The bloom that promiseth a mighty fruit.
William Shakespeare (King John, Act II, Scene I)
ONCE UPON A TIME, no doubt, one could live off the berries, roots and fruit growing by the footpaths in this part of England, if one could dodge the henchmen of the Dukes of Northumberland. Dukes who seem to have owned (and still do) vast acreage attached to an inherited family title. There are things to pick and eat, to this day, in our hedgerows, in their due season. If one fancies meat, there were, and are, plenty of bunnies, and pheasants leap out of the fields into the paths of oncoming traffic, foot or motor. I've even had a red squirrel commit suicide under the wheels of the vehicle I was travelling in. Can one dine on Emily Wilding?
Given our chilly climate in Northumbria, Scotland just a few miles to the north of me this afternoon, a line that has moved over the centuries, I imagine that the secret of successful dining and surviving before TESCO came along included putting on several layers of insulation: Leathers and furs for the outside, fats within the body. The Duke's venison. Some long-haired highland cattle. A woolly ewe. An anxious lamb. Whatever one could nick.
As a very young boy, I was always amazed to find apples, plums, greengages and pears ripe for the picking when I went walking in the orchards of Kent with my cousins. We didn't pick them, of course, much as I longed to, for they belonged to some farmer or other. I have picked and eaten fruit directly from the tree since then, ignoring the word of the Lord a few times, paying heed to the Snake. The fruit tasted no better than the packaged variety, perhaps tarnished by guilt. Do you suppose that Eve, after her bite (and did she have but one nibble, or chow down on a bushel basket of fruit?) went directly to Adam and said: "Husband, these are truly champion … There's nothing like them! I tell you, these are to die for!" And Adam replied, reaching for a plump specimen, "Wife, that was Elohim's point. We're going to take up wearing clogs, and then pop them."
In Bermuda, I recall trying the then-ubiquitous Surinam cherries and loquats when they were fruiting. I disliked the raw flesh of those two then, and still do. However, the cherries make a wonderful jam, and loquat chutney is delicious. I believe the prickly pears one could find in Bermuda near the shoreline could be eaten, though I'm not exactly sure how one might prepare them. Other than those, roadside vegetation wasn't particularly palatable.
Our garden in Bermuda was rather barren. My mother had the opposite of a green thumb. This affliction extended to her cooking: I don't recall a single tasty vegetable (or meat) dish prepared in our home. Everything was average, plain, boring. We could have, assuming the earth, moon and stars had been differently aligned at my mother's nativity, grown various fruit and vegetables in abundance in our back garden as there was some red soil there. Our front garden grew only rocks and a Poinciana tree that clung to them. We tried to grow beans. Can one go wrong with a few beans? Well, yes. Carrots and potatoes also came a cropper. Tomatoes, that most delicious fruit to my mind, simply withered at the surface.
We had banana trees in the garden and most rarely a small bunch would appear. This when my mother's brother had a banana patch next door to us so successful, so bounteous, that he sold the bunches to the Friendly Store supermarket. Occasionally we'd be given a hand. My uncle also had orange, tangerine and pink grapefruit trees in his orchard. I'd gather up some of the windfalls for fresh orange juice or broiled grapefruit. We took most of these to my grandparents.
My father's mother, my Nan Eldridge, did have the green thumb. Green fingers, if that is possible. I don't ever recall Nan buying food other than bread, biscuits, orange squash, a rare bottle of sherry, and the dreaded roasted chicken. Nan's chickens were dreaded because she could make one last for a fortnight or longer, even without benefit of a freezer or even a refrigerator. In Nan's Garden of Eden, it could be a taste of the chicken that might make one surely die, or surely have a case of the trots. If one wanted meat with a meal at Nan's, the only safe way to have it was to purchase it on the way there and serve it up. Tell her that last month's chicken will keep …
My Nan grew vegetables, rhubarb, tomatoes, currants, vines and flowers. Anything she had a mind to grow, she did very well, thank you. I wonder if her parents had that gift. I saw my great-grandfather Crow's terribly overgrown garden in Uxbridge as a boy, when he was months from dying of old, old age, and, looking back, appreciate that it must have been quite wonderful in its day.
I have had a little experience of gathering in crops, though I do not look back on most of it fondly. In southern Utah the Mormon Church had farms that grew, at least where I was living, peaches and apricots. When the fruit was a-growing, it would have to be thinned out. If a branch was too overloaded, some proportion of the fruit would be plucked off and flung to the ground. And then harvest time would come along. One would wear a brown sack strapped so that it opened on one's chest. Up a ladder and the ripe fruit would be picked and dropped into the sack, which would get pretty heavy pretty quickly. I'm not much for heavy, or ladders, and I certainly was put off by the warnings to watch the long grass below the trees as there were rattlesnakes. Every Eden has them. That's what Eden is: A snake's den.
A little over a year ago, I went gathering apples here in Northumberland. Most were windfalls, but a few were pulled down from the lower branches. I wasn't going up a ladder at my age. No way. No burlap sacks round the neck, just plastic bins on the grass. The fruit was eventually used to make a winter's worth of filling for apple and blackcurrant pies and crumbles at Alnwick Day Services.
I did make my own apple and blackcurrant crumble this winter. Apples from friends a few streets over, blackcurrants from a hedge on the street across from me. And, this morning, I noticed the first few flowers on the blackberry bushes. No telling if they will survive the frosts, snow even, that are still likely (for it is only mid-January), but Nature is moving in her gentle way, seeking the sun, the warmth.
Will there be fruit in the hedgerows in 2009? Will the fields produce the tatties we love up here? And the parsnips and turnips? Will there be wheat, rye and barley at the right time? Will the lilies of the field and the daffodils around Warkworth Castle outshine Solomon once again? There is the promise of all that. We must prepare ourselves to actually receive the benefits of these promises. Even the gifts of the hedgerows must be sought out, gathered in, and prepared for the table; they do not drop onto our plates like a micro-waved packaged-dinner from Sainsbury's.
In a few days there will be a new President of the United States of America. Some years ago I first saw Barack Obama on the telly giving a speech at a Democratic Party Convention and I had an understanding, sure as anything, that he would be the next President, odd as it seemed. I told a friend about that and he pointed out that a black man could never become President. America's not like that.
Apparently, fortunately, after all, America is like that. There is not a black man, to be truly accurate, only hours from taking charge of what the Americans at least think of as the most important nation on Earth, for Barack Obama is biracial. I think that's terrific. He also has a background culture that is both western Christianity and Islamic. That's terrific. The new President will be quite a bit younger than I am, and a good deal smarter. That's not a bad thing. But can he pick up apples? I bet he can. Can he share them out so that the hungry receive what they need, and the over-fed be put on a ration? Let's hope so. Warehouses of rotting apples we don't need.
Barack Obama is a man laden with promises. No doubt he has made some, perhaps many, which we do not know about yet. Unlike Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Barack Obama's had to be bought at a huge price and must be paid for.
One wishes Obama well. One wants to love America. It has been most unpleasant simply hating the American Government, especially the President and his Cabinet, for the eight years of George W. Bush. There was nothing to like about Dubya: His never-ending slip-ups and inability to make common sense of issues, or to portray himself as a man of good character and wisdom belittled a decade of Americans. It was embarrassing to watch him fumbling. He even made our Tony Blair and Gordon Brown look sharp.
If George W. Bush let a generation of Americans (and, frankly, the Free World which he'd like to think himself Leader of) down, it seems to me that the American people, and all of us out here must make sure we don't let President Barack Obama down.
So many of us feel good about this man, so let's treat him well, and make it happen.
So many of us feel good about this man, so let's treat him well, and make it happen.
Just a few flowers in the hedges. And spring is coming