A few of you have asked what I meant in my last post by referring to avocados as that “marvelous gift from the Aztecs.” Well, the word “avocado” is an English corruption of the word for ahuacatl in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. Its literal meaning is “testicle,” but it’s a short metaphoric jump to the much-loved fruit that has traveled so widely from its origins in Southern Mexico, where the Aztecs held sway for a time.
Some early European arrivals in the New World called it the “alligator pear,” and that unflattering and botanically inaccurate label hung on for centuries. Fortunately, “avocado” won the wider acceptance among word lovers and today indirectly honors the one-time rulers of Mexico.
Ahuacatl is not the only Nahuatl word that survives in our tongue today. Try xitomatl (tomato) or chocolatl (chocolate) or tamalli (tamale), or even mexihco (the capital city of the Aztec empire).” Other Nahuatl words have been absorbed into English, the great borrower among languages, the richest on earth. No wonder it is the lingua franca for the modern world.
I barely print my own poetry in this space, but given the cue above to do so here, I append for your review one of the few long narrative poems I’ve written.
LOVING AVOCADO TREES
I love my avocado tree.
Don’t get me wrong.
I love all trees,
A genetic thing I think
That goes back to Wotan
And I suspect before,
When woods warmed my ancient forebears
As the ice backed slowly north.
But avocado trees and I
Have a tight bond that
Ties back to the summer of forty-four
When I as a boy of eleven came
To California and delighted to find
One in my new back yard.
Of not much value, my neighbors soon let me know,
Neither for sale nor the table,
Just a seedling with little fruit flesh to eat.
But for me it was the best climbing tree
I would ever know, mature with
Thick lateral limbs spread to the
Four corners of our small town compass,
Nobly shading half of our backyard
And the red-bricked patio where
Our family of six often ate our dinner.
Sure, there was the downside chore
Of raking up the always shedding giant’s leaves
And the fallen rot of purple fruit with the
Seed wrapped in green-to-brown slime.
But hey! Eureka! This was California!
That big seed with its creamy lumpy hide
Was prized by growers as hardy stock
On which to graft more commercial kinds.
My uncle happened to own a grove and paid
Me 50 cents an intact pit that hadn’t split,
A princely sum of walking-around coin
In those pinched times of fin de guerre.
Did I say he was my uncle by marriage not by blood?
Owner of three car-part shops and wealthy as we were not,
Confident Calavo gentleman rancher of citrus groves as well
Who lured my machinist father and his family west
With a wartime job and promises never kept...
Held Dad in a state of soft suspended penury
Until my old man’s drive dried up.
This entrepreneurial uncle not my blood
Also held FDR in his florid-faced contempt
That surpassed the scorn he had for his hands,
“Lazy Mexicans” he’d mutter to a baffled me,
A sheepish noontime orchard dropout
When picking navels at their side.
And yet this lordly man who bossed about all
In my world and won my fear and lost my trust
Unwittingly sealed my love of avocado trees.
Lacking a son he could call his own,
He gave me gleaning rights to his La Habra grove,
Gave me first comb after the pickers went through
To use my baseball eye to spot the slight round
Curves hidden in a leafy roof of twenty shades of green
They had missed…and they missed plenty.
A Fuerte bonanza! Prized produce
Taken home to ripen on my roof
And sell when ready door-to-door
At the dear price of 40 cents per,
No chump change for the late Forties.
For four boyhood years
I walked beneath that frog-green canopy
Rent here and there by a thin shaft of sun,
Easy and alone in a dusty silence save
For the rare rustle of a rat in the dry leaves,
Serene in my sacred grove of innocence,
Alone with my green thoughts in my own green shade.
Then I had to exit Eden for the wider world.
My uncle sold his groves and I went off to war.
He died before I came back to find an altered place,
All the groves gone, the old orchard towns uprooted
For stucco crates to house the hordes of postwar
Pilgrims crowding into the Promised Land
That never more would hold such promise.
Dear dead days as some poet said.
Yes, sure, some trees still remain,
Backyard relics of that vanished time
Gracing a family’s table with Persea Americana
In scattered tracts here and there.
But trees in numbers moved south to Fallbrook
Or north up Santa Barbara way,
And when I settled in LA to busy
Myself with doing nothing worth recalling
I went without a tree and felt the loss.
In later life, on the downside slide
Off a rough midlife hump,
I got another tree to love,
One of the backyard kind
That gave shade and fruit alike
To me and my second family
In a seaside town not known
As kind to growing Aztec nuts.
This ahuacatl is no premium market fare,
Not your noble buttery Fuerte,
Nor the choice round knobby Hass
(That mutant freak first grafted not far
In miles and time from my uncle’s old spread)
That ships so well to distant markets.
No, mine is an elongated lesser breed,
Pebbled green in its springtime youth,
Then purpling slowly under the late summer sun
To reach table grade in its fall-winter ripening,
Nearly as tasty as its betters if you eat it
In its two-day prime when the lemon flesh
Softens to perfect, before rushing off
To the quick and stringy brown of fast decay.
Yes, the fruit is fine but the shade is better.
The thirty-foot giant is sheltering sky
To our small backyard patio
Where my wife’s many-colored thumb
Has left a floral ring of pleasures
Around a half dozen fan-back chairs
From which to watch the dusk dance
Of late light through jostled leaves
Hard by the sundown sea.
The tree and I are linked now through
Thirty-seven years of time and space
On our separate vegetable and animal ways,
And shared some ups as well as downs,
The up gift to me of two girls and a son,
And for it bumper crops in El Niño years
Where from one trimmed branch
I could feed a whole office.
Sorrows brought us close as well
In what might be fancifully called
The Tragedy of Three Trees.
A truly mighty stone pine once
Stood a mere fifty feet north
In my neighbor’s yard and thrust
Its soaring needled crown
Into high tension lines where a local lad
Reached up one day and touched his instant death
In the company of his friend my son
Who fell to earth shocked but mercifully alive.
Death brought an ambulance and a coroner’s team
Soon followed by many lawyers set on fixing blame.
“Boys will climb trees,” I tried to tell them,
But they argued for a year before the blood money
Was counted out and my insurance was cancelled.
Only then did Edison’s agents come and grind down
The once great pine into heaps of sawdust
That left a gaping hole in our backyard sky.
Not five years later came the burn again
Forty feet south in my other neighbor’s yard,
In a shaggy tree that put out small but sweet peaches,
When a trimmer touched his steel blade to the same killer wire.
I heard the noontime zap and went out back to find
A dark young man spread like Christ thrown backward
On a cross of boughs, smoldering and dead,
Enough to bring the close-by fire crew to take
The husk of the poor man from Michoacán,
Removed from our view for who knows where,
To be mourned afar, later on, by strangers to us.
No lawyers showed to find blame for a fee,
The fried peach smoldered for days and lacking
Means to sprout more leaves, slowly died.
That left my tree the survivor of the three.
All the more towering now with its flankers gone,
Rough-barked tough for my kids to climb…
But not too high I made sure.
Then came the blindside blow from
My not neighborly west-side neighbor
Who passed on the gift of
Proffered fruit and morning shade
By taking a chainsaw to its west-reaching arms,
(Perhaps to save a months’ long sweep-up
Of messy leaves and buds that marred
His otherwise clean and stark backyard)
But my tree buckled, steadied, suffered,
Almost died from a quarter’s loss from whole.
It barely bore fruit for a year or two,
Then came slowly back but not as before,
Dropping thumps on my bedroom roof at night,
The luckless embryos of alligator pears,
In a long summer rite of mass abortion.
The tree is old like me now
And its finished fruits are likewise few,
Mostly reduced to only one clinging
To the very end of a burdened branch
Which I still like to watch dance doggedly
In the late-day’s onshore breeze.
Older we get together,
Both with brittle limbs and a Shared calm before the shade.
So who will go first?
All longevity stats considered.
So how do you say goodbye to a tree?
This lover does so with a too cute up-quip
And homage to a favorite poet in
His fond farewell:
Glory be to thee for dappling things!