Mulberries To Link The Past And Future

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THE sights and smells of the changing season bring back a jumble of memories for me. This year, as spring warms the earth and sets the frogs singing, I am transported back from my Midwestern home to a plot of land in Connecticut's glacial hills. I can smell hot sun on the white clapboard house, feel the sting of thorns on the flowering quince. The pasture grass fades to green mist in the twilight of my mind's eye. I am there in that gaunt old farmhouse, full of mice and history, where our family spent three years, thinking we would spend 40.

The house had been in the same family for generations when my husband and I found it. Rich with austere beauty and stubbornness of character, it required much patience and even more upkeep. The land around it was equally challenging and beautiful. Hedges and flowerbeds filled with odd, old-fashioned varieties were overgrown. Mysterious outbuildings lay in ruins.

But the trees - ah, the trees! They were the glory of the place. Huge, gnarled, and ancient, they were the first thing one saw and the last thing one's eye would linger on. I think I loved them more than the house itself and miss them more.

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My favorite was the mulberry. Tall and stately - no ``bush'' at all - it stood over the garden and fields beyond like a sentinel. Unlike the beeches and maples, its long, elegant limbs were still bare in May; only in early June did the shiny, serrated leaves appear, and soon after, the tiny green nubs that would swell into berries. Our first spring in the house, I waited expectantly for the berries to ripen, planning glorious pies, only to be disappointed by small, pale, seedy fruit that tasted like mealy apples.

If we scorned the berries, the animals did not. The spring and summer days brought waves of birds to feast on them. Bluebirds, orioles, tanagers, waxwings, and kingbirds filled the tree with brilliant trills and rustles. At night, our flashlights would catch the fierce, glassy eyes of racoons, who would gorge all night and disappear by morning. Finally, in late July, flocks of starlings would move in. They drove out the other birds and animals and stayed till every berry was gone.

THE tree intrigued me. Though a native of New England, I had never encountered a mulberry before. I began asking around and reading up. What I discovered was a complex, fascinating story that stretched back to colonial days and beyond.

Morus alba (the white mulberry), I learned, is not native to North America but to China, where its leaves are treasured as the preferred food of the silkworm. On well-regulated farms, silkworms are fed great quantities of white mulberry leaves, after which they spin themselves into gauzy cocoons. The cocoons are heated to kill the larvae inside, then carefully unwound by hand and spun together to produce silken thread.

Thousands of years ago, silk production was the exclusive province of the Chinese, who guarded their caterpillars, trees, and methods with elaborate security. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian (A.D. 483-565 ) finally used espionage to smuggle silk out of China. Over the next several hundred years, silk production - and the planting of mulberry trees - spread up through Europe, eventually reaching the American colonies. By 1838, Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturers had set up shop in Manchester, Conn., and the local government provided incentives to all those who planted mulberry trees. Silk and tobacco were to be the cash crops of New England.

After learning all this, I was certain that our mulberry was planted in the early 1800s, a few decades after the house was built. Although I never found out for sure, I envisioned it this way: Some farmwife-turned-entrepreneur needed extra income for the farm. She bought several saplings with her hard-earned egg money, for the sober price of $5 each. Carefully, over several years, she nurtured them to maturity.

Being a farm woman and not wont to waste, she spread out large sheets beneath the trees and shook down the bland, colorless mulberries for use in jam and tarts. But her real harvest would have been the leaves: food for her silkworms. Perhaps she gave over one of the sheds to long trays of munching worms and nests of cocoons, which she then gathered and delivered, intact, to Cheney Mills. What bright hopes, I wondered, did she pin on that tree?

The work eventually would have overwhelmed her; it took 680 cocoons to make enough silk for one blouse. Such labor-intensive husbandry didn't suit American farm life. Silk factories soon started importing their cocoons, then dropped out of the industry all together. England and France held out a little longer; then they, too, succumbed to domination by China, India, and Japan.

But the trees remain, dotting the New England landscape. I found two or three more during my investigations, great thick-trunked beauties, standing in mute testimony to the changes around them. Each spring, they pause prudently until the weather warms, then pour forth their green and white harvest.

There are no mulberries where I live now. Our oldest trees are great oaks, which have survived extremes of weather unknown in New England. I look at them in the yard and take comfort in their size and strength. In this season of transition and memories, I like to think of all they have witnessed over the years - and of the long chain of human lives they link together. I like to remember the words of the poet John Ashberry, who, along with so many other writers, farmers, and dreamers, loved trees:

You and I

Are suddenly what the

trees try

To tell us we are:

That their merely

being there

Means something: that soon

We may touch, love, explain.

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