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Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules:  Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season

By Lillian Vallee

33. The Word Revealed in the Darkness

Once upon a time there was a wild pear tree. It was one of the oldest trees in the neighborhood, having found for itself a little shelf of land among rolling hills. Behind the tree a south-facing slope melted the snow almost immediately, providing shelter and forage for various birds, even in winter. Native Central European shrubs, such as white thorn (Crataegus oxycantha), bird cherry (Prunus padus), and black thorn/sloe plum (Prunus spinosa) also liked the slope.

The Lithuanian farmers who cultivated the land around the tree, left it alone, and it grew until it had the powerful trunk and the graceful limbs of an oak. But the last Lithuanian farmer on that plot got sick, and he had to sell this strip of his land to pay for the cure. He and his wife sold the land for a song and they long for it still.

The new tenants, city people, liked the view beyond the wild pear: the hill sloped down to the edge of a long lake. One of them wanted the tree removed because it interfered with the scenic vista. The other argued to spare the tree because there was something exactly right about it — the spot, its contours, the way it mediated between earth and sky. It simply needed a little pruning and maybe a tiny shrine, like the ones people here tie high in forest trees.

The second tenant liked the view through the tree branches and later learned, from the oldest villagers that wild pears — abundant, small, hard, and hardly edible, it seemed — had beneficial properties when dried or made into a must. Some said that a tea made from the dried fruit eased a cough and brought down fever. Others claimed the brew was recommended for kidney stones.

City people find the tree a nuisance and usually replace it with better-mannered trees or ornamental shrubs. In addition to the wild pear’s lavish litter of fruit (attracting flies all summer), the boughs are studded with large thorns discouraging eager fruit pickers or handling of any kind. Yet this is the tree that the other pear trees are grafted onto because there is no other pear stock that is better at repelling disease or better adapted to the rigors of a northern Central European climate. Its black boughs are stunning under a cape of fresh snow and stunning again arrayed in sprays of nuptial spring blossoms.

A prickly thing, a wild pear will appear, usually alone, in an empty space in the forest and will grow very slowly. It can live to be a 150 years old and can grow to be 60 feet tall. The wood is very hard and was used by makers of musical instruments for piano keys, by bookmakers for printer’s matrices, and by carpenters to mimic ebony (they would stain the wood black). Today the wood is one of the best for use in smoking/curing meats. While evidence of the fruit has been found in many European Stone Age sites, Persians and Armenians were the first to cultivate wild pears, followed by the Greeks and Romans. Peloponnesus, a mountainous peninsula forming Southern Greece means “land of pears,” symbols of fertility.

In borderland Poland-Lithuania, wild pear trees were once considered an inseparable part of the rural landscape, living landmarks in the balk, the unplowed strip between properties, and there were countless varieties. Now you have to look hard for them. Long-time resident Jozef Rybinski writes in his memoirs that people would often identify fields by the kind of pear that grew there, its description or the name of its owner — yellow, red, small, large or Antonina’s. It was considered a near-crime to steal pears off the tree, he writes, but pears on the ground were free for the taking.

Each kind of pear had to be handled differently: some were great fresh, right from under the tree; others had to sit a while, in hay if possible; and still others (especially the wild ones) were best “dried in a bread oven.” And they looked amazingly different, too: some were “round like apples” or “pierogi-shaped,” while others were tiny with a thick skin protecting a grainy, sweet interior. The same pear would taste surprisingly different, depending on how it was served: fresh, dried, or cooked.

The beauty of pears, he states, was that they needed very little, almost no care. The branches would have to be propped up if the crop was abundant that year, but the trees were freeze- and blizzard-resistant, toughened by autumn winds and summer thunderstorms. Rybinski reports that even though the trees were often the highest point in the cultivated fields, they never got struck by lightning. In a lovely fragment of verse from his long poem “Over Our Lands,” the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes of being changed into a fly, like the enchanted hero of his favorite childhood book, “And the word revealed in the darkness was pear/I circled it, jumping up, then trying my wings/But just as I was about to drink of its sweetness/It moved away….” He goes on to describe how the pear becomes a symbol of unattainable delight as the people and places he associates with the various pears come between him and the experience of savoring the pear’s sweetness. And thus history (memory) interferes with the carefree enjoyment of nature’s fruits.

There is no escaping the tension between history and nature here, in the repeatedly war-ravaged Polish-Lithuanian borderlands, but today, as seventy Eurasian cranes returned, calling to one another above a lone pear tree, nothing stood between me and them when my heart and their wings beat together, for just one moment, to outrun the descending darkness.

Sources: Jean-Denis Godet, Drzewa I krzewy [Trees and Shrubs]; Eugeniusz Kuzniewski & Janina Augustyn-Puziewicz, Przyroda Apteka [Nature as Pharmacy]; Jozef Rybinski as quoted in Grzegorz Rakowski, Polska Egzotyczna I, Przewodnik [Exotic Poland, A Guide, Volume 1].

BOOK REVIEW: Crunching Carrots Not Candy by Judy Slack

Reviewed by Alejandra Juárez

In 2002 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported an increase in child obesity (6-11 year olds) by 16% in boys and 14.5% in girls. This brings the total number of overweight children in the US to over 30%. Using the Body Mass Index (BMI) of these 30% who are overweight, 15.5 % are considered obese. Furthermore, the CDC found that children from minority populations (Latinos, Blacks, and Native Americans) are more prevalent to obesity (www.obesity.org).

It is no wonder many books on child nutrition are coming out. One local writer and teacher, Judy Slack, has written a wonderful book on child nutrition, Crunching Carrots Not Candy, specifically for children. Its language is clear and simple to understand and is divided into color groups. She writes that ‘5 a day the Color Way’ was established “by the National Cancer Society and the Produce for Better Health Foundation…to encourage all children and their families to eat 5 to 9 fruits and vegetables every day for good and better health” (pg. 3). She also has a chapter on fiber and healthy snacks.

It is now clear that being overweight or obese leads to greater health risks. The CDC reports that from 1992 to 1994 the percent, type 2 diabetics skyrocketed from 4% to 16%. Asthma, hypertension and sleep apnea are also common health effects that can develop from being overweight or obese. Orthopedic complications are common as the excess weight can lead to “bowing and overgrowth of leg bones” (obesity.org). Socially, children who are overweight or obese are stigmatized which may lead to other disorders such as eating disorders.

Schools and families should work together to provide healthier lifestyles for children. As a teacher and a mother, Slack knows firsthand about children’s eating habits and thinks children need to develop healthier eating habits if they are to lead healthier adult lives. She includes a chapter on exercise called “Get Moving!” that provides great examples of fun activities children can do such as rollerblade and dance.

I found the book to be a great resource not only for children but adults. There are many aspects of nutrition that adults do not understand such as calories and good fats versus bad fats. Slack explains the difference between a serving and a portion of food, calories and how to read nutrition facts labels.

Crunching Carrots Not Candy is also written in Spanish for the growing Latino community. You can order the book directly from the author at www.crunchingcarrotsnotcandy.com, and check out her health links.

Community Supported Agriculture


Silveira Farms near Merced, owned by David and Michelle Silveira, is a small organic  farm providing food through a direct link between consumers and farmers.

By buying shares monthly and receiving produce directly from the farmer, members can enjoy fresh organic food, support local farmers, help to preserver local agriculture, know how their food is grown, and help to preserve diversity in agriculture.

Farmers like the Silveiras are part of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement that emphasizes direct connections between small farmers and consumers in a partnership of mutual commitment. CSA members help cover a farm’s operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest. Annual membership dues help to pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, etc. In return, the farm provides a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season.

Contact Silveira Farms at 1956 Pinehurst Dr., Merced, CA 95340, (209) 380-9104, silveiradavid@hotmail.com

Other local CSA farms are:

Note: Some information gleaned from a Modesto Bee article by Eve Hightower.

Simple ways to save energy, reduce global warming

Appliances account for about 20 percent of a household’s annual electricity use. Since most of our nation’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels (such as coal and natural gas), which contribute to global warming and air and water pollution, replacing older appliances with more efficient Energy Star-rated models can go a long way toward reducing your environmental impact. However, these appliances are only as efficient as the person using them.

No matter what model appliance you own, there are easy ways to make sure it is using as little electricity as possible:



Washing Machine


From the Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/greentips/?print=t