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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.