It all started with the wine last night — a dark red, with cherry and chocolate notes. The chocolate I can take or leave, but cherry…cherry is my flavor, and it reacted with the phlegmy mass building up in my sinuses to leach cherry dreams into my brain. This damned cold made my sleep fitful, as well, so unlike my usual nights, when I sleep deeply and blissfully so my dreams all dissipate before they pass into my awareness, I drifted shallowly in the Lethe, my head bobbing above the surface, and I remembered all, a rare experience.
Weird thing, most of the dreams I remember have salmon in them, as does this one. But it’s not got much salmon. It’s mostly about the cherry trees. OK, maybe a fair amount of salmon.
When I was young, I lived in the Green River Valley, which was appropriately named. There was the valley floor, which ran mostly north-south and was flat and rich-soiled and mostly used for agriculture, and there were the valley walls which rose abruptly and steeply to either side. I was a rambling boy, and I would hike all over back roads and through farmers’ fields and into little patches of wildness, and the Green River was a constant feature — it twisted and looped through the valley, and on any good stroll you’d be crossing it multiple times.
The Green was a beautiful river, deep and slow, and a good contemplative river. I was often content just to stand on its banks or a bridge and watch the mysteries of its surface, the eddies that roiled it and drifted downstream to disappear, the strange pockets and bulges that would appear on the gray-green surface and wander about. On the edges you’d find small fish darting about, and crayfish, and hellgrammites, and wicked little dragonfly larvae, and water striders and water boatmen. In deeper water, the steelhead lurked with their unwelcome cousins, the suckerfish. It was a fine river to savor.
The farmers’ fields weren’t as uniform as you might think, either. This was the Pacific Northwest, so it rained and it was wet, and every field was dappled with small ponds that might dry up in July or August, but most of the time were filled with shallow water, just enough to dissuade the farmers’ plows. So there’d be a field of corn or lettuce or cauliflower and in its center, a decades old depression that had never been harrowed or cut, hallowed by an attending ring of trees and brush and blackberry brambles (always the blackberries, which would rise up on any neglected patch). The ponds were a haven for cattails and ducks.
There were also feeble little streams trickling towards the river — they were tiny, maybe a few inches wide, but frequent. They were wetter than you’d think for their dimensions, though: they would be surrounded by mud flats a dozen or twenty feet wide, a glistening surface speckled with skunk cabbage and pitcher plants and other odd fleshy members of the vegetable kingdom, overshadowed with gloom by all the trees rising up around them. You did not walk there unless you wanted to risk losing a boot to the sucking mud.
Another bane of the farmers, I’m sure, were infrequent eruptions of boulders. This valley had been carved by glaciers and the erosion of the river, but it’s flat surface had also been built up by mud flows from the volcanoes of the Cascades, and in a few places you’d find rocky outcrops that again, refused the plow. These were drier, with a different flora: the ubiquitous blackberries, of course, but also tangled nets of deadly nightshade and morning glories. I’d poke around the edges, but they were impenetrable.
But I’m just setting the stage. I dreamed about the cherry orchard.
In early to mid-summer, I’d often set course south on my rambles. I’d walk out of town, cross the Green River (of course, and perhaps stopping for a while to watch it placidly muscle its way downstream to the Sound), and walk along a narrow country road that paralleled the river on my left. There was never any traffic. It was always quiet. I’d pass a sleepy junkyard, its intimidatingly high fences softened by the vines growing over it and pulling it down. I’d walk past interminable borders of blackberries.
Then, a break in the brambles to the right, and a rutted gravel road leading under a railroad trestle. The trestle was old and dark and tarred, reeking of creosote, like a gateway into an industrial hell, but once you got past it, the road splayed out into the neglected cherry orchard. It was a strange place: all the trees were laid out in precise rows and ranks, abandoned soldiers standing at attention with arms reaching up to the sky. Because I’d often go there at twilight, I picture it now with a dark gray sky and pitch black trees.
But the orderliness was a relic. The tree branches were untended and had grown together in a matted tangle. Underfoot, the grass had grown high, but then twisted and curled into rabbit warrens. Rabbits would dart away as I walked through their grassy shanty town; I’d see deer wandering through the aisles of trees; once as I walked in I met a skunk walking out, and we made wary half circles around each other and succeeded in letting each other be.
Oh, and there were cherries.
I could reach up and just touch frequent bunches of them. In the dusk, they were all blackish-red, a dark devil’s fruit, and I’d palp them gently to find the ones that were ripe, and pluck them one at a time. There was no hurry, they were plentiful. I’d put one in my mouth and just roll it around, round and firm and so smooth, and then when I’d bite into it, that rush of flavor and the tart sweet syrupy juice and pulp. It was a sensual and sensuous experience.
A few years later, when I first really kissed a girl, I was startled to think of those cherries: firm, muscular, smooth, slick. Overriding all my confused surprise and “whoa, that was nice” messages in my head, cherries echoed. If I’d been a Christian, it would have been a revelation that the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was without a doubt a dark gnarled cherry tree, and that the fruit Satan encouraged Eve to pluck was small and cherry red and firm fleshed and juicy, and that the first bite would have been followed by very many other sins of the flesh. Wait, not sins: joys.
In my cherry travels, I’d stroll through the orchard, sampling the delights, until I reached the far side, usually as it was getting dark, and I’d have to cross a few fences and grassy fields to reach a road running north, and I’d walk home, inevitably crossing the Green again.
But this was not just a lusty dream of the sensuous nature of the feral cherry. I remembered what happened to the orchard.
In those years, the small towns south of Seattle saw the behemoth slowly sending pseudopods up the river, and they saw an opportunity to grow rich. Over and over, I saw it: first, the signs would appear on the highway side of the fields: “Zoned Light Industrial”, “Zoned Commercial”. They were the first speckles of the disease.
Then would appear the concrete culverts and ditches and pipes. Good drainage in this country was good money. Familiar ponds and creeks would disappear, replaced by sheets of dried crazed cracked mud, the skunk cabbage turned to blackish stains, the dragonflies fled.
Then the bulldozers. Trees were shattered, brush cast into piles, the ground leveled and smoothed. Forms were pegged out on the ground, and concrete poured, then hoisted to make gray-walled boxes, roofed with sheet metal. They were dreary tombs that steadily replaced the living land. Landscaping was a matter of placing a rectangular patch of dirt and filling it with lawn…or often, low maintenance sheets of decorative white gravel. The interiors of these boxes smelled all the same, of carpet glue and dust, or perhaps embalming fluid and death; they were all lit with banks of fluorescent rods suspended from the bare metal trellis supporting the roof. The sounds you’d hear would be the whine of electric forklifts rolling about between racks of shelves, with perhaps some tinny, echoing country western ballad playing on someone’s transistor radio.
This was the end. This was to be the fate of the orchard. When my father heard of this, he had a plan.
One evening, we drove to the orchard, the station wagon loaded with tools. We pulled into the rutted gravel road, stopped at the edge, and saw the instruments of doom to the side: a yellow bulldozer, a woodchipper, rows of trees reduced to stumps by chainsaws, trunks stacked like dead bodies in piles. We went to work with bow saws and long handled pruning shears, and we scavenged.
We gathered twigs. We cut wrist-thick branches into chunks. We harvested the discarded limbs of the trees, we scooped up the larger chips of cherry wood left by the machines. We worked into the dark beneath the light of the moon. We packed that car to the roof with the broken fragments of the orchard.
Little known fact, but my father was a wizard and an alchemist. He had a plan for a transformation — a plan that he would work on diligently for years.
Over time, he would fish and gather steelhead from the Green River — big muscular red-fleshed fish that he would expertly fillet into great slabs of meat. He would then chill water and use his alchemical arts to saturate it with salt and brown sugar and molasses, making a thick brown brine that we’d immerse the red meat in, darkening it, filling it with sweetness and saltiness. The fillets would soak for days.
Then, the magic: the smokehouse. This is where the cherry orchard was resurrected and transformed. The broken bits and pieces of cherry wood would smolder in the closed environment of the smokehouse for days, slowly cooking the salmon and infusing it with cherriness. Our yard would smell of smoke and cherries as the meat was slowly infused with the essence of the orchard, and the sugars caramelized and the flavors matured.
The end result? dark slabs of meat with rich complexity of taste, and threading through it all, a sweet hint of cherry. The orchard transmuted by my father’s art! I would eat it with bare hands, tearing off a hunk of flaky meat, and savor it slowly, enjoying every morsel of flavor. This was the heart of my dream, that memory of fish and salt and cherry. For years I did this, consuming the orchard in this new way.
I only realized later that my father’s magic could not have been limited to transforming trees into fish. The other part of his trick was transforming fish into boy. I was being suffused with the essence of my home, and I suspect that even now, if you could taste me, there’d be subtle undertones of river and pond, rain and alga-rich mud, salmon and smoke, and just the lightest note of cherry.
We all taste of place. I hope we’re all delicious.