The Ones That Make It
Never mind the birds and bees; do you know where cherries come from?
Sweet cherries, those dimpled, crimson bites so round and juicy, with their sweet meaty fruit flesh and taut scarlet outer skin, are known as tender fruits. With such specific requirements to grow they are found only in very specific conditions. They need rich, well-drained soils of the perfect pH, where winters are chill enough to keep the trees dormant until it’s time to bloom, and summers that are not-too-hot-yet-sunny-enough to provide those little critters with their daily dose of eight to ten hours of sunlight.
In blossom the cherry is classic, its clouds of flowers heralding spring. Cherries grow in places like the Kashmir Valley, Persia, the deepest south of France, the Mediterranean and Baltic lands–in other words, Shangri-La.
In the human diet for four thousand years, cherries feature prominently in Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1500) where you cannot mistake their symbolism, which is alive and well to this day: purity and the deflowering of innocence.After outrunning the Russian front at the tail end of World War Two, my dad landed in Niagara. Tucked into the sweet southern curve of Lake Ontario, on soils lain down when a massive glacial lake receded at the end of the Pleistocene leaving thick deposits of lacustrine silt over glacial till, this peninsular paradise was the Promised Land to him.
Cherries grow here, in the good, deep, friable, well-drained soil of the Lake Iroquois Plain.
My mom arrived a few years after; at sixteen she was too young to stay behind when her parents left their Manitoba acreage, bought from the CPR during western expansionism, to move to the Golden Horseshoe which hosts one-third of Canada’s best agricultural land—and a similar representation of Canada’s population.
They weren’t the first immigrants to settle here, of course. People have nestled into this sweet spot since it was humanly possible – ten millennia and counting—after the époques of warm inland sea, Wisconsin ice field, and finally the massive freshwater lake, which drained when the St. Lawrence ice bridge gave way at the warm end of the Pleistocene, exposing fertile soil in the lee of the Cretaceous coastline now known as the Niagara escarpment.
The Onguiaahra gave this neck of the woods its Iroquois name, and there were many others (Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Huron, Petun, Erie and the Susquehannock) who traveled through, inhabited, farmed, hunted, settled, fished and fought here, following the water, the mighty, muscular Niagara, unnervingly green, mirroring the lush lands on either bank.
By the time I was old enough to roam freely my family lived beside Four Mile Creek, so called because it’s exactly four miles from the Niagara. We just called it the creek, and it was the perfect place for us kids to mess about in boats, get soakers in November, skate on in winter, and explore in spring when the cherries on either bank flowered in pink and white efflorescence.
Of course, I took the creek for granted, but have since learned that this little waterway drains thirteen square kilometers of the ancient lakebed, and is designated as Class 1 agricultural soil (only half of one percent of our country’s total tillable soil is this prime). The Four Mile Creek drainage is now almost entirely converted to orchard.
This fertile place by a watercourse bears evidence of all human settlement since the ice retreated, and was in fact inhabited by aboriginals and the first colonials, Niagara’s United Empire Loyalists.
Tucked into the tidy, tended rows of fruit trees near Four Mile Creek is a patch of wilderness. Protected because it shelters a historic Burying Ground, this remnant of first growth Carolinian coppice has survived all of Niagara’s human settlement.
In my memory the gravestones of the Servos family and the forest are inseparable, as are the forest and the riparian remnant hugging the creek’s banks. Deciduous diversity shelters the water and morphs into the white elm, shagbark hickory and white ash of the original hardwood forest in the graveyard wood, not to mention maples with plate-sized leaves and oaks. Tall grasses grow until they are mown, their tall floral stalks bearing witness to natural succession after centuries of forest clearing.
It was a strange and exhilarating irony to rest peacefully on the grave markers. The hot, sunny days of mid-summer in the well-ordered cherry orchard were tempered perfectly by the shade of wild canopy, and rendered dreamy by the movements of grass and milkweed. Butterflies busied themselves. Insects and amphibians made music here: cricket rhythm, cicada dissonance, and the chug-chug of motor-throated frogs.
But it isn’t nostalgia that makes me write of my birthplace. It is a need to acknowledge my crucible, the cradle of my civilization—the home I left as soon as I could fly.
That patch of forest beside the creek, hidden deep within the heart of the domesticated orchards, held the power of nature for me. I was drawn to the wilderness along the water for comfort, therapy, healing.
What, you ask, could a fifteen-year-old girl have to heal from?
Well, I was a tender fruit, bruised by a touch too rough: I wondered, if God saw the sparrow fall, why didn’t he catch it?
The people I lived among were survivors of the twentieth century’s major European crises: revolution, collectivization, communism, Stalinism, Nazism, war, escape. They had been persecuted, displaced, removed, interned, relocated. There was loss: husbands and wives were separated, children orphaned, brothers and sisters torn apart. Betrayal, internment, death by execution, disappearance, mysterious parentage—all these play out in my family tree.
By the time these people arrived on Canadian soil they were ready to put their heads down and make a new life, as inoffensively yet determinedly as possible. So they worked hard, and they worked the land, pulling it into service, and all of us with it.
Just the other day my son asked me, “Was your father a good man?” In the split second before I nodded, a lifetime of responses sizzled across my neural pathways. At every juncture in my development my answer would have been different. At one time I believed anger at him was in my very roots. But as I clocked my response, I knew I could—I had—let it go.
This son is nine, the age my father was when the Russians finally made it to the Ukraine and ousted the German army, which was seen to be a saviour by the German-speaking Mennonites, people who were always looking for a safe place to mind their own business. Tagging along as the army retreated, my dad and his family were the front: soldiers, bombs, guns, the flight across eastern Europe in winter with horse and wagon, crowded train cars, deplorable conditions, panic, terror.
My dad’s cousin recounts icicles of blood dripping from their wooden carts, and a face full of filth from the chamber pots emptied out the train car ahead. That winter this cousin watched a Polish woman pull her blind husband by his hand, as they and their children were evacuated under soldiers’ orders in the dead of winter. My dad’s family was housed in their house, ate their root vegetables, and fed their hungry horse with that family’s hand-mown hay.
I had two cherries tattooed on my skin before it was fashionable for young women to embrace body art. Somehow I knew that I was indelibly marked by my lineage, haunted by the effects, yet buoyed by the journey, and the arrival in the new land. The cherry signified all that was good, and somehow I understood that too.
My nine-year-old was born on the anniversary of my dad’s death; they never met. That July day was beautiful, as only a summer day in Niagara can be, with perfect cherry growing conditions, the kind of weather my dad loved best: blue skies, sunshine, twenty-seven sweet degrees with a little breeze off the lake that made the green willows dance, while puffy marshmallow clouds bounced above the thick green grass where he was laid to rest.
What would I (do I) do to protect my sons? This is the lens through which I must peer down the line. I live in good times, thanks to all that happened then.
Very few farmers will grow cherries: they are so tricky to protect. So the ones that make it are a unique delicacy, one of those very special fruits that, grown and harvested in season, when the conditions are just right, yield a very special thing.