On one solitary, late-spring walk through a village in the south of France in 1964, I came upon a tall yellow brick wall around some private estate. Over the wall drooped the graceful arms of a cherry tree, well studded with doublets of dark red cherries dangling over my head like the original fruit of sin. I didn’t need a serpent to suggest I take eat. In a wink I had snatched a double handful out of the leafy green and azure sky and was walking again, popping forbidden fruit into my mouth. The cherries were darkly sweet, as rich as pudding, bursting with juice. Young and innocent, intensely aware of the sun’s warmth and the dark taste of cherries distilled on my tongue, I was awash in pure happiness.
Maybe that’s why we say life is but a bowl of cherries, because from cherries comes pure happiness. Now I eat cherries off my own tree, each bite splitting open over my tongue, staining my lips with juice and filling my mouth with the taste of la Provence, of a Van Gogh sun in a cerulean sky and perfect happiness. Sometimes I double that happiness by making a chocolate-cherry tart or by dipping my cherries in melted chocolate. When it has hardened, I eat them like Stouffer’s candies. In the winter when I open a jar of thick, sweet, homemade cherry jam to spread on warm toast, I bring that French geography of spring to an Oregon mountain in January – if I am so lucky as to have cherries, that is. Most years I’m not because most years the birds are.
I like my cherries ripe, but the birds aren’t so picky. Day after day, they flock to my yard at first light to pick at cherries in the first blush of ripening. Though I begrudge every cherry a blue jay takes, I wouldn’t mind paying with cherries for the songs of towhees and tanagers – if the birds would take the top-limb cherries and leave me the ones I can reach. But they never do. By the time the birds fly away, wobbling drunkenly, weighed down by heavy tummies, I have few cherries left.
One day this spring my daughter-in-law was driving down the freeway when an owl flew out of the back of a pickup in front of her and bounced in its hard plastic way onto the shoulder of the road. Recognizing immediately what it was and what it was for, Leah stopped her car and retrieved the big plastic owl to give to me to guard my cherries.
I didn’t really think it would work. I thought maybe the owl was supposed to be a piggy bank, but because Leah had given it to me, I thought I should use it. I stuck it in my peony bed, where there was already a pole to put it on, but it looked ridiculous there. It’s not pretty, and birds don’t eat peonies. Then one day, driving past a farm, I saw a plastic owl like mine up in the branches of a fruit tree, witness to my mistake and Leah’s wisdom. As soon as I got home, I climbed my cherry tree and stuck my owl on a knobby little branch where he looked properly threatening. I was heartened about the value of deception. Now when the birds fly into the tree to steal my cherries, they’ll see the valiant cherry guard, the defiant and dangerous enemy of small birds, sitting in wait. They’ll fly off with cries of fear, and the owl will sit in the center and know. When I come along to pick my red-ripe cherries for lunch, for pies and tarts and jams, I’ll stroke the owl’s hard plastic back and pat him on the head. I’ll praise him for preserving happiness, and if he wants any cherries, I’ll gladly give them to him.