I am out for a walk in early June in Seattle when Anna, our neighbor on the corner, alerts me about her pears: “There’re going to be a lot of pears this year,” she says, aiming a stream of water from her garden hose at a rosebush. “They’re not spotty at all.” Anna’s got me pegged as the neighbor who never turns down a fruit, no matter how bruised, underripe, or wormy. It doesn’t help that I always dutifully report on the deliciousness of the pies, cakes, and sauces I make from the fruits of Anna’s garden. In past years, she brought over garbage-can lids laden with Bartletts and grocery sacks topped with Granny Smiths. “I used to can and make jam, but that was before the rheumatoid arthritis got bad,” Anna says. “Plus, since Dick’s heart attack, we really can’t be—”
“—eating all those pies and cakes,” I say. Anna and I knowingly nod.
Now it’s the third Saturday in July. My husband Gene and I are going on vacation tomorrow. “They’re starting to drop. Can you come now?” Anna asks.
I’m over pronto. Soon I have collected a bucket and large bowl of pears.
I bring them home. Then the paring, coring, de-worming, slicing, and dehydrating begins. I set the green ones on cookie sheets atop the china cabinet. I hope they ripen and don’t rot while we’re away.
We return a week later from the inferno of Southern Oregon—90 degrees and above every day. Anna lists down the sidewalk on her rickety legs. “More pears!” she cries, eyes twinkling. “Dick collected them. They’ve been waiting for you.” Her voice sings with excitement.
“Be right down,” I say.
A large bin is full to the top with Bartletts. Hundreds. Maybe a thousand. So many my eyes swim. “I’ll get the wheelbarrow,” I say.
The following days are a blur of sorting, peeling, paring, coring, slicing, dehydrating.
The doorbell rings on Day Two. I rush to answer it, my hands slimy with pear. It might be the Norpro food mill I ordered.
I’m greeted by a gray-haired woman with a bad perm. She leans on a walker. “Have a Nice Day” and “Smiley Face” buttons adorn her droopy sweatshirt. “I’m Greta,” she says. “Your neighbor”—she points up toward Anna’s—“just gave me a sack of pears. Can I have your prunes?” She points toward our Italian prune tree.
“No.” I shut the door and go back to my pears. The nerve. I planted that tree. I have been babying it for five years, waiting for it to bear a decent number of fruit. Greta can get prunes at Costco.
Wait a minute. Did I just say no to a senior citizen with mobility issues? I hurry back outside.
Greta’s lurched two doors down. I call out to her: “Greta!” She turns, leaning heavily on the walker. How would she have plucked our prunes without breaking a hip? I tell her about a neighbor’s Italian prune tree. It faces the alley, so it’s unlikely Greta knows about it. “It’s laden.” I say. I highly doubt the neighbors have plans for their prunes beyond composting them. For the past three years I’ve watched their prunes drop by the dozens into the alley. They’ve been slow and non-committal about their pears, too. I’ve been picking up the ones that drop into our yard and ripening them on the counter. Then I cut the spots out and load them onto the dehydrator along with Anna’s pears.
Greta scoots her walker around and clomps toward the neighbor’s house. I get back to paring.
I load all nine trays of the dehydrator with pears. All those dehydrating pears releasing moisture in the basement? Yikes! I fear mold will grow. I lug the Excalibur food dryer upstairs to the dining table. The dining room and kitchen become sauna-like. I start to sweat. I turn on the furnace blower, thinking that will circulate cooler air up from the basement.
The lights go out and the fridge stops humming. I tramp downstairs and flip the circuit breaker. I turn off the furnace fan.
Friday, Gene tells me that someone on Nextdoor is giving
away Italian prunes.
“For free?” I ask.
He nods. You bet I’m interested. “Tomorrow,” I say. Friday night, I’m down to just the puny pears. Four punies easily fit in my palm. Too much trouble to pare and core and slice these little guys.
“Let’s make pear sauce,” I say.
We quarter them and do a quick worm check, then plop them in the cooking pot. Easy peasy. No need to peel and core. Tomorrow, I’ll crank the cooked, softened pears through the Norpro food mill, which, yes, has arrived. It will spit out the cores, stems, and peels, leaving us with pure pear sauce.
We load up the stew pot and stockpot with quartered pears and turn the burners on low. We have to leave—but a Jane Austen flick is playing at the Crest for $4—so I turn the burners off, and we head out. At 9 p.m. we’re home again and I turn the burners back on. Then I stay up till 10:30 pear-sitting.
In the morning, I pour off eight cups of pear juice, then I run the softened pears through the mill. Our yield is two quarts sauce, for which I find room in the freezer.
I’m less certain what to do with the pear juice. Pear shrub? Pear wine? I decide to make wine. I’ll get the supplies I need when the wine-making store opens at 10 a.m. I rethink. Wine is an entirely new venture I’ll be at zero on the learning curve. What about that novel I’m supposed to be revising? I make pear jelly instead.
Saturday afternoon, I cap my jelly jars—I’ve infused a mixture of ginger, cardamom, and clove into the pear liquid and look forward to trying it. Then I pedal over to the guy who advertised the free prunes. I’m so eager I’m salivating. Will the prunes still be there? Yes! Still there. Plenty look to be on the tree. I confer with the owner. Would it be OK if my husband and I came by with a ladder tomorrow morning?
Mr. Nextdoor is fine with it. He welcomes the ladder idea. “So far people have only been picking the fallen ones,” he says.
Sunday morning, we pull up at Mr. Nextdoor’s in our Prius with our prune-harvesting equipment—buckets, sacks, ladder. The ladder proves superfluous. Hundreds of perfectly fine-looking prunes litter the grass. All that is required is a little stooping.
Another couple is already harvesting. I try to keep a generous spirit, but my gathering instinct is going into overdrive. What if they take all the good ones?
I try to calm myself. Come on, Kath. Be reasonable. How are they going to cart all the fruit away in that little raffia basket? We’re the ones who brought the ladder. We’re the ones who brought the buckets and our entire stash of Fred Meyer grocery sacks. If anyone is going to strip out all the prunes, it’s us, not them.
We fill the trunk and backseat with prunes, then we cap off our foraging with an amble in a nearby nature preserve, where I spy an untended, leggy orchard. “Apples!” I high-step toward the gnarled trees.
“They’ve got signs. ‘Stay on Path,’” Gene says.
“They don’t mean us,” I say, already reaching for the stunted fruit.
We arrive home and unload our bounty. I envision a lazy afternoon of reading in the backyard. I can wait a day or three before I begin processing the new crop of apples and prunes.
Anna trundles down the sidewalk. “We picked another bin full of pears!”
“I’ll bring the wheelbarrow,” I say.
Gene looks at me askance.
The bin is in Anna and Dick’s basement. Dick helps me load it into the barrow. I survey the basement: boxes and boxes of cat food and kitty litter, stacks of dusty Reader’s Digest Condensed, Anna’s vintage clothing fill every cranny and hang from every hook. Is this my future? Is this what becomes of those who refuse to say no to pears? Today, my obsession seems harmless, just pears and prunes (well, and apples), but hoarding is a slippery slope.
I wheel the load back to our yard. I just need to be more ruthless, I tell myself. From now on, any pear with a spot goes straight to compost.
I’m running out of buckets. I’m running out of bowls. The dehydrator only has nine trays. My wrist is about to snap from all the paring. My nails and thumbs are nicked. I haven’t even sorted through this morning’s harvest. Now more pears?
The thought of holding another skinned, slippery pear makes me want to crumple to the ground. All my smug responsible harvester talk is gone. To top it off, the pear jelly didn’t set.
I struggle not to cry.
Where is my downtime? I’m supposed to be revising Emma Mulberry’s Whole Story, my novel, not messing around with fruit. I’m not a fruit jockey.
Be right over, I said when Anna came by with the news that the pears were ready. Why? Why am I stooping to collect every piece of fallen fruit? Why is saving them so important?
Because Armageddon Winter is coming? Because waste not, want not? Because it’s safer than the real risk-taking of writing a novel, which is what I really should be doing?
Note to self: It’s your life, Kath. Not someone else’s. Do what you want to do. You’re not running a fruit orphanage. You’re not the Schindler of Pears.
I turn the wheelbarrow towards the compost bin and set it down. Then I march back up to the house. I open the kitchen door and holler upstairs. “Want to come help me compost some of these pears?”
“Be right down!” Gene says—very cheerfully. ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #134.