Occasional showers have fallen in parts of Texas, but desiccated pastures, thinning herds, drying playas, and empty stock ponds make clear the continuing need for rain.
Hidden behind such public signs of drought lie other consequences: equally troublesome, if more personal. During a recent visit with a hill country friend, I heard a familiar sigh as I split a breakfast biscuit and reached for the dish of preserves. “That’s the last of the peach,” she said. “I’m down to apple butter now, until we see how things turn out this year. I sure hope things get better.”
For my friend, “better” means rain. Several times in the past decade drought has put an end to her vegetables and fruits. The fig trees barely produced, pears were the size of walnuts, and pecans shriveled in their shells. Even the dewberries bloomed sparsely, setting so little fruit she left it for hungry birds and animals.
The sweet, trellised blackberries that overflowed her baskets in the past withered and died, offering up only tart, unappealing berries. Without good berries the usual abundance of pies, cobblers, and sauces disappeared, not to mention the brandied berries traditionally set aside for holidays.
“Could you have watered?” I asked. “I did,” she said, “but as the weeks went by, we decided to stop. Some people’s wells went dry, and I couldn’t risk that. I let the flower gardens go first, then the vegetables. I hated it, but there was nothing else to do, even though I didn’t get a single decent tomato.”
Life without blackberry cobbler is one thing. Life without tomatoes is something else. Like generations of women, including my own grandmother, my friend traditionally spent the summer canning uncounted quarts of sauced, stewed, and diced tomatoes for the long winter ahead.
In my grandparents’ fruit cellar, jars shone in the dim light like jewels: tomatoes, peaches and plums; cherries suspended in burgundy syrup; jams, jellies, and marmelades; sweet corn relish, spiced apples and pears, and the translucent shimmer of pickles. My friend’s larder always had resembled that jewel-like abundance, until the scourge of drought took first her water and then the harvest that helps to sustain her family through the year.
Some of her more drought-tolerant fruits have survived the summers, although their yield was low. Two varieties of persimmon, one a Texas native (Diospyros texana) and one the more familiar 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 its fruit the tree is known as ‘possum wood.’ John James Audubon pictured the Virginia Opossum in a persimmon tree, and an old American folk-song celebrates the relationships among the Possum, the Persimmon, and the Raccoon.
Possum 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 my friend’s hill country tree, and I was amazed by 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, one of my friend’s favorites. Because of its prickly nature, the best way to gather agarita berries is to lay a cloth on the ground and thrash the bushes, but when drought reduces the berry crop of even this hardy plant, time spent in bush-thrashing isn’t worth the return, and agarita jelly won’t be on the table.
Recently, even the yield of berries from Scarlet Firethorn, or Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea), has declined somewhat. 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 on a fenceline below my friend’s home, disappeared when the county showed up to widen and pave the road, but new shrubs always appear as seeds are spread by birds who love its tasty and nutritious fruit. In fall and winter, the berries occasionally 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; boiling the fruit and straining the pulp to remove the seeds is all that’s necessary to make a fine jelly. It’s more work that I’m willing to take on, but thanks to my friend, I’ve had the opportunity to try pyracantha pancake syrup and agarita jelly: small reminders of nature’s abundance and human care.
As friends will do, we often spend long hours drinking coffee and talking around the table. One memorable night, a sudden rattle across the tin roof and a rush of wind signaled rain. In a country so long bereft of storms, nothing could be more comforting. “We sure do need more of that,” someone said as the rain murmured outside the windows. Then, the chairs were pushed back and we all went off to bed, ready to enjoy the luxury of falling asleep to the sound of falling rain.
The next morning, the “more” we’d hoped for had come. Puddles dotted the caliche drive and damp yard cats huddled under the potting shed, water dripping 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, more rain developed. Heavy enough to make driving a challenge and consistent enough to bring a smile, it coursed along the ditches and collected in 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, just watching. A few miles down the road, I stopped for gas and coffee and found the men gathered at the front of the small store looking very much the same: hands tucked into pockets, eyes focused on the rain.
Coffee in hand, I left the store only to discover the drizzle had once again turned into a near-torrent. Standing under the awning, waiting for it to slack off before I headed to the car, I listened to the desultory talk.
“Nice,” said one fellow. “Sure enough,” said another. “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.