The cherries and the chain saw

Under the long, dark boughs, like jewels red In the hair of an Eastern girl Hang strings of crimson cherries . . . Against the haystack a girl stands laughing at me, Cherries hung round her ears. THESE images from D. H. Lawrence's poem ``Cherry Robbers'' somehow managed to survive the rigors of my high school English teacher's dissection and analysis, and have stayed with me ever since. A few years later in southern Norway, I bought an old farm with several friends and found myself milking cows, haying, and among all the other chores and pleasures of our bucolic summers, picking cherries. Six vigorously branched, unkempt trees embraced the front and side of the house and towered above my second-floor bedroom window. Most likely they'd been planted around the turn of the century when the barn and house were built. It seemed obvious that cherries had held a special status, placed so close by the house and garden and allowed to grow so brazenly prolific. The apples, pears, and plums were all relegated to a proper orchard across the road, trimmed and marching in orderly rows up the hillside.

In the rare moments when I had time to gaze pensively out my window, I could watch the cherry branches in storm and sunshine, light and dark, and in the changing seasons. In spring the snow of winter gave way to a snow of blossoms, thick on bare twigs, before the bright green leaf buds slowly unfolded from their casings. Soon the petals fell and the grass would be speckled white for a day or two until they withered and disappeared.

While the hard, green globes in the trees developed, we were preoccupied with weeds, beehives, calves, silage, and cows breaking through fences to romp in neighbours' pastures. The dappled shade was welcome at outdoor meals, and rain on foliage would lull one to sleep at night.

Suddenly, when the second haying was due, a flash of ripening color under dark leaves would catch the eye -- then more and more of them, deep eggplant-purple, or red and yellow, bobbing heavily on long stems. At first there were only a few here and there to snatch from low boughs on the way to the house, not enough to warrant a serious search. Then a hot day would come when, tired, sticky with sweat, and itching with chaff from long hours of turning and pitching hay, we'd climb into the trees and gorge ourselves on handfuls of cherries, spitting pits like machine-gun fire.

At that point, lively conversations can develop, turning from the all-consuming activity to the lofty view across the valley floor patterned with fields and squeezed down to the fjord by steep, granite walls. Sometimes, in a thoughtful mood, wedged into just the right crook of branches, drowsy from sun and work and sweet fruit, one can drift into a light doze, only vaguely aware of distant cowbells, laughing voices in the farmyard, rustling starlings close by on all sides, and the soft, flickering light and shadow of foliage through heavy eyelids.

The birds were our only competitors, and though there were really plenty to share, it was irritating to watch them take the cherries we could only long for and not touch. The most tantalizing ones, of course, hang jauntily beyond your fingertips when you've stretched a little farther than you should dare.

One year Erik finally gave in to the frustration and harvested the least accessible parts of the largest trees with a chain saw. The trees not only survived this drastic treatment but have borne more in succeeding years. They needed pruning, but Erik's method is not one you'll find in any gardening manual.

As our lives slow down and curl inward for the long months of cold and dark, golden russet leaves in the cherry trees wag loose and fall in a drenching rain, leaving naked, inky-black branches sketched across the matte sky.

In a winter storm an icy, crooked twig scratched at the windowpane as if asking to come in from the wind and swirling snow. For dessert that evening I found cherries in the freezer and made a pie. The steaming, summery fragrance filled the kitchen and touched vivid memories: of sun, haystacks, and laughing faces.

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