—Photo by Tricia Dameron

The massive Hackberry tree
at the corner of the farmhouse
is a Grand Presence
on the farm for me.
This particular Hackberry tree
has a thick trunk
with thick branches reaching out,
forming a wide, green,
gently drooping umbrella.

It is an abiding companion,
always there,
sheltering,
welcoming,
comforting.
A wooden statue of St. Francis of Assisi
stands alongside the trunk,
offering a place
for me to leave feed for the birds.
Several bird feeders hang
from one of its lower limbs.


Birds flock to it
and nest there
and eat from it
the tiny reddish-orange seeds.

Last year,
in the drought,
there were no seeds.
This year, there are many
and they’re ripening early—
a crop at wait for winter birds.
And then, last weekend,
along came my nephew Brok,
Ann’s oldest,
who is a beer miester and wine maker.
Looking into this deeply beautiful tree,
appreciating it,
extolling its quiet strength and beauty,
he asked me what kind of tree it is.
“Hackberry.”
Something clicked in his data bank:
“Hackberry…are you sure?
I think you can make wine
from Hackberry berries.”
We googled
and yes, you can.
In fact,
says Merriwether’s Guide
to Edible Wild Plants
of Texas and the Southwest,

Most of your ancestors owe their lives to the fruit of the Hackberry tree. It is the oldest-known foraged food, going back over 500,000 years to the grave of Peking Man. Found on every continent except Antarctica, every culture that arose around Hackberry trees utilized them as one of their main sources of calories…until us now. Now it is considered a “trash tree” and considered to me an annoyance. We have forgotten how it kept so many humans alive for tens of thousands of years.

Brok was the first
to taste the Hackberry berry.
We could see the delight
on his face
as he discovered
what Peking Man
knew:
the thin layer of flesh
around the white, rock-hard center,
is sweet.
It takes two pounds of berries
(about 1600 of the tiny orbs)
to make two gallons of wine.
It would take us a long time
to collect 1600 berries,
because we didn’t want to stop
eating them.
Still, it would take us a long time
each day
to eat enough berries for a meal.
It would, however, be a pleasant
pursuit.
There are two other large
Hackberry trees
near the farmhouse.
One tree’s berries
didn’t taste quite ripe yet.
We learned that
besides eating them right off the tree
and making wine with them,
we could crush them for jam,
use them for baking
and make them into a kind of fruit leather.
I was flabbergasted.
Here is this tree
which I have known all my life,
appreciated especially
since I returned home from my wanderings
to stand in awe
of what it had become.
Here I am,
reading books about perennial vegetables,
trying to learn what will grow
on the prairie
in years of drought.
And here are the Hackberry berries
hanging there
right in front of me.
I had noticed them,
was glad the birds ate them.
But I had never once thought
of eating them myself.
And now to discover
people lived on them
and that they are sweet
and delicious!

What our ancestors knew
that we don’t…
What our children learn
and teach us…
What nature provides
without us even seeing…
What sweet, delicious food
offered
on the lowered branches
of the wondrous Hackberry
as gift…
The universe seems to be
whispering:
Look.