In the produce section of the grocery store the other day, I saw apricots on sale for 99 cents a pound. They sat in a bin between grapes from Chile and cherries from Montana's Flathead Valley. I don't know where the apricots came from. I selected six and put them in the shopping cart, but I was thinking what a sterile exercise it was.
Less than a week earlier I had camped on a sand beach along the lower Salmon River in Idaho. It was our first night out, and somebody noticed apricot trees on the rocky bench above our tents. The fruit was ripe. Three of the kids went up with a big cook pot and filled it over the top in five minutes. They brought it back and set it on the table, this free, luscious bounty. Everyone gorged. I'll bet I ate 30 apricots in an hour, easy.
It made me think about how we live, making weekly runs to the store where food is laid out, packaged, refined, modified, some of it so altered that it hardly qualifies as food, all of it brought in by way of labyrinthine transportation networks and convoluted business transactions. It made me think of the way all creatures, save humans in developed countries, live; and how, not so long ago, we used to live.
I thought of eagles gorging on salmon carcasses along Alaskan rivers until they are too heavy to fly. Blue whales gulping down clouds of plankton by the ton. Fish roiling the surface of a Montana river during a caddis hatch. Wolves following herds of caribou on the tundra, picking off calves and weak adults, their bellies sagging to the ground. Elk grazing the lush green spring grass until their coats glisten in the sun. A ruby-throated hummingbird moving from columbine to columbine in an alpine meadow, sucking nectar with the ferocity of a metabolism that demands its body weight in food several times each day.
That's what it felt like to eat one sun-warm apricot after another with the Salmon River charging past. It's what, I imagine, it felt like to spear salmon out of the Columbia when the water surged with fish beyond counting and baskets brimmed with their bodies. What it felt like to stand in the carnage of bison below a jump, and to wade into the butchery fueled by a fierce exultation of wealth and gratitude. What it felt like to gather the seasonal harvest of fruits and roots and vegetables, to cure them and store them and eat them until you could eat no more.
That surfeit joy is so intense because the anguish and desperation of its opposite is equally intense. When winter weeks drag on past the end of supplies. When elk paw through the snow for brown, withered grass. When fish lie in torpor under thick layers of ice, hearts barely beating. When the stores of caribou meat are long gone and the bodies of your sons and daughters grow gaunt and listless. When the bear emerges from its winter den, hunger an insistent ache.
I remember watching a black bear feeding on alder catkins on the shores of Lake Athabasca one May. The bear reared up in front of a stand of shrubbery, waded forward into an embrace with a group of alders twenty feet tall. It wrestled the armload of vegetation to the ground, stood on top of it. Through binoculars, I watched the bear's mobile, pink tongue ravish the buds and catkins, gleaning the food in an efficient, almost brutal assault. Again and again the bear tackled sections of shrubs, took them down, ate them clean. The harvest was languid and efficient and voracious, the same way that same bear would take on patches of blueberries and cranberries in the fall, or the carcass of a moose, or a nest of ants in a rotten log.
In my town, every fall, there are apple trees everywhere that drop fruit to the ground where it rots away. There are plum trees weighed down with fruit that withers and dies. Sometimes we get motivated to press cider or make jam from the neighborhood. More often we are too preoccupied with the busyness of life, and the work of hunting and gathering money, to notice. Instead we go to the store at the end of the week, and stand in front of the choices, making our selections, eating in that steady moderate way that has come to be our habit, and forgetting the hot ecstasy of connection to the earth and its seasons, that joy of biting into one luscious apricot after another, throwing the pits over our shoulders, the nourishment of the harvest warm as fire inside.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman.