Cooler weather and occasional showers have mitigated the drought in parts of Texas, and summer’s spectacular wildfires have ended. Still, dessicated pastures, disappearing herds, abandoned lakes and empty stock ponds make clear the continuing need for rain.
Hidden behind these more obvious signs of drought lie other consequences, equally troublesome if more personal. Enjoying breakfast in a Hill Country kitchen last weekend, I heard a tiny sigh as I split a biscuit and reached for the glass dish holding my friend’s homemade preserves. “That’s my last jar of peach, and close to my last jar of fig,” she said. “It’s only December,” I said. “Don’t you usually have enough to last ’til summer?”
Yes, she allowed, she usually did. But this year drought put an end to her gardens and orchards. With so little rain, the fig trees barely produced. Peaches were available from irrigated orchards, but they were expensive. Pears were the size of walnuts, and the walnuts didn’t make. Even the dewberries weren’t good, setting so little fruit she left it for hungry birds and animals. The sweet, succulent blackberries that overflowed her baskets in the past withered and died, offering up only a cup or two of tart, nearly tasteless berries. Without good berries an abundance of pies, cobblers and sauces disappeared, not to mention the brandied blackberries that always had been a holiday treat.
“Don’t you irrigate?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, “but as the weeks went by, we had to stop. People were having troubles with their wells. Some went dry, and I didn’t want that. I let the flower gardens go first, then the vegetables. I hated it, but there was nothing to do. I didn’t get a single tomato.”
Life without blackberry cobbler is one thing. Not being able to put up tomatoes is another. For generations of women, including my own grandmother, summer meant canning uncounted quarts of tomatoes, sauced, stewed and diced for the long winter ahead. In the cave which served as combination storm cellar and pantry for my grandparents, the jars shone in the dim light like jewels: tomatoes, peaches and plums, cherries awash in burgundy syrup, jams, jellies and marmelades, sweet corn relish, spiced apples and pears and the translucent shimmer of pickles.
Like my grandparents’ cave, my friend’s larder always had been the very definition of abundance, until the scourge of drought took first her water, and then the harvest that helps sustain her family through the year.
Some of her more drought-tolerant fruits did survive the summer, although their yield was low. Two varieties of persimmon, the Texas (Diospyros texana) and the Asian (Diospyros kaki) were freely shared with a multitude of birds and squirrels, white-tailed deer, foxes, possums and raccoons.
The possum’s love of persimmons is legendary. In some regions, the creature spends so much time gorging on the fruit the trees are known as “possum wood”. John James Audubon pictured the Virginian Opossum in a persimmon tree, and an old American folk-song celebrates the relationships among the Possum, the Persimmon and the Raccoon.
Possum up in a ’simmon tree, raccoon on the ground,
Raccoon said, “”You rascal, shake them ’simmons down!”
On the Gulf Coast, Atakapa Indians called persimmons piakimin. Early French settlers transformed it into plaquemine, familiar to many as the name of a Louisiana parish. Elias Wightman, a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s, documented persimmon groves in southeast Texas; the trees he found were the drought-resistant natives, their seedy black fruit much smaller and differently-shaped than the larger and more familiar red-orange Asian varieties. Both provide a wonderful base for an assortment of pastries and jams once the frosts reduce their astringent qualities. My first persimmon came from a Hill Country tree, and I was amazed at its smooth sweetness.
For pure eating pleasure from native Texas plants, you can’t do better than jams and jellies made from berries of the agarita, sometimes called “agarito” or “algerita”. Because of its prickly nature, the best way to gather its berries is to lay a cloth on the ground and thrash the bushes. This year, drought reduced the berry crop even on this hardy plant, so the time spent gathering berries wasn’t worth the return, and agarita jelly wasn’t on the menu.
Even the yield of berries from Scarlet Firethorn, or Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea), was lower than usual. Its beautiful red, red-orange or yellow berries resemble tiny apples and it’s branches often are used for decorating. My favorite bush, a large volunteer along a country fenceline, disappeared when the County showed up to widen and pave the road. Still, the non-native pyracantha thrives, its seeds spread by birds who love its tasty and nutritious berries. Occasionally the berries ferment, leaving robins and waxwings staggering from the bushes, nearly unable to fly.
For years I assumed pyracantha was poisonous, but the apple-shaped berries are perfectly suitable for human consumption. The seeds do contain hydrogen cyanide, but boiling the fruit and straining the pulp to remove the seeds is all that’s necessary. Thanks to my friend, I’ll be trying some pyracantha pancake syrup this week – a small reminder of nature’s abundance and human care.
As friends will do, we spent long hours drinking coffee and talking around the table until a sudden night-time rattling across the tin roof and a rush of wind signaled rain. In a country so long bereft of storms, nothing could be more comfortable, or as comforting. “We sure do need more of that…” someone said as the rain murmured outside the windows, and the chairs got pushed back, and we all went off to bed.
The next morning, the “more” we’d hoped for had come. Puddles dotted the caliche drive. Damp cats huddled under the potting shed while water dripped down around them. We said our farewells in drizzle and fog, a gauzy, gray coverlet tucked around the resting ridges and valleys.
An hour later, as I swung around San Antonio and headed east, rain developed – heavy enough to make driving a challenge, and consistent enough to bring a smile. For thirty miles the rain increased and then eased off, allowing me to see water coursing along the ditches and collecting in the fields. Overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude, I tried, without success, to remember the last time I’d witnessed such abundance.
Passing a farmhouse, I glimpsed a man standing on his porch, hands tucked into jacket pockets, just watching. A few miles down the road, I stopped for gas and coffee and found the fellows standing out front looking very much the same: hands tucked into pockets, eyes focused on the rain.
My own coffee in hand, I left the store only to discover drizzle had turned again into a near-torrent. Standing under the awning, waiting to see if it might slack off before I headed to the car, I listened to the desultory talk.
“Purty nice,” said one fellow. “Sure enough,” said the other. “Smells good, too,” said a third. And it did. It smelled clean, and fresh. It smelled like a new start, and hope and home. It smelled sweet, like the promise of abundance.
It smelled like next year’s blackberries.