One of the pleasures of summer in my old stomping grounds in the States is the coming of fruit season. After the long winter months when the freezer is the only thing that produces fruit Nature cuts loose and all manner of things come to ripeness over a period of a few months. I know on which side my bread is buttered, or to use a another equally trite phrase, I’m smart enough to make hay while the sun shines, so summer inevitably finds me in the orchard gathering fruits to restock the freezer for yet another of the dreary, long winters that follow the summer all too quickly. The growing season is short where I grew up. How short? Well, consider this: the climate closest to that of the area I call my old stomping ground is found in the Urals of Russia. Yes, Bridget, the frigging URALS. Does that make you want to get out the string bikini and the SPF 60 sunblock? Probably not. Your string bikini will be good for about two weeks a year, and only during the day, because even in high summer the evenings call for long sleeves. Fortunately fruit trees are much hardier than the likes of us, so even if things are on the cool side we can count on a good crop of summer fruits and fall apples. The last frost usually occurs in May, sometimes in June if your luck is running low, and first frost comes in September. It has happened in August before, often enough to induce The Powers That Be to move the date of the annual county fair from the end to the middle of August because people kept having their gardens spoiled by frost. Dismal, I know, but there it is. It’s not a country for beefsteak tomatoes as big as grapefruits like the ones I grew in Virginia. You’re lucky if you get a handful of cherry tomatoes off the plant in a sheltered spot before you look out one late summer morning and find it keeled over with the leaf edges curled up because Father Winter coughed in its direction during the night. Whether you’re of the botanical or zoological persuasion, it’s no place for the faint-hearted. In the winter during one of the sub-zero cold snaps, it’s difficult to make a convincing case that God intended people to live there at all.
But we’re not going to think about that right now. We’re in the middle of summer and the fruit is on, so what are we gonna do? We’re gonna head to the orchard, that’s what. To be specific, we’re heading to Peone Prairie (pronounced pee-yone btw, don’t get all fancy on me and make three syllables of it LOL) just north of Spokane, where there’s an agricultural Shangri-La called Greenbluff (info here) that’s synonymous with summer fruit and veg as anybody in the area who knows what’s what will tell you. It seems unlikely that an hour’s drive south of my native Cold Country should offer up a place where peaches grow well — a fruit which, let us remember, is associated in the USA especially with state of Georgia, where snow comes only once in a blue moon and the growing season is twice as long as it is in my holler. Peaches grow just fine on Peone Prairie, so go figure. They’re the only thing there that could possibly recall Georgia, however. The landscape is as un-Georgia-like as can be.
Time for a brief study in contrasts. I mentioned in another post on summer in the bitter north that an hour’s drive in any direction from my native turf will bring you into vastly differing biomes. Two hours north of Greenbluff the trees are predominantly alpine species due to the extreme winters, and if you took a peach tree there it would keel over dead from fright even before the cold polished it off. You can kiss peach trees goodbye anywhere north of Greenbluff, in point of fact. The prairie really is a kind of Shangri-La, sitting in a basin that makes the local microclimate capable of supporting peaches and all manner of other tree and bush fruits. Just to make the difference between my stomping ground and Greenbluff pictorial, let’s shift to images for a moment:
Obviously, the top row is Cold Country and the bottom row is Fruit Haven. As I look at the pictures what I have in my mind is an awareness, a feeling, not words. I find my mind spinning off into thoughts about the disjuncture between consciousness and language — that’s what happens when a girl doesn’t get her beauty sleep. I stayed up too late last night watching Jonathan Meades videos, his series on Scotland called “Off-Kilter.” While he’s driving along discussing Scottish football teams a potty-mouthed GPS female voice upbraids him with some choice Scottish epithets, e.g. “you dozy f***, what planet you from?” I amused myself by counting the times during the day I could have used that phrase without any disjuncture at all between consciousness and language, but I ran out of fingers and toes … Anyhoo, I’ll spare you the Heideggerian analyses and content myself with the comment that my primary register for a landscape is a feeling tone, not a verbal inventory, as I’ve commented elsewhere. The North Country of my growing up feels entirely different from the Greenbluff area. There are no words to capture that kind of knowing. Direct contact is the only way to absorb the feeling tone a landscape emanates. A landscape is alive, of course, in a manner different from the way we human beings are alive, but alive nonetheless. The life of the landscape is what imparts its feeling tone, so only direct experience of the place will give it to you. We are, however, caught in language like birds in a net. All I can do is circumlocute in the hope that something of the place slips into the words and through them into your feeling sense. Fingers crossed …
The North Country is obviously colder and looks it. You can tell agriculture is not a major part of the landscape because the forest goes on uninterrupted in all directions. What gets harvested in the North Country is trees, in point of fact. When I go back there now and scan the hills from the vantage point where the photos were taken, I see large bald patches from clearcuts. They give the landscape the appearance of having had its hair shaved off as happens before surgery. It’s disheartening, but humans will be humans so it’s unreasonable to expect that the trend will alter. By contrast Peone Prairie shows everywhere the hand of man to no ill effect, since what was there before can’t have been a pretty picture. It’s a thoroughly tamed landscape, a domesticated landscape, a huge garden. No trace of wilderness remains. It’s the back yard of the city from whose edge it spreads out over the low rolling hills now bereft of their original cover of straggly pines. Instead you see fields of grain, a rarity in this northerly part of the State. The real wheat country lies farther south in the Palouse, where the fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Rare are the places where the hand of man works improvement rather than disfigurement, and Peone Prairie must be counted among them. There are square miles enough of Ponderosa pines in the surrounding area, it’s a refreshing change to come across the prairie turned into a garden where what grows tantalizes the taste buds. So without futher ado, let’s get to the non-meat of the matter: FRUIT. We’re off to the orchards, with a stop before heading home at the Farm Store, where somebody else has done the work and all you have to do is shell out some bucks to reap the harvest. First stop: PEACHES.
Going into a peach orchard with trees full of ripe fruit is dangerous. Unlike berries where you pick for hours trying to get a gallon, peaches pile up in no time and before you know it you have enough to stuff an entire freezer and the bill goes into three digits to the left of the decimal point. So before entering with your push cart you give yourself a pep talk and run down the checklist. Freezer space pictured in mind, check. Number of fresh pies that will be made in the next week, check. Additional pounds gained from eating fresh peach pies over the next two weeks, check. Number of hours required for processing fresh peaches for freezing, check. It’s all about self-restraint. So you breathe deeply a few times, steel yourself and head into the rows of trees, which are so full of fruit many of the branches are supported by stints so they don’t break off from the weight of the delicious, juicy ripeness they hold.
As soon as you are in the row, the sight in the second pic occupies your entire field of vision and every single peach hanging there, warm and fragrant in the summer sunshine, screams “Touch me, touch me, touch me, I wanna be dirty!” So much for pep talks and checklists. In the back of your mind holding resolutely to its own truth a part of you grins ironically and whispers in its Mephistophelian voice, “These beauties are only here once a year for a few weeks, so forget your crap pep talks, GO FOR IT.” If you end up with only a couple more boxes in the car than you planned on getting and if it takes only one more day than you thought it would to process it all for the freezer, count yourself lucky. It’s like going into a Vegas casino. If you get out with something still in your wallet, you’ve done just fine. Considering how easy it is to come to grief in such situations, if you can pay for the gas to get home then your dignity remains intact.
But we’re not done yet. Peaches are a quick trick. Now it’s off to the farm of one of my mother’s friends for berries. You’ve had your fun, now it’s time to buckle down and work for your haul, because berries take time no matter how you go about it. And here they are:
Stand me in front of a row of blackberries like the one in the pic while I’m hooked up to an EKG monitor and the needles will swing wildly, deep breathing be damned. I lived in coastal Oregon for five years in the 1980’s where wild blackberries grow like weeds. They are a taste treat of the highest order, both fresh off the bush and frozen or canned for winter use. My first summer in Oregon found me picking them until my hands looked like Lady Macbeth’s and the spot would not out. I canned 48 quarts that year and used every single one of them during the following winter. In northeastern Washington State we have no wild blackberries, they have to be grown by somebody as an act of sustained intention, so when you find yourself in front of a row like the one in the pic it’s a Big Deal. If I posted all the blackberry pics I took that day there would be several more rows of images, but we’re exercising self-restraint, aren’t we, and maintaining a tone of good taste and moderation, so the two pics that made the grade will give you an ample enough impression of the delights on offer. There are never enough blackberries. Only a few people grow them so they’re a rather rare commodity and a couple gallons is considered quite a haul. To someone who canned and used 48 quarts of wild berries in one season, coming away with only a couple gallons is extravagantly stingy, almost a kind of penance. Yes, you can have that fantastic flavor, but NOT TOO MUCH, given over as you are to the cardinal sin of berry gluttony, you weak-willed, self-indulgent fruitophile — that’s the message from the blackberry patches in Greenbluff. There’s nothing wild or sybaritic about them. They could easily each have a Matron checking your fingernails at the entrance and weighing your pickings after you finish with a sour, disapproving look on her face, the kind of expression Lily Savage likens to the face of “somebody who’s just discovered a skid mark on a hotel towel.” Ah, dear Lily, such a way with words …
There’s a huge stand of blueberries in the same area, by the way, but if you’ve seen one blueberry bush you’ve seen them all, in my opinion, so no need to bother with pics. There’s no way you can do food porn with blueberries IMHO. If peaches are the Marilyn Monroes of the orchard, blueberries are the Plain Janes. They don’t hold a candle to huckleberries as far as flavor goes, either, that’s as plain as the nose on your face. Without the antioxidant health benefits everyone oohs and aahs about there would hardly be any inducement to stand bent over picking the measly little things into the bucket and seeing it fill slowly, oh soooo slowly … with the sun beating down … and your throat getting parched … and your legs starting to cramp … But you’d pay $3.50 at Safeway for a half-pint container of the bloody things, so you buck up and keep at it. It should be noted that a blueberry patch requires administration by some more severe hand, on the order of a card-carrying Mother Superior, to maintain proper order and decorum. The impulse there is not to wallow sybaritically but rather to bolt. Try it if you think I’m making up stories, you’ll see …
At long last the buckets will have been filled, or abandoned half empty, and it’s time for a bit of a walkabout. In certain parts of Peone Prairie, if you block out the view of the mountains and overlook the undulating contours of the landscape, you could imagine yourself in Kansas. Why anyone would want to do that I have no clue, having been through Kansas myself more than once. Once would have been quite enough, to be perfectly honest. But the wheat is lovely as it becomes tawny toward the end of summer and the heads tilt heavy on the stalks. Here are some pics to show the handsomeness of the place:
The last pic really should have in it the woman crawling across the field from Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World.” On the day I was there, however, I was the only human element in the landscape. I suppose I could have done something using the timer on the camera, but my frock just wasn’t the right thing for the shot, so I let it go. 🙂
Well, let’s take stock. We have three boxes of peaches (where we only meant to have two … oops) and two gallons of blackberries and a gallon and a half of blueberries, shy of two gallons because I ditched the patch and started taking pictures. In other words, I flipped Mother Superior the finger and bolted. My mother and my sister were left to finish the job, but the afternoon sun made two full gallons seem not so good an idea as it did before we hit the patch. It’s already at the point where it’ll be time to start dinner once we get home, so now the agenda is pile into the car and stop by the Farm Store before heading back north to Hicksville.
The Farm Store has developed over the years into quite an institution and has all manner of events during the summer. A mini-carnival, as it were. If you say “Greenbluff” to most people in the urban area it borders, the Store is what will come to their minds. The number of people pitched on U-Pick is actually not that great, to be honest, because folk these days don’t have the know-how or the desire to do canning or preserving — unless you’re bohunks like us (we’re just one holler over from Ma and Pa Kettle 🙂 ). There’s a cafe in the Store and an outside seating area, the plantings this past year were fantastic, somebody with a green thumb and a love of flowers went to town and did it up right. My favorite thing about the Store is the view of the nearby cottonwoods. The species in question is black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), but don’t ask me why it’s called black. There’s nothing black about it, so it’s another of those botanical brain farts one comes across so often among the common names for our plant friends. There’s a fine stand of them near the store and they form my primary object of contemplation whenever I visit. On sunny summer days if there’s a breeze the leaves flash their silver undersides so that the trees seem to sparkle. It’s a lovely sight, the very essence of summer for the eyes.
You’d think something called the Farm Store would be as rustic as all get out, but this is a hard-core commercial venture within a twenty minute drive of a city of 215,000 people, so forget about hay bales used as benches and people wandering around in Stetsons and cowboy boots, this is SUBURBIA babes, and it’s all about MARKETING. Oh yes it is. The entire place has been fashioned by the hand of the middle-class Inland Empire female who has things to do, likes things to be cutesy and puts up with no nonsense, thank you very much. It’s a Mom Shop. Farm Mom, ostensibly, although she’s not back in the kitchen making raspberry jam, she’s out front hocking her wares and they’re going like hotcakes. There are Mom’s cinnamon rolls in the pastry case, big enough to put half a pound on each hip, Mom’s sandwiches on the grill — and by the way she’s gone upmarket these days and even does things like panini OMG shut UP she does NOT. Oh yes, she does. It’s all about the M word, kids. Gotta pull in those highfalutin city slickers from down the way now, don’t we. Yes siree. And of course there are tractor rides for the kids and a hay bale maze and on the weekends it’s hard to find a parking place because it’s so busy. Quite the going concern. I contented myself with a view from a distance and hung out where I could see the cottonwoods. Some pics:
Time to hit the road and I’m driving, so relax and enjoy the scenery. Bright and early tomorrow morning it’s time to whip up a batch of that no-fail pie crust, because there’ll be two fresh peach pies on the counter before lunchtime. We’re not going to think about the Fruit Fresh and the freezer bags and blanching and peeling and cutting .. we’ve done enough for one day. And I swear, if I see you guys reaching back toward those peaches, there’s gonna be trouble with a capital T. Have some blueberries instead, they’re good for you. 🙂
Just a couple months until fall apples are ready, then it’s back to Greenbluff for more fun and games. Ain’t the bohunk life grand?