Earth Day turns 45 years old this week. Tia Nelson’s dad is rolling over in his grave.
I refuse to feel guilty. It’s summer. I am in Tuscany eating cherries. Certainly, there is a political import to my gluttony. What is politics without pleasure? What is democracy without choice? There must be poetry alongside saving the world.
Prunus apetala—clove cherry
Prunus besseyi—sand cherry
Prunus cornuta—bird cherry
Prunus dielsiana—tawny-bark cherry
Prunus emarginata—bitter cherry
Prunus fruticosa—dwarf cherry
Prunus gondouinii—duke cherry
Prunus humilis—plum cherry
Prunus incisa—Fuji cherry
Prunus jamasakura—mountain cherry
Prunus laurocerasus—laurel cherry
Prunus mahaleb—rock cherry, perfumed cherry
Prunus nipponica—peak cherry
Prunus occidentalis—western cherry
Prunus prostrata—prostrate cherry
Prunus rufa—Himalayan cherry
Prunus serrula—Tibetan cherry
Prunus takesimensis—flowering cherry
Prunus x yedoensis—Matsum
One can almost create an abecedarium of cherries (k,q,u,y,z withstanding). Let me play with my own additions:
Prunus kissia—kiss cherry
Prunus quellas—hunger cherry
Prunus umbra—shadow cherry
Prunus yearnus—love cherry
Prunus zeta—the last cherry
With friends, we have been eating cherries for lunch, for dinner, from baskets, hand to mouth, repeatedly. My fingers are stained. My tongue is alive. I am dreaming of cherries. Just last night, there was a Spanish artist who had painted a still life called “Cherries.” She uttered one sentence: “The painting is wet.”
It has all been too easy. Nilantha is picking cherries from the edges of olive trees.
He lives here. The least we could do at this retreat of writers is pit them, better than words pitted against each other. Here at Santa Maddalena, where we are here to produce, the work of writers is the work of art.
On a square stone table covered with lichen, we place La Repubblica down as a tablecloth to absorb the juice. We have found a tool (every Italian household has one) that resembles a bird with a down-curved bill. Call it a cherry curlew. Kamila places a single cherry in the prescribed pitting cup. I press the handle that resembles a paper punch. The beak bears down on the lip-luscious fruit. It bleeds. Presto! The pit is cast out like an unwanted thought. Kamila removes it and places the pit on a white porcelain plate. My task is to pull the fleshy red fruit from the cup.
“Huesos,” says Javier. “Watch out for the bones.” He points to the pits that are accumulating and retrieves one forgotten in the cherry bowl. For an entire afternoon, we pit cherries, cull bones, and take delight in tangible things—like fruit, like flesh—instead of sentences.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat. . . .
There are days we live as if death were nowherein the background; from joy to joy to joy, from wing to wing, from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
—Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms”
We carry the overfull, now overripe cherries into the kitchen and let our eyes adjust. We will make jam or jelly preserves.
We weigh equal measures of cherries with sugar. After filling a bowl with four small bags of sugar, we pour the sugar back into the bags they came in, leaving a line for ants to follow. The cherries are sweet enough.
We heat them and wait for a rolling boil. Kamila, Javier, and I tend to them like a simmering novel. Javier speaks of his mother and her recipe for cherry jam in Asturia, Spain.
Kamila speaks of her native Pakistan, the feasts of her family, the street markets where one shops for individual things, a market for spices, a market for jars, a market for each specialty item that one can imagine.
In Utah, my home, cherries are a love crop. They are also our state fruit. They grow in well-tended orchards along the Wasatch Front.
Cherry-picking was a large part of our childhood. Our parents, aunts, and uncles would load up their station wagons with kids and drop us off in one of the orchards alongside Great Salt Lake with empty buckets in hand. Sometimes we were paid by the pail or given bags to take home for our families. Once we were up in the trees, out of view, we could eat as many as we wanted.
One day, my great-uncle was standing on a ladder picking cherries with my cousin and me. We were perched on sturdy branches above him, ten-year-old girls unafraid of heights.
“What principle of the Gospel means the most to you?” he asked, filling his bucket.
“Obedience,” my cousin replied, pulling a cherry off its stem.
“Free agency,” I answered, eating one.
When I was obsessed with Hieronymus Bosch’s medieval triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (a painting that I looked at over a period of seven years), I meditated on cherries. They are everywhere, symbols of lust and pleasure, floating in the sky, bouncing on the water, being thrown in the air as balls. They are being eaten, fondled, and speared by birds.
Sitting before the triptych, I wrote about one tableau in particular:
There she is, my playful self, rocking back and forth like the child she is, holding the cherry high above her head, an offering to the magpie perched on her foot. Her knee is bent, perhaps another game with a bird, up and down, an exercise in trust. How far, how close, will the magpie allow her to take him?
Slowly she draws the cherry toward her breast, her knee to her belly. The magpie is still with her. The woman never makes eye contact. Only the magpie watches. What the woman knows she knows through her hands, her feet, her back curved, rocking on the earth.
The bird breaks the skin of the cherry open and drinks the red flowing juice. It spills onto the skin of the woman. Now she holds both the fruit and the bird in her hands. Her eyes still remain closed. She rocks back and forth, in place, a cradle to the world.
Elemental pleasures. Rest in motion. Breathing. Let me go where I have not yet been.
The cherries, now simmering on the shadowed stove, are transforming themselves before our eyes into a deep and textured concoction, the stuff of alchemy. On a whim, we add chili peppers and a peach or two for contrast. As writers, we experiment, and our secrets are disguised on the page.
It is, after all, the joy of improvisation. We will say it is planned, carefully constructed, but what are cherries but a manifestation of joy, spontaneous, playful, and sorrow-filled when gone? Words like cherries are what we consume.
“She drew from the word all of its crushed and bleeding sweetness, its soft and jeweled redness.” — Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden.
To taste with our eyes. To touch with our minds. We are creating a still-life not with paint but from the palette of the Earth.
When we walked into the dining room of the Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte, the candles were lit and a fire was roaring after a day of rain. It was a table set for seven. Chicken bathed in tomato sauce was served with creamed peas and onions, fresh from the garden.
As a backdrop to the evening, Nilantha, who grew weary of cherry-picking, brought in what appeared to be the tree itself and propped it in the corner. The translator at the table, who specializes in Chinese, remarked how in China, cherry is a girl’s name, and so we became a dinner party of eight.
The conversation was rich with tales from Armenia, where Beatrice’s family was from, of priests and lovers and a nest of spies. One story gave birth to another, and we were transported through the lens of memory where the line between fiction and truth is always blurred.
Did I mention the wine? We drank a smooth Chianti, cherry red.
After the table was cleared, the three writers rose in honor of the dinner guests and our beloved hostess. For dessert, we scooped crème gelato in blue bowls and generously spooned the burgundy compote over it, creating the swirled effect of marbled paper. The chilis provided a kick and an accent that became a signature of both Pakistani culture and the heat of the American Southwest.
Such simple pleasures on a summer night. It is in our nature to compose.
Why are we so reticent to celebrate beauty and days of leisure, when this is what delights and feeds our souls?
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism.