then spring back to the sky once it has dried off. I love the glorious puffy white blossoms it still bravely throws against new-blue skies in spring. Now that I have stopped expecting more, I can love it for what it is, for as long as I still have my friend.

The tree has become a frequent backdrop for our pictures and life

I will not, however, have this tree much longer. It is hard to watch it blacken and wither. And our yard is small to be home to a dying tree for very long.

So I had a choice. I could give up on a foolish, childish dream of fruit. This is tempting. There is no argument that my attachment to this tree and this hope is a sensible one. I know that any other plum I plant would likely suffer a similar fate – this blight will likely linger in soil and suckered-sprout for years yet. Our land is not appropriate for orchards. I have no skills or abilities to raise a healthy tree. I should just go buy my fruit like a normal American. I can feel the weight of the pressure to just be normal already. To not care so much about things that are so stupid. To pretend to myself and the world that this is just a tree like any other, and use it as an opportunity to teach my kids how to use a chain saw. Maybe put in a nice patio or something, with a sun umbrella.

Or. I could double down on crazypants dreams. I could pull out the core of my desires and longing, and find another way to express them. Maybe buy a tract of land without this problem? What if there’s a saleable set of orchard already growing? Do you think Farmer Dave would let me, like, sponsor a tree? Could I plant one at Camp Wilmot? Guerilla gardening along the greenway?

Then, there came a moment when I suddenly knew exactly what to do. I myself do not understand the genesis of this idea – the germination or pieces that went into its creation. I do not know how I knew these things. But I knew … I had to plant a pawpaw tree. I’m working on my patter for “What the heck is a pawpaw?” The pawpaw is the largest native north American fruit. You possibly might vaguely remember having heard of it through songs like “The Pawpaw Patch“. It is slightly larger than apple sized, has a thick skin and a few big seeds, and the fruit is described as a citrusy custard – like a cross between a banana and a mango. It’s been grown in America since before we colonists arrived. Although Massachusetts would have been traditionally too far north for its zone, with the change in our climate we are now warm enough to host it. The reason you’ve never heard of it isn’t because it isn’t delicious. It’s because there aren’t any varietals of pawpaw that are durable enough and last long enough to survive the American Corporate Food Chain. It doesn’t ripen once picked, is very fragile, and only lasts about 5 days after it ripens. So you just can’t pick it, pack it, ship it, stock it and eat it in time. It is an unbuyable, historic fruit. In other words, absolutely perfect for me.

Pawpaw Pie, here we come!

There are two practical considerations. The first is that TWO pawpaws in the area are required in order to get any live fruit. I can’t find any self-pollinating varietals. This is a challenge since I have a paucity of pawpaw space. I have a plan, but if any of my neighbors would be willing to plant a tree, I’d happily buy it, plant it and tend it for you! (JAY THIS MEANS YOU. YOU ALREADY TOLD ME YOU READ THIS SO HA HA YOU CAN’T PRETEND YOU DIDN’T SEE!)

Pawpaw and plum: the old and the new

The second is that the tree, in its early years, really requires shade to grow. It’s best planted underneath a mature tree, until it gets its feet under it and begins to shoot up. So the best place for it is in the shade of my dying plum tree. And here we return again to our mortality allegory. To be dying is not to be dead. There are still gifts that we can give and receive, after any hope of fruit is past. I will ask my beloved plum for another year or two of shade, blossoms and the gracious hosting of life. I will give it fertilizer, water, and compost for its nourishment, as well as my unabated love. And in in return, I hope that it holds on to strength and life long enough to give the live-giving gift of shade to the next generation.

Together, under the plum tree

Readying for Spring

March is a cruel month in New England. It is the time of dirty snow, when winter is old and grey and has entirely worn out it’s welcome, but clings to our shaded areas with a stubborn tenacity. Even today, the second nearly-70 degree spring day this weekend, I gaze over at my nearly-budding plum tree and see a malicious pile of snow in the corner.

But still – the fighter jets just flew past in tight formation, rumbling against blue-and-white sky, readying for the opening day in Fenway Park. The daffodils and hyacinths have pushed past winter’s hoar and into a friendlier light. The forsythias are golden in longer, stronger light and the spring peepers have begun a cacophony as loud as any fighter jet. Not even March can hold on forever.

I pruned the plum tree yesterday. That’s such hard work. You know you have to cut it down, for it’s own good. But you don’t want to. You’ve been cheering for every branch. I severely hacked back one of the branches that overhung the stairs (although I fear it’s going to inspire riotous new growth). There were also two fungally infected spots – one of which was a minor branch and one which was a medium one. I made more cuts based on health and my convenience than based on a proper pruning. But there are a good many incipient blossoms, and this year I have the fertilizer stakes in. I will ensure it gets well watered (I think my biggest mistake from last year). This year, you just watch, will be the year of plum jam.

I feel more than a touch repetitive when I tell you that life has been busy. On the spider-plot of the areas in which my life is usually busy, right now it’s dominated by work – of which there is much, and what I’m doing requires tremendous energy and leaves me tired at the cessation of my labors. I’ve been having headaches often lately. I think I may have cracked that one, though. I had a cold and sinus involvement which led to me taking a lot of cold medicine that included Tylenol. (Transcontinental flights with colds = All The Meds.) Then I kept getting headaches (and taking Tylenol) sometimes even from the moment I got up. I read through the internets (I was pretty sure it wasn’t one of the more serious causes) and discovered the concept of a rebound headache. I lowered my coffee, stopped taking all pain meds despite pounding headaches, and tried to get a bit more exercise. And it seems to have worked! No headaches for a week now!


Spring’s most perfect day

In other news, Grey has signed up for travel soccer. He had a great season doing indoor soccer this winter, during which time he enjoyed playing with his teammates, brought his skills up to a new level, got in good shape, and lost pretty much every single game. Builds character. For those of you who are not soccer moms, the hierarchy of soccer excellence goes like this:

Town soccer: 1 practice, 1 game a week. Entirely for fun. Don’t have to travel anywhere. Low pressure.
Travel soccer: 2 practices, 1 game a week. Have to do tryouts to get in. Increasingly competitive based on which team you make.
Club soccer: Soccer is now your life.

We’ve always been in the Town Soccer zone, and our sons have shown no interest in travel – until now. I often miss Grey’s games, but I got to go see him this Saturday on Spring’s most glorious day. I loved watching him run – the way his long legs effortlessly ate up the field as he moved. I loved watching him attack the ball, and how he’d position himself on the field, constantly adjusting to where the ball and other players were. He looked very right and in his element out there, which is not what I had expected based on his early years playing.

Does anyone with a background in physics know what happened next?

But we just added together 1 & 2 (it’s an and, not an or). So for the remainder of the year he’ll be playing games both days of the weekend, and will have three practices a week.


Yesterday, Facebook showed me an “On this day” update from a year ago. This was when we started the demolition for our attic project. Every night when I get to go up to that beautiful, bright, clean, airy space I can’t believe my good fortune. I think it will take a long time for it to get old.

Dare I say my favorite spot?

We went up to Conway in January, and spent some time looking at art galleries with an eye to the perfect pieces for our pristinely white walls. We found one superb piece that I enjoy every time I see it. It’s this beautiful, very New England scene (very wintery, really). It’s this lovely circle picture, done with photosensitive paper. It seems like a real place, lovingly remembered.

I especially love the stars

So what’s new with you lately? Have you seen any art? Spent any glorious spring days outside? Read any good books? Tell me!

The Impossible Dream – Damson Plum Jam

Many of you are familiar with my age-long quest to make Damson Plum Jam. It’s been six years now that I’ve had a plum tree in my yard, waiting for that magic year when the winter wouldn’t destroy the entire region’s stone fruit crop (it has the last two winters in a row), when my tree was mature enough, when those stupid cut-worms were off-timing so that I could FINALLY get some plums off my tree.

Friends, I have terrible news.

I’ve been keeping an eagle-eyed watch on my plum tree this year, largely due to the complete kills from the last two years. When the end of February hit and the weather was so warm, my plum tree started getting ideas about it possibly being spring. This is what’s killed my harvest the last two years. So I checked on bud progression every day, willing it to take it slow and not try to grow up too fast. (Parenting and plums have more in common than you think.) And I noticed this weird black stuff. I didn’t think too much of it. Trees have galls and weird things all the time. Surely this was just a weird thing. I poked at it. It seemed very hard, and it didn’t crack off. I resolved to look up what it was “later”.

Black mark of deathly doom

Later arrived Sunday, in my survey of the state of blooms as we batten down for our third Nor’Easter in like 10 days. (Starting Tuesday. UGH.) I finally Googled “plum black knot” and the results curdled the pit of my stomach. It was like eating prunes, only I don’t have any prunes because I don’t have any plums and also I kind of like prunes.

Black knot is a fungal disease that strikes fear in the hearts of owners of plum trees. It doesn’t matter if they are edible plums or the decorative, landscaping variety, the trees could be fatally affected.

(citation)

It seems so unfair! This tree has yet to bear a single plum! I don’t even know what a damson tastes like! I’ve been nurturing it for 7 years now. And now this! A number of sources were like “Yeah, if your tree has this you should probably just get rid of it.” Noooo!!!

With the thaw coming any day now, and the return of the warmer weather likely to happen SOMETIME in the next two weeks (please please please) Adam and I went out to deal with it immediately. If we were going to do this, completely and early was our best strategy. Maybe we can stop the spread to the other branches? There were six galls, but only six. I was still in my church dress. We ravaged the limbs of the quiescent tree with ruthless branch clippers. Limb after limb, studded with incipient buds, was severed and dropped onto the snowbanks below. We lost the second largest stem of the tree. This isn’t a great time to prune, either, since right now the tree is susceptible to more infections from these scars we inflicted. It feels like a long shot. Did we buy the tree time to at least have a few plums first? Is is a lost cause? Am I forever condemned to go damson plum jamless?

We will see what this spring brings, and hope.

Dreams I have had