My 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.
*This is an update of what I wrote earlier, when I said I thought it was unprecedented.