Scanning my Facebook feed, I glimpsed a photo of a tree, leafless, and a hillside that looked familiar–green winter cover grass in the foreground, brown pasture on rising hill behind, and remnants of fall colors on the trees topping the ridge. I looked again. That’s the … pear tree, I thought. Looking at who posted it, and then at her comment, I knew. My friend Valerie who lives in the house next to my parents has an eye for landscapes and beauty, and I was happy that this particular plant had caught her eye. I clicked Like and then read the comments. One snagged me like a blackberry brier: “That poor tree looks not quite alive!”
Rarely is my instinct to shout someone down, but I felt it in this case. I wanted to say, “You don’t understand!” but I took a deep breath before typing anything in the box that said, “Write a comment…” Choking back what I really wanted to say, I wrote something banal, like, “That is an amazing tree. It has borne pears for many decades, and it keeps on!” The photo showed fruit hanging from the branches, like the ornaments on A Charlie Brown Christmas’s Christmas tree, golden, defying the writer’s words. It might appear dead, but the tree lives in ways the commenter could never guess.
By happenstance–or was it?–the previous day I had quartered, cored, and eaten a pear I had bought at Stop and Shop. The large, more or less unblemished and not-entirely-ripe fruit was only a proxy for the ones I knew from my childhood life on the farm where the pear tree grows. Too stiff, mealy, and large, the store-bought one came up short by comparison to what grows on the tree in the picture.
The tree lives–a century, now, or more–at the edge of a patch that was my grandmother’s vegetable garden. I understand it is a Kieffer variety, not as sweet as some, but prized for preserves and canning, long-term storage, as well as eating raw. My siblings and I grew up plying the earth around it, sitting in its shade, eyeing its fruit, climbing its branches. My parents and my gradmother taught us lessons of horticulture and perseverance on that surrounding garden spot–not always ones we sought out, but lessons on which hinged our subsistence and formation. My father probably endured those same lessons in the same place, and his mother–my grandmother–the same.
Earliest of trees to bloom in the late reaches of winter, the pear might send blossoms out too soon. In that case, with a prediction of a late season frost, my mother or father would say, “I guess that will fix it. No pears this year.” I would feel a twinge of guilt, as if I could somehow save it from the cold tentacle with a blanket or a fire. Most of the time their instincts, informed by the weatherman, were correct, but occasionally the frost was light enough that the blossoms survived and fruit came in the fall.
Our instance of pyrus communinis produces white, inch-across, blossoms, each with five petals and a little tassel of stamens
surrounding a pistil. As a botanist would say, these are perfect flowers, with both male and female parts. For a brief time in early spring they turn the entire tree into a white cloud, one that gets dispersed in a mock snowstorm when springtime gusts blow. If the garden was plowed early enough and the ground harrowed to a fluffy, clod-less texture, the petals lay on the dirt and turned into a thin, brown matte before vanishing entirely with planting, cultivation, and rain. When instead wet weather made plowing late, the snowy flower remnants clung to chunks of cow manure and tufts of hay forked out of the barn where livestock had spent wintry nights.
In late spring the tree has a full, teardrop-shaped leaves, glossy and dark green on the sun-ward side, lighter and matte on the ground-ward. Little thumbnail-sized proto-pears appear where the blossoms fell away. The garden would be plowed and planted to within ten feet of the trunk. Underneath the tree the soil was loamier, darker, easier to disk and hoe than other parts of the garden where dry weather could make the more powdery ground hard, almost impenetrable. Deprived of the benefits of the good dirt by the tree’s shade, however, rows of corn and green beans than ran up to the pear were spindlier plants than the ones with full daytime sunlight, and they often produced nothing.
Of a summer morning, sometimes before the dew burned off, my grandmother would go out to work, with a bonnet and long sleeves to keep off the sun and cotton gloves to keep the hoe handle from blistering her hands. I aspired to the skill she had with that implement. It was one of my young life’s mysteries how she could sever little weeds while missing the equally-young potatoes, cabbages, beans, corn, and okra, and how she could pull a light hill of loose earth around these same plants without burying them. That pear tree looked down on her labor and on my wonder.
Orchard grass favored the ground beneath the pear, and the fence row beside it. When it got high, my father would cut it with a scythe. He was reluctant when I asked, at some point, if I could try. It was much harder than it looked, and it took multiple seasons to get to the point where the result looked good and I was not completely exhausted.
Some seasons, branches would get heavy with fruit and either bow down to the ground or break off. That’s why, I surmised, they called them boughs. Come autumn, the leaves would fall first, with fruit wagging on weakening stems. When they fell, we tried to keep pace, gathering them in one-peck buckets. They might be bruised, but the Kieffer variety is less easily damaged than others. What didn’t fall we picked by reaching, climbing, and ladders.
My mother has canned, made pear honey of them, and stewed them with apples, prunes, and spices. At times a bushel basket of them might keep for weeks in the cellar. Or they may be a gift to someone. This continues a practice of generations living on this place, the same tree.
Grown now around the world, these plants of genus pyrus originated in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains of central Asia, in western China near the borders with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Learning this, I could not help thinking of people carrying these plants–as seedlings with root balls in sacks or as only seeds–over thousands of years and thousands of miles out of the shadows of those towering mountains to Europe, and ultimately from Europe to America where this one specimen finally took root in east Tennessee. Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that the forebears of the pear Valerie photographed with yellow fruit in October 2015 once had a clear view of Jengish Chokushu, the twenty-four thousand foot pinnacle of the range? Does a taste of the fruit somehow impart an inkling of that far-off place? Could my daughter, visiting Kyrgystan last year, sense she was near the origin of a tree in North America she herself had climbed?
Once asked by a student after one of his lectures how he could understand all of the mathematics he had discussed in the talk, John von Neumann replied, “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” For the pear tree, there is actually nothing to understand, only hearing, seeing, tasting, and growing accustomed to the fact that these things happened and that the tree lives, and that we wonder. The person commenting on the picture can be forgiven; at a glance the tree looks dead. And my squelched reply should be, “We don’t understand.”