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[whitespace] Persimmons Feral Fruit

Finding a mouthful of joy in the concrete jungle

By Marina Wolf

SOME PEOPLE WAKE up when spring rolls around. I'm the exact opposite: fall is my favorite season. Around this time of year, my pulse quickens. During the darkening autumn twilight I drive the car through alleyways and hushed back streets, quietly, slowly. Sometimes I get out and peer up into the tossing trees, my vision keen, my breath shallow.

I'm stalking the wild persimmon.

They aren't really wild, but they're as good as I'm going to get in the heart of the city: untended, and on someone else's property. The only tree I've found so far has grown unchecked for at least 40 years at the back of one of those big mid-block plots. The rambling Victorian has been renovated into a blank-faced hive of law offices, which means that if I get caught I could get sued 10 ways to Sunday. But my conscience is clear about my nighttime raids.

If those lawyers can't be bothered to tend the tree, they don't deserve to pick the produce.

And as they say, "It's not stealing, it's liberating."

For starters, I'm liberating the fruit from a certain and untimely fate of squishing onto the uncaring pavement.

Every year, from August through early winter, the streets of Santa Rosa literally overflow with bushels of fruit: plums, apples, lemons, loquats. In older times this fecundity would have been cause for celebration. Children would be conceived, goddesses praised, communal banquet tables loaded with the harvest.

Instead, the rain of ripe fruit incites only cries of disgust as it bounces off cars and stains the sidewalks.

Picking the fruit before that fateful fall is a little like adopting mongrels from the pound. No one wants them, owing to all their apparent defects, and at first glance I'm not sure I want them, either. Semi-wild apples are knotted and often seething with worms. Untended plums vary from one branch to the next, sometimes sour and pinched from lack of sun, sometimes baked in their skins to a mushy pulp.

The persimmons from "my tree" are sooty and small, almost feral in contrast to their smooth-skinned domesticated cousins. And any fruit that's ripe enough to eat by the time I get to it has almost certainly been visited by the birds.

I overlook a lot in my foraged goods: anything short of complete decay is fine when the fruit is for free.

Why do I forage if the fruit can be so nasty? Well, looks aren't everything. Wild and semi-wild foods are more intensely flavored than the froufrou cultivated stuff. And foraging connects me to the food chain in a way that's truly miraculous. I'm not a religious person, but finding food growing in the middle of the city sometimes feels like tripping over a chunk of manna in the desert.

It's an adrenaline rush, too.

The persimmons are a challenging prey. Not only is the fruit high up, but some of it hangs over the parking lot of a bank. It's hard to act nonchalant in a bank parking lot, but I just hold to the first rule of urban foraging: act as if you belong there. A bucket and a long-handled apple picker provide a certain air of forethought, and self-possession covers the rest.

By comparison, most of the other empty lots are easy targets. They harbor some fine fruit trees, and no one ever questions my presence, if indeed anyone can even see me through the underbrush. Getting fruit out of yards where people still live is a bit tricky. Sometimes I ask--especially when they're standing right there, or if the tree is in front of the living-room window--but I also will take, if the moment presents itself, a casual nibble as I pass the fence line.

YES, I'M A BIT OBSESSED. But I didn't always think this way. Once I walked with the oblivious masses, trodding blithely on the sad castoffs from someone else's tree. I must have stepped over my first wild fruit a thousand times before I noticed it, one date among the thousands that littered the asphalt under a row of scraggly palms. For some reason I picked it up, rolled it around in my fingers. The date was tiny, all pit and wrinkled skin; it looked nothing like the plump, well-watered dates from the store. But when I tentatively nibbled on it, a honeyed sweetness exploded in my mouth, and my view of the natural world changed forever.

Now, as I pace through the concrete jungle, I can scarcely take three steps without noticing some new food source: here a particularly prolific patch of blackberries, there an untrimmed hedge of rose hips. I try to carry some small container in the car, in the event that I stumble across a real harvest, but usually the take is so limited that I end up eating it right where I pick it. I take a bite and toss the remains into a bush, then move on to the next piece of fruit. I pry out the pit, bite away the wormy part, and spit it out.

I scan the foliage for other fruits, my hands busily pawing away in search of the next mouthful.

My wild mind forgets that I have juicy, clean grapes and blemish-free pears sitting neatly in a bowl at home. I am caught up in the quest.

Right now, in the moment, I want to hunt for my supper.

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From the November 11-17, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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