A Peach of an Idea Bears Fruit

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I ONCE read that scientists had genetically engineered a square tomato. To improve its packing quality, I presume. How is it that technology can change the shape of one fruit, yet be an utter failure at achieving ripeness in another?

Not long ago, I was in a supermarket here in Maine, rummaging through a bin of peaches hard enough to use for batting practice. As I dug deeper into the unappetizing pile, I couldn't help but recall my New Jersey childhood. One of its hallmarks was the appearance, in late summer, of peaches as big as softballs and pliant to the touch. Their sweetness perfumed the air, and every bite released a torrent of nectar.

When I moved to Maine, it took almost that entire first summer to pin down what I was missing. The diminutive peaches that found their way north were hard and tasteless. The placards in the supermarkets read ''fresh,'' but the word was a faded scrawl, as if the proprietors themselves knew it wasn't true.

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It was then I discovered that there was a variety of peach that could actually grow and bear fruit in a place like Maine. I went down to a local nursery and asked about the ''Reliance.''

The nurseryman had a few on hand. Skinny, bare-rooted whips about three feet long, standing in damp sawdust. ''They'll take the cold down to minus 20,'' he claimed.

I planted my Reliance in the spring of that year. I did everything right: the dimensions of the hole, the soil composition, the location, ample water. Neighbors began to trickle in, to ask about the new planting. When I told these native Mainers what kind of tree it was, they scowled. ''Tryna' grow peaches in Maine,'' one said, shaking his head.

Interest in my peach tree grew rapidly. So much so that people on the streets of my small town commenced conversations with me on that note. ''How's the peach tree?'' they'd ask. ''Doing fine,'' I'd tell them. ''Just fine.''

And it was true. The Reliance had leafed boldly, sending out slender side branches with long, shiny leaves soaking up the sun. But the truly wondrous occurred in late May, when a carpenter friend, Earl, came by and stood over the little tree. Earl is a man of many years and few words, but the few he said that day filled me with euphoria. With his hands in his pockets and his cap drawn down, he said, ''She's gonna bud.''

It was true! On two of the side branches there were a number of still-closed buds, their pink tips barely discernible to all except the faithful.

Word spread. People I had never seen before came by to stand over the Reliance. Almost all of them had advice, all of it conflicting. ''Don't water it too much.'' ''Give 'er plenty of water.'' ''Put down a top dressing of manure.'' ''Don't manure her till the fall.''

One day while I was at work, Earl called me on the phone. ''Buds are open,'' was all he said.

''How many?'' I yelled into the receiver. ''How many?'' But Earl had hung up, having spoken his modest piece.

As I rushed home to verify, I reflected that I now had a larger objective than eating fresh peaches: Show the skeptics that one could indeed grow the fruit in Maine.

When I reached home there was a small circle gathered around the Reliance. They parted so I could get through. I counted eight delicate blossoms. ''Looks like you're gonna do it,'' someone said, and I swelled with pride.

I labored mightily at the Reliance through the summer. Coddling it in every way. If the night grew cool, I erected a crude burlap tepee over the tree. During dry periods, I ran a drip hose around its base. I was vigilant about insect pests. The result was that by late June the blossoms had dropped, and in their place were the subtle swellings of incipient fruit.

Peaches!

By mid-July they were as large as marbles. By August, like small plums. Two had succumbed, but the six that were left had the reddish blush of health and continued to grow. Neighbors made the Reliance a pit stop on evening walks. ''Incredible,'' said one. ''Peaches in Maine,'' said another, which to me had the impact of ''Men on the moon.''

And then came the great disillusionment. I still don't know whether it was an errant cold snap, a fungus, or an insect pest. But one day the stems of the peaches looked yellow and shrunken. I increased the water and cultivated the soil around the young roots. But my ministrations didn't help. I reached out and touched one of the peaches. It fell off in my hand. As did a second, and a third. In the next instant, all six lay in my arms. They were as big as large plums, but hard and shriveled.

I stood there with the fallen fruit and looked furtively around. I was alone with my thoughts. Then I got into my truck and drove to a supermarket in a distant town where nobody knew me. I managed to find six ripe peaches out of a hundred I examined. Then I stopped in a hardware store and bought a tube of Superglue.

Yes, I did. And in the dead of night, working by flashlight, I glued each of those store-bought peaches in place. Then I went to bed and slept soundly.

The next day, word had spread that I was going to pick. A good 20 people showed up and watched as I twisted the peaches from their branches. Then I sliced them up and passed the sections around. Smiles lit up and taste buds ached. Earl stood by my side and said he knew all along I could do it.

I did do it. Technology had prevailed after all, helping me to prove that if there's one thing people need more than fresh peaches, it's fulfillment of their expectations.

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