Pear economics

ThoreauMy mother cut up and froze the rest of the peaches from the box marked “Thoreau” and gave it to me to fill with pears. Alas, there’s nothing remotely Thoreauvian about our pear tree, though we haven’t had to prune it in years. It’s a dwarf, genetically identical to every other Bartlett pear tree in the world, and this year, as most years, it was loaded. We are always amazed that this one, 15-foot tree, which looks especially small standing out in the middle of the field, can pack so much fruit into such an economical space. We planted it back in the mid-70s along with five other fruit trees in that location, but we didn’t fully appreciate the necessity of fencing everything from the white-tailed deer then. The Bartlett was the only survivor.

The pears have to be picked unripe; otherwise they fall to the ground and feed the hornets or the deer. Nor do our hoofed friends limit themselves to windfalls. We’ve actually seen them stand up on their hind legs and hop to reach pears as high as seven feet off the ground. Did Thoreau ever have a problem with deer eating his wild apples? No, he did not. There is exactly one reference to deer in Walden. It’s in Chapter 12, “Winter Animals”:

One man still preserves the horns of the last deer that was killed in this vicinity, and another has told me the particulars of the hunt in which his uncle was engaged.

To Thoreau, living in the hey-day of market hunting, the white-tailed deer was a wilderness animal and a creature of legend. In The Maine Woods, he mentions them in the same breath as bear and moose as a denizen of “Ktadin,” the irony being that in fact central Maine is at the northern edge of the white-tailed deer’s natural range. These days, suburban homeowners in the Concord, Massachusetts area probably think of deer the way most Pennsylvania suburbanites do — as hoofed rats — and some probably even keep their kids indoors in the summer so they won’t contract Lyme disease. If Thoreau were alive today, I imagine he would compromise his vegetarian principles enough to join other ecologically minded folks in becoming an enthusiastic promoter of wild venison.

Another creature whose numbers have mushroomed since the eradication of top carnivores and the severe fragmentation of the eastern forest is the woodchuck. When I picked the pears, I left a dozen or so in the topmost branches, figuring the deer would get them when they eventually fell. Not so. Two days later, my mom told me, she, Dad, and my brother Steve watched a woodchuck climb the tree to eat the remaining pears! This is highly unusual behavior — Mom tells me she’s only ever seen it once before.* They’re nicknamed groundhogs for a reason.

When I heard this, I was doubly glad I hadn’t been greedy and picked every last pear. The value of that one wildlife observation — especially to a naturalist writer like my mother — far out-weighs whatever pleasure we would’ve gotten from those dozen, succulent, top-of-the-tree Bartletts.

That’s the sort of accounting Thoreau excelled at. At the time of his death, he was half done writing a book called Wild Fruits, a contrarian work dedicated to the notion that “the less you get, the happier and richer you are.” Thoreau’s take on economics strikes me as considerably saner than the dangerous fantasies of the Chicago School:

It is a grand fact that you cannot make the fairer fruits or parts of fruits matter of commerce, that is, you cannot buy the highest use and enjoyment of them. You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it. You cannot buy a good appetite even. In short, you may buy a servant or a slave, but you cannot buy a friend.

To me, a good, firm, tart apple is the finest of fruits, and I agree with Thoreau that even wild apples can taste delicious if you come upon them unexpected out in the woods. Pears are a bit like mangoes: soft and sweet and sticky. I enjoy them, but I have a hard time eating more than two or three at a time. Back when I quit smoking, I ate a couple bushels of Stamen Winesap apples in the course of a month, consuming as many as 25 a day and opening my first-ever abdominal savings account in the process. I couldn’t have done that with pears.

But pears were my paternal grandfather’s favorite fruit, and now that Pop-pop’s gone, eating pears from our tree has become an act of remembrance for us. So I filled the Thoreau carton with all the ones I could reach from the ground, then took a second carton up the stepladder, balancing it rather precariously on the top rung.

Since we hadn’t thinned them earlier in the season, many were small, no more than a couple mouthfuls each when they ripen. And of course they will ripen all in a rush, and we’ll do our best to gorge on them, feeling ridiculously wealthy and fortunate — not to mention sticky. And then they’ll be gone, and the box marked “Thoreau” will be put to some other good use.
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*This is an update of what I wrote earlier, when I said I thought it was unprecedented.

Don’t forget to send tree-related links to Bev by August 29 for the Festival of the Trees.

21 Comments


  1. I love the way the box has led you in various directions. It is something isn’t it? the box has a presence.
    Well, I think dried pears are the cat’s pajamas.

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  2. and then there’s peary or is it perry? pear cider. Woodchuck (brand) is so floral and refreshing and only slightly alcoholic. RE: the tree-climbing groundhog – seems like entirely new information on their behavior.

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  3. I love the idea of a woodchuck climbing a pear tree, and also the fact that eating pears is now an act of remembrance — I know that feeling well, indeed.

    Lately we are canning and pickling fiends here in my house; this year I experimented with some savory pickled peaches, alongside the usual peach butter. We don’t grow any fruit, alas, but there’s an orchard not far from here which will happily sell me a 20-pound box of fruit for ten dollars, a hell of a bargain. If we had the pear bounty you describe, I’d be mighty inclined to put them up as relish, or as sweet-and-spicy pickled pear halves…

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  4. Wow – wish I’d seen that. A woodchuck is actually CAPABLE of climbing a pear tree?

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  5. Who really knows what woodchucks are capable of?

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  6. Pears are delicious in salad with fresh greens, walnuts, red onions, and feta cheese. Our pear trees have some kind of blight this year. The leaves and fruit are black-spotted. We’re disappointed. But our apple trees are incredibly abundant. We’ve had an early drop of apples because of the drought, but still have plenty on the trees for a good harvest.

    A woodchuck in a pear tree? I wish I had seen that. We’ve had the raccoons in all of our fruit trees, and even watched a young coyote eating the fallen cherries, but no woodchucks.

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  7. QRR – That’s right, we do have a food drier. Hmm.

    Woodchuck brand perry! Ha! I’ll have to try some.

    Not entirely new info., it turns out – see update.

    Rache l – We used to can a lot of Keifer pears – in fact, that’s just about all that variety is good for. If you want to drive down here, I’ll give you all the canning pears you can carry away for free!

    Beth – Apparently so. I wish I’d seen it myself.

    Bill – Nobody but the woodchucks.

    RA – Excellent suggestion about the salad. Thanks. Sorry to hear about your blight.

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  8. When I was a boy in the Ozark mountains, we hauled hay from a field to the barn. On the edge of field was a gnarly old pear tree that gave great, woody pears. On breaks, we’d gnaw on these pears and drink water from refilled milk jugs that had been left in the freezer over night. The images are so clear in my mind, I wonder if pears induce memory.

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  9. Brett – That’s interesting. I wonder what kind of pear it was? I guess they can grow wild from seed, like apples, right?

    Thanks for stopping by. I really enjoyed checking out your blog just now, and hope you keep it up. The blogosphere sorely needs more Christians of your ilk, IMO.

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  10. It seems unfair to peaches to be talking about apples and pears. I buy peaches once a week, place them on the kitchen counter with plenty of air around each one, then watch them. Each will turn evenly yellow and then I slurp them up, dripping the sweet juice all over. It’s August, prime time for the peach.

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  11. You’re right. I’m not sure I’m quite equal to the task of writing a full-fledged homage to the peach — I mean, I’d have to channel Neruda or something. Though I did write this last year (albeit in July).

    Thanks for the comments, quiet regular reader, but if you keep this up, you know, pretty soon you’re going to have switch to a different pseudonymn!

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  12. I never got around to planting a pear tree. We did try two dwarf apple trees, but the borough’s resident deer took care of both the growing apples and, later, the trees themselves. We planted them in large pots, which we set out on the driveway’s edge for maximum sun. This year, we planted sunflowers in one of the pots (after several earlier sunflower seedlings planted into terra firma out back fell to hungry cottontails. Now, a squirrel has cut down two of the stalks, leaving one remnant. Meanwhile, out back, a red squirrel has shown up and begun harvesting paw paw fruit from one of our two trees. The fruits are nowhere near full ripeness and, unfortunately, will not ripen once off their tree. I shall have to hope for the best as these custard-tasting fruits are delicious.

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  13. You have paw-paws? Far out! I’ve never tasted one. Actually, red squirrels are a rarity here, too. Not enough conifers, I guess.

    I guess you can’t very well shoot critters in the borough…

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  14. “I’d have to channel Neruda or something”

    That made me laugh!

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  15. I spoke to the borough police chief one day about free-roaming cats in the neighborhood. He said he would look the other way if I chose to take some kind of action. I never did. But it’s very disheartening.
    Yesterday, I added a species to my list of roadkill victims: Tufted Titmouse. I was cycling out toward Columbia County at the time. The list grew to 59 species.

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  16. You keep a list of roadkilled species? Sounds like a good (albeit depressing) blog post – or maybe newspaper column.

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  17. you said:

    Pears are a bit like mangoes: soft and sweet and sticky.

    I confess I prefer Bosc
    crisp hard pears

    (like the new (?)
    new to me a couple of years ago at least
    Honey Crisp apples

    also extrmely CRISP eats

    for soft sticky juicy:
    mangoes are superior

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