On a sunny Sunday morning, I’m making a tea cake for John Fryer. A cup of sugar, a cup of flour, zest of one lemon tossed in a bowl with half a jar of home-canned sour cherries, half a cup of yogurt, half a cup of oil, two eggs from my backyard chickens. Baking soda for rise. A simple cake I can make by heart now, batter poured into a foil loaf pan. I’ll take it by mid-day with a plate lunch.
John is in his 80s now, and he’s slipping. He tried to fake it for a year or two, until his friends got wind of what was going on and formed a sort of committee. The committee to keep John Fryer in his house. Like many of us in this small town, he doesn’t have kids, and in a way, we’re all practicing on John. Figuring out how we might take care of one another and ourselves when the time comes. John had a wife once, but apparently she died, and he didn’t have any kids. For our group of friends, this is pretty normal—most of us are partnered, but not all, and most of us don’t have kids. And our John is the most social person I’ve ever met, there he is at every party, always with a smile and a kiss. Unlike many of us, John grew up here, and lives in the house he was raised in, and while we worry about the stairs, he’s determined to stay there as long as he can. For a year or so, there was a group of volunteers that came by every morning, got him up and made sure he took his pills, but then our friend Marnie needed a job, so now she does the morning and evening shifts. He still walks the three blocks to the store he runs, a store that his grandfather founded in 1873, where he sells books and stationery and art supplies, and the ladies who have worked there for decades keep a hawk’s eye on him. In a small town like this, though, he’s still got a social life, someone pops in most days to take him to lunch, more evenings than not he goes out for a drink after work before Marnie makes sure he gets home, gets his pills, sleeps in his bed and not in the chair downstairs by the TV.
I’m a minor member of the committee. I stop by midday on Sundays, bring a plate lunch in a foil cake pan—some grilled chicken and rice and some salad, or leftover roast from our Saturday night, with some mashed potatoes and green beans. He rarely eats it on Sunday, since he’s just been out to breakfast, so I tuck it in the fridge and there’s one mid-week dinner done. Then we visit for a little bit, rarely more than half an hour these days, before he starts getting sleepy. Like many folks with Alzheimer’s, the past is easier to access than the present, so we talk about horses long dead, or the years he worked PR in New York for Frank Lloyd Wright, or about the ranch in North Dakota where his mother grew up. We know we’re not going to save him, any of us, but if we can at least make his last few years work for him, and if we can start to set up the systems we’re going to need for ourselves in a few years, well, then that’s good enough.
I go into my pantry looking for a jar of cherries, and hesitate. How many jars are left? I do a quick inventory—three, four, look there’s one more over here, under the jars of tomato sauce, one more mixed in with the dilly beans. They’re the last jars. The last jars ever. The grove of sour cherry trees down the block from me that I’ve been secretly harvesting for the decade and a half I’ve lived in this house, they’re all dead now. A freak freeze last fall killed them. Temperatures went from the mid-60s to minus ten in twelve hours.
We didn’t know until spring that the cherry trees had all been killed. I had a small one I’d just planted the summer before, and I kept waiting for it to bloom. I’d look down the block to the feral grove of sour cherries that also hadn’t bloomed. I thought they were just late last year, but it turns out they were all dead. And that’s when I started noticing dead trees all over town. That other big cherry around the corner, the one I’d walk the dog under on the way to the park. Gone. All of them, all over town, dead.
It’s not as if we haven’t been seeing the effects of climate change for years. Up in the mountains, the pine beetle has been crawling its inexorable way across our forests, leaving stand after stand of rust-red dead conifers in its wake. But somehow this felt different. These were our fruit trees, trees planted decades ago by people who knew the advantages of having your own fruit in your own yard. These were dead trees in town. These were our dead cherries.
I’d just planted my own baby cherry tree the summer before, when my neighbors decided to build a big garage on those lots where the cherry grove is. They fix trucks and RVs, and while having a huge metal building go in down the block isn’t ideal, they’re nice people and good neighbors. When I asked, they promised me they weren’t cutting the cherry trees, said their mother would kill them if they touched her pie cherries. I planted a tree anyhow, because with someone living there, with that business going on, it didn’t feel right to sneak down into that grove with my bucket. So I planted a little tree, which produced six cherries before it was killed in that freeze.
Pie cherries aren’t like sweet cherries. In July, when they come ripe, they turn a translucent bright red. They glow the color of Bakelite cherry buttons. And my grove, as I thought of it, would turn suddenly loud with the sound of birds. One year I missed the cherries altogether. It was a dry summer, without much fruit in town, and the birds stripped those trees before I even knew the cherries were ripe. But most years, there was plenty. I’d harvest a bucket or two, as did Steve across the street, who kept an eye on things even though it isn’t his property. But he grew up in the house he lives in, and after 50 years on this block, he’s the guy who keeps an eye on the neighborhood. And apparently, sometime during the summer, the old lady who had once lived in that tiny yellow house would come back and harvest cherries from the grove she’d planted half a century earlier.
I’d never canned much before I moved to Montana. When we moved in with our dad and stepmother as I started high school in the Midwest, my stepmother used to can in the fall. They’d go to farm stands, buy tomatoes and green beans to put up. My brother Patrick and I hated those green beans, the ones we’d have to eat all winter. They were too soft, and salty, and dead. Despite my ancient hatred for canned green beans, that I had a general idea of how canning worked gave me the confidence to get started. My little house came with four apple trees, two plum trees, and a big rhubarb patch, and while we’re not as rural as many parts of Montana, we’re rural enough here that every grocery store and hardware store sells canning supplies as a matter of course.
I hate waste, so from that very first year, I put up the fruit from my yard. I made applesauce and plum jam, a rhubarb compote spicy with ginger. I bought flats of raspberries from the guys who drive up from the raspberry farms in northern Utah, and although I still hate canned green beans, I’ve discovered the joy that is dilly beans. And late in the season, when my tomatoes finally get ripe, I put up jar after jar of sauce—tomatoes cooked down in a big pot with onion and garlic and some big fat carrots for sweetness, all run through the food mill, then cooked down a little more, and processed in jars. I even bought a pressure canner and now my shelves boast jars of beautiful golden chicken stock, made from carcasses saved in the freezer, clarified with a raft of egg whites and shelf stable thanks to 35 minutes at 13 pounds pressure in the big canner with the bouncing weight on the lid.
Preservation. It’s such an old-fashioned activity. Why would anyone bother to put up the fruit from their backyard, the tomatoes from their garden anymore? Why spend a sunny July Saturday flicking stones out of pie cherries with a thumbnail before taking down my big French copper jam pot, adding half their weight in sugar, and cooking them just until they’re suspended in a syrup of cherry juice and sugar. Then packing into jars, adding strip of lemon peel for good measure, and processing in a hot water bath. Most summers I’d put up a dozen or so jars, maybe more. Sometimes I’d do jam for Christmas presents, but most often I’d just put them up in syrup. I did it because they were there, I did it so that all winter, I’d have cherries to add to my morning yogurt and granola, or so I can make the French almond-yogurt cake that I’m making this morning for John. That’s why on a bright and beautiful day, when my friends are floating the Yellowstone River, or hiking in the wilderness areas that surround us, I find myself, year after year, indoors, all steam and heat and sticky cherry juice.
Canning’s gotten hip these past few years. Pinterest is full of artful photos of jewel-toned jars and I have to say, when people come over it’s my pantry that draws them. The rows of jars on bright white shelves. But that’s never been the point for me. I can because I believe in catastrophe. Sure, there are all the other reasons I can—because I like knowing what’s in my food, because I like eating food as minimally processed as possible, because I love the sense of satisfaction I get when looking at a dozen jars of homemade sauce, tidy in jars, stacked on my shelves. But all that’s window dressing. I can because deep down I believe that disaster could strike at any moment. It could all disappear, the structures of everyday life out there. The trucks could stop running, the grocery stores could empty out, and it would be up to us as a community to feed ourselves and one another.
And we would. Montana’s closer than a lot of places to the days of self-sufficiency. We have herds of cattle and elk and deer and bison. Nearly every neighborhood has a backyard chicken coop these days. We’ve got community and backyard gardens, and in a pinch, if climate change doesn’t dry it up entirely, we’ve got the Yellowstone River running right through town. Most important, we’ve got a town full of people whose grandparents were self-sufficient. The collective memory is there.
I moved to Montana largely because I could feel the big change coming—whatever we want to call it, climate change, global warming, the Anthropocene, the great acceleration—I don’t know what it is, but having been raised by feckless parents you develop antennae for impending doom. You can tell by the energy level, the degree of frantic vibration, that something bad is about to happen. And that’s how I felt in California. I couldn’t put a finger on it exactly, but I knew something wasn’t right, and I wanted to get out of the way.
While the tea cake cooks for John, I get the rest of his lunch ready. Today it’s simple, the breast off last night’s roast chicken and the last of the rice, and a salad made from the new greens coming up in my backyard garden. Some arugula, a couple of sliced radishes, a spring onion. A few toasted almonds. He remembers Adele Davis, an early nutritionist and diet writer, who advocated eating foods with lots of colors. I always try to give him something attractive and colorful if I can. Then I cover it in foil, with a label so he’ll know what’s inside.
I bought my small house in Montana in part because the backyard was largely taken up by an enormous vegetable plot. Eight children grew up in this house, on a railroader’s wages, and as far as I can tell they were fed out of that back garden. What I wanted when I went looking for a house was not the manicured gardens of my suburban childhood in the Midwest, the ones tended by flocks of Mexican workers, dropped off with lawn mowers and weed wackers, but the urban gardens I’d see on the train going into Chicago, the ones tended by elderly Italian and Mexican and Greek women. Gardens where every scrap of space was growing something to eat, and usually something that could be put up. Trellises of tomatoes, strings of peppers drying in the fall, greens of all sorts. I wanted the kind of garden you build when you don’t believe your paycheck is permanent, when you distrust the food system on all levels—from the pesticides to the shipping to the sanitation of the handling.
My younger brother Patrick and I lived together for four years in California before I moved here. We’d teamed up for so many reasons—because we were both broke in our mid-30s, because we were both single in our mid-30s, because we had not yet figured out how to make a life that worked. Together, we sort of figured it out. After a shared childhood marked by the death of our youngest brother from cancer, our parents’ ’divorce, and the endless war between them that ensued, exacerbated by the boom and bust nature of their finances, it was a relief to find ourselves in a decent apartment, with bills that got paid every month, and a home life that was no longer characterized by alcoholism and yelling and upheaval. However, we both had trouble trusting this state of things. Patrick would come home every so often, and opening the pantry would find stacks and stacks of blue boxes of Barilla pasta. “Worried about work?” he’d ask, looking at my emergency stash. “You can live a long time on pasta with oil and garlic if you have to,” I’d tell him when he’d tease me. “It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
My instinct for preservation is an extension of my sense that our everyday lives are built on foundations of sand. I realize waste is a sign of affluence in our culture, but I will never understand people who throw perfectly good food out because of a sell-by date. Where do they get their confidence that there will always be more? Our lives came so spectacularly off the rails as children, when in less than one year’s time our brother died, our parents split up, and our father declared bankruptcy, losing the farm and the ponies and the woods where we played and the enormous hawthorn tree in the front yard that was our refuge. It was the kind of domestic disaster that ruins you forever for the narratives of consumer capitalism. That leaves you with the bone-deep knowledge that no matter how much money you make or how well you follow the fashions or how carefully you keep up with the latest trends, none of it will keep you safe.
The timer goes off and I check on Johnny’s cake. It’s golden and just set. I pull it out to cool on the rangetop and the house fills with the scent of almond and cherry and vanilla and sugar. It’s the thing about the fossil cherries, as much as my instinct is to hang on to them, to hoard them in my pantry, the energy wants to move back out into the world. They’re safe in their jars, suspended in sugar syrup, but no matter how long I hang onto them, those trees are not coming back to life.
It was the first thing I learned when I moved to Montana. It didn’t matter that I’d bought a house and had a place for Patrick and his dog to come stay when he lost his job. It didn’t matter that we made great friends, or that I was growing delicious vegetables in the backyard and we were all gathering at my table to share them. All my preserving, all my shoring up of both of our finances, the roof I put over our heads, none of it protected us. Patrick was still killed in a car wreck the first year we moved to Montana, an accident related to the bouts of depression he suffered, a depression that all my cooking and preserving and caretaking could not fix.
Just as all the plate dinners and tea cakes filled with precious fossil cherries cannot prevent the inevitable decline we all know our John is facing, I cannot prevent disaster. But what I can do is build a storehouse of practices to keep my own head above water, a storehouse of practices not built on the false promises of consumer capitalism, that if we simply buy the right things we will be okay. What I’ve discovered a dozen years after my brother’s death is that growing food in my backyard, and feeding that food to the people I love, is an antidote in itself to despair. What I’ve learned is that when you put up jars of plum jam in the fall, your friends with German parents will grow nostalgic for the taste of their childhoods, a nostalgia you can easily address with some packing supplies and a box in the mail. What I’ve learned is that when your elderly friends start to fail, you can feed them good clean local food, and more important, in doing so you stop by on a Sunday, break up a long day alone, and grow a casual friendship into something tender and dear.
This spring I bought two new bare root pie cherry trees, and planted them in my front yard. “You must be planning to live a long time,” my partner joked when he came home.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You said you were planting trees. Those are just sticks.”
Sticks or not, they’ve sent roots down into my front yard, set tiny leaves, and are several weeks later, on the verge of bloom. In a year I’ll have a handful of cherries, in five years, I’ll have enough for a pie, in ten, with luck, I’ll have mason jars of cherries on my shelf for winter once again. Planting trees is optimism at work. Optimism that we won’t have another killing frost, optimism that our climate will still support fruit trees, optimism that I’ll still be here, tucked up in my little house, optimism that my little town will still be here, filled with people cutting their own firewood, hunting their own deer and elk, growing fruits and vegetables and eggs in their backyards, and banding together to take care of our elderly.
Chuck was right. I am planning to live a long time, and to stay in one place, and to revive the old skills of householding, community building, and living small.
Header photo by jarmoluk, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Charlotte M. Freeman by William Campbell.