by Eleanor Stanford
It was with a strange recognition that I recently came across Henry David Thoreau’s Wild Fruits—according to the cover, his “Rediscovered Last Manuscript”—in the stacks of my local public library. This is, incidentally, the same library where I worked as a 12- and 13-year old, for four hours every Sunday afternoon, shelving books. I savored the quiet I rarely found at home with three younger brothers. I became intimately acquainted with the Dewey decimal system, so that even now, each number seems to contain a particular essence, an almost synesthetic pleasure: the compact thimbleberries of poetry in the 811s; the thick, bitter puffs and galls of history in the late 900s.
I do use the card catalogues now. But I still like to wander here by feel, among the dust jackets and brittle leaves, the fragile spines.
When I left for college in central Virginia at 18, my mother gave me a guide to the wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I remember flipping through the pages, savoring the rich language of the plants’ common names: Blazing Star. Mayapple. Heal All.
Since then, I’ve taken the book with me from one place I’ve lived to another: Florida, West Africa, Wisconsin, Texas, and most recently, Brazil. What use could I possibly have for the book in Cape Verde or Madison or Salvador? And yet I keep it, and occasionally page through it, pondering wood vetch and touch-me-not, flowering spurge and Queen Anne’s lace.
I did not think I would find myself back in this drab suburb in Pennsylvania. But here I am, once again, trying to appreciate its larch and ash, its faceless strip malls, its small fruits.
When we moved to Brazil, I found myself hungry for nouns—particularly the names of things in the natural world. My Portuguese was passable, but not remarkable. I could generally understand and make myself understood. But I needed a way of situating myself, of feeling rooted in the place.
Slowly I gathered a small collection of such words. For a while, I searched for a guidebook to the flora or fauna of Bahia. At the school where I worked, my office adjoined the library, and I sometimes slipped in when I wasn’t too busy. I felt my way by instinct to the usual places: botany, natural history, geography. I found Amerigo Vespucci, exploring Brazil in the 14th century: We discovered immense regions . . . many wild animals, various kinds of birds, and an infinite number of trees, all aromatic. I found Dorival Caymi, poet and songwriter, who’d lived in Itapuã in the 1940s, a mile from our house, where the ocean reiterated indistinctly against the rocks:
But where were the names? It was easy to drift here, among generalities and metaphor. Not so easy to plant oneself in the sandy loam of the particular.
Breadfruit, one of hundreds of fruits native to
Bahia and found not in groceries but at more
Dete, our nanny, was one of the few people I knew who were familiar with the vast plant world. She liked to tell me about the native fruits and vegetables, which sounded almost mythical in her description.
That tree by the playground? It’s called algoroba. In the interior, they use the leaves for animal feed in the dry season. Those fruits on the ground by the curb, that look like brown apples? Those are sapotí. They’re delicious, if you can get to them before the bats and marmosets.
Every time she gave me another one, I added it to my collection, polished it, rolled it around on my tongue.
Thoreau wrote, in 1859, The tropical fruits are for those who dwell within the tropics. Their fairest and sweetest parts cannot be imported.
And yet here, in the thick of the tropics, where you could pick papaya and mangoes anywhere, where coconuts and breadfruit rotted in ditches on the side of the road, the grocery stores were full of mealy apples imported from Chile, pears from the United States, kiwis from New Zealand, pallid, flavorless tomatoes from who knows where.
These were what Thoreau called, with a touch of disdain, “table fruits.” They do not feed the imagination as these wild fruits do, but it would starve on them.
I remembered the summers before we left Pennsylvania, creeping into the tangle on Woodbine Avenue, where the wineberries fell under our touch. Dusk blurred the nettles at the edge, barbed plants which, if we were more ambitious and more careful, we could have picked and cooked for their tender greens.
My sons, skittish and sleep-frayed, made their way like small animals through the brambles, mouths stained with the dark juice.
I remembered October, the tomatoes on the vines split in frost-stitched scars. My younger son stood at the edge of the dying garden, insistent. At one and a half, memory is a net full of holes, nothing to catch you. His language of one word, syllable thick with ache and indignation.
Pitangas plucked from a bush: tart and acidic
yet mild and elusive.
Most of us, Thoreau wrote, are still related to our native fields as the navigator to undiscovered islands in the sea.
One day in November I arrived home to find a cup of small, jewel-red fruits on the counter. They were the size of petite cherries, with a pit inside, ridged, and slightly flattened, almost the shape of a miniature pumpkin.
“I was walking with Ju,” Dete said, “and I noticed that the pitanga bush was fruiting. So I had to stop and pick some for you.”
Later she walked out with me to show me the bush. The leaves make a good tea to cure a cold, she said. And licor de pitanga—pshiu. É uma delicia.
The fruits were tart and acidic, with firm, juicy flesh and a subtle sweetness. I could hold them in my palm, run my fingers along the smooth, accordion-pleated skin. I was at a loss to describe the taste, so mild and elusive.
But at least I had the name, which somehow seemed to contain all of those things: the pit, the tang, the final, satisfied ahh.
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