The Pecan Orchard
Pitts Road was once a small dirt lane that turned off Highway 90, which itself was once a small two-lane road people would take from Houston to Richmond, whether to go west to visit the ranching side of the family, or to eat Tex-Mex at Larry’s, or to cross the Brazos River and spend a day at the summer fair; but if you turned onto Pitts, it was for the deer hunting or the pecan groves. One of many subdivisions existing there now is called Pecan Grove—not a fictitious marketing ploy as much as the name for what once was there, or I suppose, what had to be taken away.
It is easy to be nostalgic in Richmond, for alongside the housing developments, strip malls with nail salons and good ethnic eateries, and colorful rows of gas and fast food stations are more than tiny remnants of old days that pierce the heart. But perhaps, if I am not so dramatic, this is not the longing of nostalgia. Perhaps it is simply the enduring beauty of the hot, damp, gentle open spaces that make this location. I don’t know if I am missing anything when pierced by certain sights that once composed earlier days as well as today, or if I am only at a loss at how to behold such green, maternal land.
Richmond is one town, and beside it, marked by a small green sign posted on the bottom of an upper railroad track that runs between the cotton oil factory and what was the Golden Corral, is Rosenberg. People often say it together, Richmond-Rosenberg, not unlike the good Latin tradition of using both maternal and paternal last names to form a new one. Richmond and Rosenberg have their singularities, but it is rather like comparing siblings who are more similar than not: the differences stand out when you know the family. Both have picturesque historic and homely new sections, both have places of severe poverty, both provide 24-hour bail bond service since both are close to the county jail, and both provide genuinely delicious Tex-Mex. Growing up in Richmond, I am partial to one and loyal to both.
Once you turn onto Pitts Road—now two wide, paved lanes with bright yellow markings off the wider four-lanes of Highway 90—to the right are the long meadows that make up a man’s ranch. For wider pavement to come in and make Pitts safer, they had to cut down the right row of trees. The road was once like a tunnel, formed by the long, curving, strong arms of pecan and oak trees. One winter, when an ice storm came, this tunnel morphed into a fantastical passage, something from a northerly, incandescent tale. But even without a radical change of elements, the tunnel was a superb way to traverse the space between home and out of it, a kind of sealed time-lock tunnel that kept home lodged and the way to it secure; so, perhaps Pitts lost something essential to its identity when those trees went.
But it gained something too, for when I turn and survey the lands of that ranch—seen before the trees’ demise only during winter (I remember yearly catching sight of it and beholding through the emptied trees what lay beyond, that wide stretch of wheat-colored grass underneath the low-lying light of a periwinkle cold sky)—I can see, all the time now, as if it is a steady, living, dimensional mural. This was an okay trade, I believe, the tunnel for the mural. I hope that no one still mourns the loss of those trees.
And if one does mourn them, they can look to the left. They remain, these top-heavy trees, the kind that populate southeast Texas—huge, heavy creatures shining green, swelling in summer and then in winter becoming old bones. On the left, interspersed in this row, is a collection of buildings. Nearby is a small pecan orchard of sixteen trees. It is on one acre, and though (like most native pecan trees) they are not steady producers, when they want to yield, they yield well. Trashcans full of pecans can be their bounty; like in the beautiful story, owners, neighbors, grandparents, and strangers get their full and there’s twelve big baskets left.
This acre used to belong to “Aunt” Blanche and “Uncle” George. My brother and I spent our summer days inside the air-conditioned house, disgusted with the heat, but when disgust was trumped by the lazy-bones ache of too much television, we turned outside, riding bikes on the lane or playing in the orchard. There, in the orchard, banks of hidden cool air blessed adventurous, sweaty children.
Besides being a shade cooler, the orchard was also malleable—like silver and pewter are, distinct yet pliable—and yielded another crop by its rich form and shade. It yielded to the hued splendor cast off by the imagination. I have seen the trees grow stories while growing nuts in their piebald shells; these trees reify a child’s patch-worked, intuitive, and fanciful understanding of human drama. The orchard nurtured a primeval German forest where tricky and stunning creatures gathered, an Arthurian wood with epic and bloody battles, a copse in the Pacific Northwest where survival skills were learned at high cost, the orchards of eighteenth-century farming when cabins were hand-made and women spun thread, a Celtic estate (on overcast days) where brothers divide over a woman, or—in a particularly harrowing game inspired by sixth-grade social studies—a work camp run by cruel guards, but fashioned too with escape routes for us and “the children.” My brother and I had with us seemingly countless imaginary younger siblings who, I found out years later, my brother imagined as two inches tall.
When my brother and I would tire of playing pretend, the orchard was a reliable playmate and readily became Aunt Blanche’s once more. We would walk over to her home across the lane, and she would give us glasses of cold milk and thick, buttery slices of homemade sourdough bread. She would let us tour her doll room, a room with hundreds of dolls that she had collected and had sewn clothes for. Gradually, the sight of those clothes—the suit on Rhett Butler, the flounces of Queen Elizabeth’s gown, the embroidered apron on the red-head prairie girl—would incite the longing for other places and other times all over again, and out we went, refreshed in the recesses of the youthful mind where little shadow falls upon the assumption that, even under different and arduous circumstances, the hearty and brave don’t fail.
During World War II, German prisoners of war were sent to Rosenberg and lived on what is now the fairgrounds. They must have encountered kindness, or pretty faces, because many of them, when the war was over, returned. This is a deeply romantic story, but since the roots of Richmond and Rosenberg are, like many small Texan towns, German, I don’t wonder that the soldiers saw faces that reminded them of home. So perhaps it’s also anthropological.
Pickups on Avenue H trundle through town like carts on a conveyer belt, crossing the same region of town that existed before Texas was a state and even before it was the Republic. Twelve men came down the Brazos River and pulled in—with more of Stephen F. Austin’s three hundred pioneers to follow.
The place where the bridge crosses the river offers no place to disembark; huge trees rise out from the ground, and heavy, netted vines spreading between them form something of a fecund circus act, embedded as it is with huge billboards sticking out, bright rectangles of Bud Light advertisements in English and in Spanish. And the river offers no relief from the unsightly conglomeration of nature and marketing: the Brazos is a murky, flat beige color that carries riverbed silt in its current. In its afterlife maybe it can be a sparkling blue, but who am I to assume it should want to?
Whatever you may suspect, picking pecans is not a thankless job. This is because, unlike most jobs in the world, there is ready fruit for your labor. When baskets are full, you can gather any amount you like, and sit with a handful on your lap. With a nutcracker in hand, eat them raw. Or shell loads at once and smoke them in the barbeque. Roast them in the oven with sugar and spice. Give them as gifts, mail them to friends. Serve them with beer and wine.
Uncle George didn’t need a nutcracker. He would crack the shell between his thumb and the base of his forefinger. I tried that all growing up, but the best I could do was jump on the poor pecan with all my weight. It broke the shell, but often crumbled the meat too.
A place that gives food also gives a place to play. The orchard provides sustenance, and also (or likewise) a backdrop for the mind to interact with what is there, and what is not.
Is what we imagine beautiful? Father Aquinas teaches us the preeminence of existence, so that what we call beautiful—what is beautiful—is available to our senses and our reason. What we see then becomes the phantasm within our intellect; we know and enjoy it as a concept. Form, its essence, is of course crucial, for issues of form—its integrity, consonance, and brightness—are issues of beauty. But what does it matter how bright something is if it has only essence? It is no matter, for it has none. When I look out from the west-facing windows of my parents’ house to the orchard, I, with my eyes, sense an object abounding in loveliness. In my mind this phantasm rings with pleasure, and it is as if I am beholding, reasoning, and partaking all at once. I am filled with its fullness, because not only is it beautiful but, thank God, because it is there.
But, what of the imagined? Doesn’t the blue guitar, as Wallace Stevens named it, play the prettiest song? . . . and I know the way the orchard changed for my brother and me . . . the way it was, for a large portion of my early adolescence, besides being in a corner of southeast Texas, an orchard in the Canadian Maritime on Prince Edward Island. Like some freewheeling, disk-shaped phenomena that exists out of time and space, these trees, this acre plot, existed in two places (at least), and one was on the north Atlantic seaboard.
When I was eleven I found Anne of Green Gables on the book cart in my sixth-grade reading class. Within two days, I was at a gas station with my dad, who was helping me purchase a money order with an allowance I hadn’t yet seen the benefit of—for I was ordering the rest of the Anne of Green Gables series. Within four weeks (with another money order) I requested anything else Bantam offered by L. M. Montgomery on their order form at the back of the book. What sheer, clean-sweeping delight it was to open the box and see all those books lined up, sweet pastel colors framed by a cardboard box. Oh, to be a child reader again! Those of us who love books as children grow up to love books nearly as much out of obligation as out of continuing delight, for when we were children, a book was almost everything we could possibly need.
The novels taught me, as I imagine John Ruskin taught Montgomery, how to see and enjoy and name the beautiful. I would have had no words for this; the word “beautiful” was reserved for the girls who were Homecoming Queens. As B. H. Fairchild writes in his poem “Beauty,” it was the word “that no male member of [his] family has ever used . . . except/in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or dead deer.” But even if I had the words for beauty, I wouldn’t have known how to see it. How to distinguish from the violet and the lily, from the forest light and the meadow light, from the skies of dawn and the skies of dusk is to receive beauty by being able to see it. My eyes were trained by those passages where Maud lets herself go—cataloging with a lover’s precision every shade a garden can turn, inner personalities of endless flora, and, of course, the old beauty of an orchard. When dwelling on the mind like this, it is a wonder indeed to be alive, and not only that we live, but that we see, and in seeing, live; that there should be such things to see, and know, and thus, know beauty by.
But Montgomery teaches children not just Ruskin’s practical wisdom of seeing by distinguishing the formal causes of beautiful things; she also teaches children the ever-present, hidden, and universal reality of the Blue Flower. Ah! That Romantic image of the Blaue Blume—what sudden recognition of human inadequacy, termed in such a felicitous, painful image: this longing for some inexpressible, mostly incomprehensible, and usually non-existing thing that is beyond compare! How dare we think something beautiful must exist.
But how dare we think it doesn’t have to! The solace of a real single chair in a sun-lit room, a real bowl of pears on the table—these things do exist. They must.
Imagination for the medieval mind was mostly the catalog of recollection, of copy. It did not create—but even in this definition, imagination was suspect. Was it because we can see in the mind’s eye murder and adultery? What about the imagined thing that does not feed the appetite of vice, but somehow of virtue? If the imagination does have the capacity to create some new thing, what does it say about human nature that we would long for it to do just that? It is much safer to define the imagination as a catalog rather than as a creator.
Does imagination then, in its creative capacity, burden us with desire for the unattainable, the nonexistent? Is it ultimately the burn of a fallen, falling star? Should we “exile desire / for what is not”? No, for as Wallace Stevens knew, that would be “the barrenness / of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” This is Jane Eyre without not merely her drawing tools, but also the capacity to envision what to draw. Perhaps the horizon at the edge of Thornfield is a mighty constriction, but the inner eye can surpass, can be for us “the natural tower of all the world, / the point of survey, green’s green apogee,” the widest point of generative behavior, of creative habits, of the thought that proceeds labor.
The Orchard stands at the end of the road. Waiting. Solid, robust, kindly, full of route and routine, of dank pockets where rain has padded the soil, of the sound of small, dry leaves shaken by the wind. Oh, all the stories I played there: it was a kingdom of the imagined, an arena of the kind of grace that allows for further creation—however misplaced, silly, phantastical, fleeting, and even unreal.
The pecan grows within a thick husk, which may split and let the pecan drop from the tree unfettered. But sometimes the pecan drops still in its husk, and you have to peel that husk away. Often, these pecans are studded too close to their husk, and the meat’s gone all moldy. Husks are like the wool around ideas—good for incubation, but damaging if they stay on too long.
For three centuries, pecan trees can bear fruit. For three centuries, these trees live, germinate, grow, shed. Live, germinate, grow, shed, live. I know the trees in our orchard are not that old, but many of the trees in Richmond are. While they were living and letting go of their nuts, people were fighting battles and growing cotton and building schools. Now we drive past, navigating by screens.
Our own country lane sounds picturesque, and sometimes it is easy for me to think of it as myth. But on that dead-end road with only a handful of houses, you would hear stories of heartbreak, struggle, and survival. Years ago, you might find beauty by hand-washing the stories in bleach and polish as silver. In modern storytelling, the sadness of our stories might be magnified (and idealized) to the point of another kind of belittling distortion. So I see where Aquinas is coming from. The hard concreteness of a thing in its full existence is an essential requisite for what we call Beautiful. It recognizes the incomparable trait of the living and the real, even while we dream dreams of the Blue Flower, or of the perfect pecan nut growing to be dropped down in the space where children play.
I ate pecans that grew in the orchard on the lane where my house was. I tasted this buttery fruit, and I think on this when trying to think of whatever is true and lovely. My brother is there, along with “the children” whom we secured to safer lands. It is time for a snack, children; and we eat the snacks we packed back in the kitchen.
The pecan tree ripens its fruit and then releases them. Ripens and releases. We dream things, ripen them with time and learning and skill, and then, if we are wise, we release them without their husks and let others come to gather and partake. We live, germinate, grow, shed, live.
So should we grow the Blue Flower? We cannot, for it would lose its defining ineffability. It is beautiful because we know it is not real: the allure of it is what we want. So then, do we temper ourselves to reality like a dragon with his treasure, hoarding up unreal things? I think this is part of being human. It is one of our best safety measures, the way we do not understand tragedy instantly but in time. We have a God-granted hoard of forms, untried in their potentiality, giving off some gleam if not any warmth.
Then with grace, like when one is able to finally grieve, we hammer the potential things out with sweat and fear and matter; we push these forms out from the deep, moist interior of our branches, into the often too-bright, too-wet, too-dark day, but bring them into the outside anyway (song, story, painting, gift, word, anguish, joke) with a husk of protection, and then, when the time is fitting, let fall. Finally the family comes, or strangers do, and they pick what has fallen, now hiding in the clover-grass, and break it, and eat it.
Just across the Brazos, going past the green fecund circus act and the silted river water, comes Morton Street. Film crews often use the street because it gives the heady illusion of being from another era. The storefronts are preserved, painted names above the low, colorful awnings. The old, vertical sign for what was Joseph’s hardware shop is at one end, and the new but old-fashioned saloon on Third Street is around the corner. In between are antique shops, a glitzy Texan boutique, a post office with Catholic accoutrements for sale.
Further down Morton Street is Sandy McGee’s, our legendary restaurant. Sandy McGee ran the school cafeteria for years, and when she left, she first opened a little place in downtown Rosenberg. It was in a tan brick house on a residential street. Her specialties are a basket of small garlic toasts, served when you get your table, her bowl of broccoli-cheese soup, and the Max-Out sandwich, which crams a bacony spinach salad in with melted turkey and Jack. After a few years of successful patronage, she bought the corner store on Morton, and fitted it like an old-time drug store. When I was a teenager, this was the form of Sandy McGee’s; I thought it was out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and that helped me, surrounded by peers, out of my shyness to enjoy the burger and shake in front of me. Now the restaurant is much more elegant, with a pretty bartender instead of a soda jerk.
Should one get nostalgic about this? I didn’t live in an era when soda jerks were standard, but I miss them. I didn’t live in an era when all the subdivisions were fields and untended woods, where people hunted deer and gathered fallen pecans, but I miss those fields and untended woods. They are Blue Flowers of a sort, a Texan sort; they are images of lost things, but things I never had nor could have. I know I don’t realize the amount of work it took to launder a shirt when surrounded only by fields and untended woods, let alone the colossal effort to get a meal together. There was little time—perhaps less than there is now—to look about and say: wow, this is the living thing and the real thing. Could I imagine it so pretty? And even if I could, could I taste it? And eat it?