Tributaries: “Pawpaws”

By Kelly Garriott Waite

The thing is, I’m not even sure I like pawpaws, deceitful things: I look at the oversized fruits dangling from the branches ten feet up and think pear. Yet a pawpaw cut open and tasted astonishes the tongue, expecting, as it is, a gritty sweetness to land there and squeak beneath the teeth. But a pawpaw is no pear: It’s creamy banana custard, a slippery sloppiness that leaves the mouth confused, unable to decide, at least mine cannot, whether to spit out the fruit or have another taste.

I cannot explain the pull of the pawpaw: Why do I leave the trail and lean my bike against the wooden fence? What compels me to stand on the lower rail of that fence, hoping it won’t give way beneath me as I reach overhead to gently pull down a branch? Why do I bother to press my thumb into the round side of a fruit with which I have, at best, an uncertain relationship?

There are other secrets along the bike trail and in the nearby woods: Wild asparagus and thyme and the morels my hairstylist gathers every spring. The fall crabapples with which I make jelly, storing it in crystal jars that, held up to the sky, stain the clouds a gentle pink. There are shagbark hickories, tiny beech nuts and the black walnuts that, come fall, litter the trail with their softening green and black husks.

There are blackberries and mulberries and grapes as well, fat with a fragrance so strong and so true, bursting with such promise my mouth waters with the memory of biking past them as the trees let go their leaves, orange and red and yellow.

I haven’t yet gathered the courage to search for morels; to wave away the drunken bees feasting on a bunch of grapes. It isn’t the bees that frighten me: I am afraid to trust myself to know good from bad.

My great-grandfather could walk into the woods and emerge with the ingredients for lunch. Every fall, for the Christmas baking, my mother gathered hickory nuts, smashing them with a hammer on the basement floor, plucking hearts from shattered shells. And this is the person I want to become: one who can look at a plant in nature and know: This is food. This is safe to eat.

My forays into foraging represent my tentative steps toward revealing the deceit of big business, the deceit that says we are not intelligent enough to care for ourselves. In foraging, I make a small reclamation of my life and my senses. The fruit is unyielding beneath my touch. Tomorrow, I’ll return to this place. For a brief moment in time, I’ll return to my own wilderness, my own uncontrollable nature.

Kelly Garriott Waite’s work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.