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Count on summer for wild fruit of youth

About this time of year, wild cherries are turning from red to black and I begin trying to beat the birds to the ones I have been watching on two volunteer trees in my side yard. I'm usually lucky to get one handful before the red birds, blue jays, sparrows and other take them all.

Wild cherries, wild grapes, plum thickets, blackberry vines and watermelons that grew in cotton patches are the memories of a rural or small town boyhood for many of my generation. Most of the youngsters who I grew up with owned or had access to riding horses and our greatest summer pleasure was riding all day in small groups, exploring the wooded and gullied countryside of Yalobusha and Tallahatchie counties in north Mississippi.

Modern-day youngsters have no idea of the absolute freedom that most of us kids had back then before anybody thought up the totally regimented activities that keep today's kids captive. When school let out in spring we were on our own. Most small towns had no picture show, there were no televisions, no radios, and very few books to keep us busy, but most of us never experienced boredom. Riding free and finding adventures of a sort at every turn left no time whatever for boredom.

Finding and consuming the wild fruits of the countryside, especially wild cherries in early July, was something to look forward to. Endless hours were spent climbing these trees, some of them quite large (the saw-millers for one reason or another missed most of them). Eating these tasty little black fellows was a real art. The proper way was to carefully gather a handful of may 15 or 20, make sure no bugs were hidden away in them and then throw the entire lot into your mouth. You then “wallowed” the whole mass around with teeth and tongue, literally sucking out the juice, pulp, and hulls until you had nothing left except a mouthful of seed. There was no way to dispose of the seed except to spew them out all over the ground, which no doubt propagated the wild cherry all over its range. (Not very neat and surely not approved by Emily Post, but very effective).

Wild grapes were also eagerly sought, especially the ones we called summer grapes (as opposed to the bitter little possum grapes). Summer grapes ripened relatively late in the season, but were especially tasty when consumed by the same method used to eat wild cherries. All of them would stain clothing, hands, mouth, and tongues and were not especially loved by our mothers.

Plum thickets were also common, sometimes covering an acre or two. They ripened in stages, depending on their genetic strain, and provided sustenance for youngsters over long periods of time. I especially liked the yellow variety, but in truth I think they all tasted about the same.

Blackberry thickets often bordered patches of plums and at the proper season a kid could fill up on this luscious treat in a very short time. The only drawback to blackberry picking was that you invariably got yourself covered with chiggers, this being long before the advent of good insect repellents. The only thing I can ever remember using back then to fight mosquitoes and bugs was a drugstore product called Oil of Citronella that may have occasionally discouraged a bug, but surely not often.

The best treat of all during those long hot summer days spent on horseback was watermelons. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers of that long-ago era often hand-planted watermelon seed in their cottonfields. If you were lucky, you might find a nice melon or two while riding down a turning row alongside these fields.

Naturally these melons were often very hot, but on one of the farms that we frequented, there was a fine natural spring at the foot of a bluff that produced the finest ice-cold water imaginable. Some kind soul had stuck a section of concrete culvert in this spring and created a fine water supply. The bottom of the spring harbored a number of small brownish salamanders that we called water-keepers, believing they kept the water veins open.

This was a superb place to float a hot watermelon and in an hour or two it became almost as cool as one that had been refrigerated. Sitting there in the shade of the bluff eating a cold watermelon with bare feet cooling in the spring run-off was as fine a way to spend time as I can think of.

I sometimes bore my grandkids and other youngsters with tales of this rather idyllic existence, but they seem skeptical and somewhat disinterested. After all, this was a long time ago and in this modern, antiseptic world of today, nothing seems really important except the immediate present. I can understand this quite well even though I don't entirely approve.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mabry Anderson is recovering from recent illnesses. This column orignally appeared in the July 19, 1996, issue of Delta Farm Press.

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