I have been sitting with an odd reality for the past couple of weeks. I feel like sharing something about it, though it remains without conclusion or any fully digested lesson.
Last month, shortly after several entire communities - human and non - were devastated by the Camp Fire in north central California, photos of the fire started appearing in front of me on social media. Obviously, I am horrified by events of this nature, especially as we humans face up to the frightening realities of climate change we are the cause of. But, I'm just not somebody who keeps up with news from distant places, so, while my heart went out to the people and land affected by what seemed like another incomprehensible-to-me California fire event, I didn’t pay much special attention to any of it.
But then, on one sleepless night, this photo appeared randomly on my facebook feed. Something about it made me pause. I blinked hard, thinking, “I know this house! But why? Do I really? Am I crazy?” The blazing home, which was now attached to a random article on the fire, was so viscerally familiar to me. Thinking I must be mistaken in my sleep deprived haze, I almost moved on, dropping the matter. But then, I saw them: Several small, orange globes floating in front of the house, barely visible with the wall of flames looming behind them.
My blood went cold with the realization. Because my memory functions in persimmon trees and NOT town names, I had completely forgotten that Paradise was anywhere I had ever been in my life. Almost exactly a year ago, I had harvested quite a haul of persimmons from this very same tree in front of this very same house, which happened to be captured one last time in this photo as the whole scene turned to ashes. Seriously? This seemingly random-to-me place that had just vanished from known reality was suddenly a real 'somewhere'; a somewhere I had once spent a very impactful day that still nourishes me hundreds of days and miles later.
Last fall and winter were tumultuous times for me, to say the least - perhaps some of the most challenging yet. On what ended up being the only day I had fully to myself to make autonomous decisions about what I was doing, reflect, and generally feel my own self during that time, I happened to be passing through Paradise, CA. I stopped to have some lunch and take a walk in Bille Park, the amazingly beautiful park on the edge of town where local families and folks gathered to stroll in the fresh air and have picnics overlooking the epic canyon below the town. That day, I walked a little way into the park upon arriving, plunked down in a sunny spot, basket of just-gathered roadside persimmons in lap, and happily slurped sweet orange goo.
Harvesting and processing seasonal abundance is a significant part of my life at home and on the road, especially in the context of forgotten or unused human-plantings. There are so many fruit bearing plant friends all over the continent producing nourishment in their season that is never consumed by any human people. This is good and fine because other kinds of people then eat their fill, but I do keep an eye out for these bounties while traveling and will take some home if the conditions are right. During this particular time of travel, I'd been hoping to find an old olive grove abundant enough to harvest and brine a batch of olives for the year ahead. I had heard of several such magical groves in the area from friends who were also actively putting up olives that season.
Well, it just so happened that Bille Park in Paradise was the home of an exceptionally lovely 100+ year-old abandoned olive grove, which was teeming with a bumper crop of perfectly ripe olives the day I wandered in. It was something magnificent to behold. The trees were silvery and other worldly in the afternoon light - elegant in the way only true elders can be. They hung over the paths of the park, weaving their way into every visible direction. Some were huge and sprawling and low laden, others slender and tall with fruits unreachable. The olives! I had never seen fresh, real life olives growing on a tree before. They were green and purple pucks of spotted smoothness, pale, deep, shockingly bitter in their unbrined state. Five fit snug in my palm.
Seeing that it would be impossible to make a dent in this year's crop, I fetched a new basket and harvested joyfully, sometimes silent, sometimes singing, sometimes chatting with curious passers-by - "What are those things?" "We're so glad someone is actually picking the olives!" "Oh, I've heard of 'Wisconsin'!" The wind made small talk, too. So did the park pigeons and dogs and babies. I stroked the smooth bark of tree after tree, pulled myself up into sturdy limbs, slowly filling the basket. A tattered, empty vessel of a heart began to fill again, too. I didn't worry if it was okay to be there or if I was taking too much or if someone would get mad at me. It was simple. All afternoon, those trees generously mothered me back into myself.
When it was time to go, I walked back to the car with an armload of olives and laughter back in my bones. I bid that place farewell, deeply mended by its magic. That evening, back at the farm I was staying on, I filled jars with olives and salt, imagining what things might be like in a year, when they would finally be ready for eating. That imagined 'then' has become now, and things are pretty swell. This year has brought a new home, great work, dear friendships, inspiring community, new sweetness, a beloved craft, all in a place I love living for now. The olives, along with many other lingering forms of nourishment from those hard times, are still here. Two of the jars molded over - they hadn't sealed properly. Some have been covered in olive oil and spiced with garlic and fennel. Some others were given away to friends as gifts. A year later, they are a little astringent, and some too salty, but soaking them in fat mellows the bitter. They are a special treat to share with friends at potlucks, though now come with a longer story.
In the same week they were dubbed ready to begin eating, the Camp Fire happened. And just like that, all the beautiful olive children floating in my pantry were orphans. Every last one of those sweet trees, who had been flowering and fruiting and resting in perfect time for the last 130 years or so, was gone. And here were their seeds, in jars on my shelf.
These are strange times in the world. They are times in which it is possible for someone in Wisconsin to have jars of seeds gathered from trees thousands of miles away that no longer exist. They are times in which humans, thinking we are here in this life to get what we want, watch what we've created go up in flames by the hand of the thing we have created. I deeply grieved the goneness of those tree mothers. Surely, because of how generous they had been with me, but also because some part of me knows exactly what it is to be an orphan. In this time in which there is so little left in the way of any meaningful culture to be a part of - let alone get born into, live beautifully within, and then get to die elegantly among all that you love in; in which the ways of belonging to place or in genuine community have gone up in the flames of mass-forgetting; in which I myself come from the lineage/forces that are slowly burning away all that's left of this wondrous honey home -- it is no wonder one can so easily feel the ache of a motherless seed far from a home that is not even there to return to.
It is hard to throw away the pits. They sit, collecting in a bowl in the cupboard. I've altogether stopped snacking on the stash. In fact, I notice an urge to avoid looking at the jars. Part of me wonders if I should ceremonially send them back to Paradise somehow, to be with people who knew the trees better than me, or let them feed the grief-ridden townspeople. But there aren't very many left, and how in the heck would I even do that? So, for now, they are here with me, little reminders of so many uncomfortable realities of this world, and little prayers, made more potent when eaten, to quicken the arrival of a time in which we learn to build our lives around a care for that which feeds us