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  • Duncan Mackay

EAT WILD - CHERRIES - THE NOISIEST FRUIT

Updated: Jun 18


Many years ago, in my early 20s, I was invited to drive a long wheelbase Land Rover belonging to the Department of Geophysics at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne around Norway and Sweden. It was a canny but crazy summer job drilling small holes in tillites and limestones for time frozen magnetic declination core samples. It took me, up hill and down dal, all over the wild parts of these beautiful Scandinavian countries wherever appropriate sedimentary geology broke the surface. Getting to these rarely exposed pockets of softer rock amidst the harder gneiss, granites and schists was a bit tricky given the mountainous terrain but a 4WD Land Rover can usually pull you through any conditions in the hands of a skilled driver. I wasn’t that skilled driver and had only previously driven in anger a 1958 Commer Karrier ice cream van (albeit one with a very soothing but somewhat clanky ‘Greensleeves’ tune from my under-chassis horn). “Crushed nuts? Monkey’s blood? Do you want a flake in that?” I was obviously over-qualified and, as the sole candidate, bagged the job. Despite one or two mishaps (driving first vehicle off the ferry at Bergen on the wrong side of the road, oops - and flunking a gear change at the top of a 14 bend stack of hairpins at the end of Sognefjord whilst being tailgated by a Nørge post-bus, double oops)- spring to mind. There are others - but maybe for another post. Anyway, somewhere off piste in the endless spruce and pine forests in the once fiercely independent Jämtland of northern Sweden and after drilling a selection of palaeomagnetic cores in a tillite, I bent down to pick up an eagle feather. It was so startlingly splendid and serendipitously found that when I stood up to admire it properly in the clammy sunlight I completely forgot which way I had come in. All the forest trees looked exactly the same and I could not trace any sign in the needles on the ground or broken foliage the route I had taken. I had no sense of my passage to that point lugging the, still hot, Stihl drill and core sample bag. I am always possessed of an acute personal geography and I never feel lost. Suddenly I felt lost, really lost, frighteningly immersed in a place that had discarded its warm pine scented friendliness and become darkly threatening in more than a simply chromatic way. A thunderstorm was dragging sky furniture across an astral loft floor somewhere over the Norwegian mountains close to Åre and our air was also fast thickening. Somewhere out there was also a vehicle with a waiting geophysicist in it and all my life supporting diabetic supplies. Somewhere over a rainbow before mobile phones had been invented. Somewhere was calling me but all I could hear were the dread notes of personal fear. I had to stop and shut down the sound of my beating heart in my ears so that I could really concentrate. Really, really, really concentrate. Then I heard it, dimly but persistent against the panicked thrub of pounding blood, like a weird faraway but strident and shrieking dawn chorus. Birds. I am familiar and comfortable with birds, and have been since an ornithologist-fathered childhood, and, in the lack of any other logical stimulation, I decided to follow the illogical sound. It grew louder but still faraway. Hacking through the bracken and bilberry undergrowth, brushing aside the lower spiky branches of spruce, whilst generally moving upwards and towards the commotion seemed to make as much sense as anything else I could think of doing. It was a direction. I was being led by intense curiosity and all dread thoughts of the consequences of being lost were subjugated by a keen desire to discover the source of the bird noise. Somewhere in the tourist literature section of my brain was the skim read story of the 3000 Swedish soldiers who had lost their lives in these mountains in the 1600's although not technically lost geographically but lacking in food and clothing. Despite these dark thoughts I was not driven by the slightest thread of worry or concern or fear any more, as all my focus switched to discovering the peculiar source of this rising ululation. It was a freaky film scene. The fantasy island in ‘The Life of Pi’ but instead of thousands of meerkats there were hundreds of field fares and blackbirds. A massive, backlit perfectly proportioned spreading cherry tree, black with fruit and black with birds. Every branch was a riot. It was hard to imagine if the noise was joy, dispute or intoxication but it was loud like an arena full of endlessly unanswered ringing pre-digital, rotary dial, BT telephones. Cherries, ripened to extreme succulence all together at this very moment were being devoured by the beak full in a feathered fruit frenzy. There were squabbles and fights as the number of ecstasy inducted birds thrust and parried their beaks at the shiny bellied fruits. None were bothered by my arrival at the feast as I collected dripping handfuls of sweet black cherries from the lowest branches. Soon I was dripping sweat from the heat of the sky and dripping cherry juice from the meat of the earth. My hands were bloodied in the manner of a slaughterhouse and still the cacophony rang. The fantasy scenery was completed by the realisation that this solitary, illuminated, black fruit tree in a sea of dark green pines was standing over a tiny lime green lake. A limestone quarry, long abandoned; the tree, maybe a happy accidental quarry worker’s lunch of summer fruits. A birth from an idle game of flick the pip; serendipitously landed in a warm cuckolded crevice on the edge of the quarry cliff and nurtured by learned lithe lemmings for generations yet to come. A plunge pool of imagined future rain. The lime green water was cool, too tempting as a phantasmagoric bathhouse, to miss the opportunity to skinny dip and cleave its waters with my sticky hands and face. I unstuck my clothes and jumped. The algal waters were smattered with pecked fragments of black cherries that floated in this weirdest of cold soups and I swam a gentle breaststroke as an unsteady rain of cherry pips danced on the ripples refracting from the quarry walls. The thunderstorm then brought Thor overhead to pitch in with some spectacular additional theatrical lighting and grumbling bass counterpoint to the squeaking feathered orchestra in the stalls. It was ridiculous but refreshingly right. Charlotte appeared, drawn from her palaeomagnetic research notes, along the overgrown quarry track where the Land Rover was parked, to also investigate the noise. I waved, delighted with cerise relief from my surreal bath, as she too pecked at a few cherries and then swam, Swedish style, until the real rain began to fall harder. Then real, really dangerously forked lightning zagged into the ground and we quit the frenzied forest, sated; elated by cherries. More on wild food and cooking wild food can be found in my book EAT WILD - visible in LEAF and DISH



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