Through the breakfast room window, I notice the cherries are ripening. After that I can’t enter the room without pausing to gaze at them. Tart cherries turn a deep, bright red the shade of Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick, glow against the emerald of their leaves.
They don’t belong to me. One cherry tree is in Jenn and Eric’s backyard, rooted near my fence, and some of its branches arch over, so I can easily reach them. Or I could, the last time there were cherries. Another tree is in my other neighbor’s front yard. I watch day by day as the redness advances. Whatever else I have planned, I will be picking cherries soon. I can’t stand the idea of wasting all that fruit.
The son of a friend has become a farmer, has orchards. “Aren’t fruit trees wonderful,” his mother said. “They give and give.” Recently her son posted a photo of branches bowed with fruit and wrote, “this is my life now.” The tree’s timeline is his timeline. There is no choice. Somehow that has a calming effect. I am no farmer, but for this brief moment I’m on nature’s schedule. Three days later, I put aside my work and get out the ladder.
A hard late freeze, Dickinson’s blond assassin, decimated the blossoms last year. Facebook reminds me that the last time we had cherries was two years ago. A hiatus of two years leaves me relearning. When I’m up in the branches I have to move deliberately, be careful not to poke my eye out. Bits of stem and leaf catch in my hair, fall into my shirt, nest in my bra. Cherries turn red first on the sun side. I need to check before plucking, find many still yellow on the unexposed half. I start being able to identify the right shade of redness. Picking goes faster after the first time.
I can only reach the lowest branches of Jenn and Eric’s tree this year, and Christine’s has grown beyond my five-foot ladder’s reach. Two years ago, when there was a bumper crop, her house was vacant and I easily harvested bagsful from that tree. Trees grow so slowly we don’t notice. It shocked me recently to see a 1990s photo of our house. The crown of the spruce barely reached the top of the first floor window. Now it towers above the roof and has grown wide enough to provide shade to the front of the house. Our living room is cooler in summer than it once was.
I research again what to do with cherries. Rinse and drain them, spread wax or parchment paper on a cookie sheet, pop the pits out the stem hole, space pitted cherries on the sheet and freeze. A few hours later, divide them by cupfuls and put them in freezer bags, where they now won’t form clumps. It’s a repetitive job, but I fall into a rhythm, take satisfaction in filling the sheet. I discard those not ripe enough, those with bad spots, those with a bite taken out of them—damn Eastern gray squirrels and whoever let them hitch a ride out west.
Luckily these are tart cherries, too sour even for squirrels. One year when the cherries reached a certain winey peak a murmuration of starlings descended on them in a feeding frenzy of fluttering wings and rattling branches. Those birds are descended from the one hundred European starlings released in Central Park in the 1890s. People thought it a charming idea for the park to be home to all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. The feeding frenzy lasted an hour or so, and the tree was stripped of its fruit when they were done. Nature is far more efficient than we are.
These are pie-making cherries, cobbler cherries, require lots of sugar. They are hardly a staple. It is an indulgence to harvest them. I make five forays with the ladder over several days and then I’m done. Those luscious-looking crimson fruits high up the tree are beyond my reach. Something is always beyond our reach.
My neighbors won’t pick the rest even if they have taller ladders: they are busy people with demanding careers. But I can let them go now. I’ve done what I can. The desserts I make with these cherries frozen within an hour of picking taste wonderful. And for the few days I spend climbing into branches and putting them up for later use, I participate in an ancient process, imagine myself connected once again to the earth.