As we enter into the darker phase of the year’s seasonal cycle here in the northern hemisphere, autumn encourages Gaia to drop her floral skirts and leafy shawls, to expose her fleshy fruits and seeds to its blustery winds, cold rains, the foraging birds and animals so they may disperse her plant life’s potential. Symbolic of transformation and regeneration and housed in a myriad of shapes and textures, her seeds and spores surrounded by hard, soft shells or lying naked, await the length of daylight, weather and/or temperature signals indicating that harvest season has begun and to release her ripe bounty.
Recently I stood in a small orchard contemplating how far afield seeds might travel borne on the winds, dropped into a stream, trapped in the gullet of a migratory bird, in the digestive tract of a browsing animal or even stuck to my shoes when a gust of wind whipped through shaking the branches of the apple, pear and plum trees. I heard it rattle the kiwi vines and whistle through the nearly-naked blueberry branches and move on causing the wind chimes to sound. Just then a pear plopped down close beside me and this got me to thinking about what happens to the fruit left lying on the ground and the natural process of decay and seed dispersal. Right here in front of me, I was called to witness the transformation and regeneration processes associated with entering into the darkness of the autumn season.
From experience, I knew if I left the pear’s pome on the ground, the owner’s chickens would probably peck at it since they now have full run to scavenge the orchard and garden area of anything left on the ground. Their pecking would break through the pear’s soft skin and expose its juicy flesh. If after they were satiated or off to catch a grasshopper, any of the fruit pulp remained, it served as a rotting bounty for mice, blue jays, wasps, fruit flies, ants and slugs who extracted sugars and nutritional components which helped sustain their lives. Even the smallest bits provided minute fodder for molds, bacteria, fungi and other digesters from which to extract nutrients.
The soft, once succulent, curvaceous fruit that rests on the moist ground attracts organisms from below as well They help transform the pear into fuel for the living tissues of organisms along the food chain. Earthworms leave the security of their dark caverns and tunnel up underneath the fruit’s heavy body to devour the softening interiors, feeding themselves first before passing it through their digestive tracts to enrich the ecosystem. Tracings of the mycelial tendrils of gray and white fungus infiltrate the rotting flesh and press inwards, while expanding outwards wherever the fruits touch one another to eventually engulf the whole in a mass of spore-producing mold. Trailing mycelia also extend from the mulching leaves on twisting, forking strands of white, ferrying mineral salts and sugars near and far as the autumn breakdown and decay in the orchard continues.
I picked up the fallen pear, felt its weight and looked it over carefully. It had few blemishes and no sign of bruising so it remains suitable for drying. If any of the other pears on the ground have been lying out for several days, they may be too ripe to enjoy eating out of hand but may be okay for drying and canning. I’ll check their necks first and if they give way under a light press and don’t feel too soft, these will go into the save bucket. I’ve gotten used to passing up the beautiful but overly-ripe, soft ones under the trees for they might already be too oddly flavored; although I admit, I find them hard to resist and may pocket a few just in case.
Because a pear ripens from the inside out, the core area turns into a brown, unsavory mush first which affects the flavor of the whole pome. Nothing but creative knife-work will safe bits and pieces of the outer flesh and often not worth the effort. Might as well leave those in the orchard for the chickens to eat and inevitably add them back in their poop as part of the natural composting cycle in the orchard. Every few days in this small orchard, the owner picks up all the fallen fruit and carts it to the compost bin to go through several more stages of transformation, heating up and breaking down before being spread out and helping to regenerate the growth cycle of Gaia’s plant life in the gardens.
When a human enters into the transformational process by eating the pome, a number of tangents develop. Few of us eat a fruit and defecate in the woods say, such as a bear would who raids an old abandoned orchard, thus spreading seeds with a nutrient-rich package of feces surrounding them eventually to break down and be utilized by a number of organisms. If these seeds begin growing and mature into trees, they rarely recapitulate the parent pear’s good traits. I’ve seen these sport trees around old homesteads grow taller than the parent stock and with much smaller, often inedible fruits even when the old parent tree fruit is incredibly delicious! Modern orchard stock is normally grafted.
Short of having a composting toilet, chickens, pigs or a compost pile to throw the digested or rotting fruits, cores and scraps into from either eating, canning or in some manner preserving the harvest, most of us throw it in the trash or down the garbage disposal as a convenient way to disperse the pear’s nutrients which then end up in the septic tank, water reclamation plant or dump. Fortunately, I have a vermiculture bin of red wriggler worms that will eat up my kitchen scraps and give back rich soils and worm tea (the liquid that drains out of the bin) which I use in my container gardens. I also save a good portion of the veggie and fruit scraps from the house for my orchard-owning friends. Their chickens get to scavenge through it first as it is spread on their compost pile and then the chickens take it full circle to the orchard and deposit when nature calls and thus another cycle of transformation and regeneration begins anew.
Join us next time for Musings in the Autumn Season: Colors and Textures