Jeweled Jars of Memory

Our garden is laden with countless squash, cucumbers and tomatoes on the vine. The desert’s trees are heavy with fruit. This is the season for setting food aside, preserving summer’s abundance to alleviate winter’s want. So far, we have pickles, jams and canned apricots, peaches and nectarines. The jeweled jars glitter like treasure under our bed — the only available storage space in our 26-foot trailer home — and this food-based fortune grows on a weekly basis. What we may lack in material goods, we make up for in the joys of working directly with sustenance.

Twenty-six quart-sized Mason jars hold the season’s offering of sun-soaked apricots. I picked this fruit at Capitol Reef National Park, home to some of Utah’s most stunning landscapes, as well as the Mormon settlement of Fruita, a place emptied of its residents but still resplendent with their colorful, fruit-bound legacy. The Park Service now tends to trees that once ensured life and livelihood for generations of the community’s residents.

My jars of apricots hold memories within their matrices of syrup and fruit. A dear friend and I went to the park to harvest amidst the monsoon season’s fickle moods. When we arrived in the orchard, so did the deluge. In no time, the Fremont River swelled, the towering cliffs erupted into a chorus of torrential waterfalls, and the orchard flooded in a bubbling murmur of red muck. As we picked fruit, we waded through shin-deep mud, enjoying the best of childhood in the process: climbing trees, stuffing our faces with candy-like fruit, and covering ourselves in sloppy, red earth. We returned home wearing a sticky, earthen residue of summer and joy. This is all packed into my jars. To finally eat the fruit will be to relive the memory. I am mindful that I am storing stories under my bed, my dreams perhaps permeated by their sweetness.

The apricots carry another story as well: the history of Fruita. The canyon’s residents anchored their world to the junction of Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River with orchards, the thousands of trees helping to make meaning of a life rife with floods and scarcity. So accustomed to barter and simplicity was this small community that the Great Depression’s lack of cash flow had no effect on it; Fruita’s isolation rendered orchards its treasury and fruit its currency. As the country struggled, this settlement soldiered forward as it always had — with a pocket full of faith and a pantry full of fruit.

And then came the designation of the landscape as a national monument. With it arrived tourists, paved roads and the outside entering in — the death knell for a town clinging to a past that modernity had made obsolete. In preserving a landscape, the government had inadvertently evicted those populating the terrain with story. The Park Service bought out the orchards and forcibly evicted those living in the path of the new highway. Many residents recognized there was no other option but to leave; their remoteness had rendered them an anachronism that would crumble amidst the flood of progress. They accepted government money and moved on. Most of the buildings were quickly razed to make room for park infrastructure. A raging Fremont could have wrought no greater destruction in this small town. And, thus, a rooted narrative was silenced to make room for a newer one of snapshots, scenery and short stays. But, as with my apricots, this preserved place is rife with memories.

Today, 2,600 fruit trees live on to tell a quiet tale of communion with place, of inhabited space being all the richer for its ever-evolving story. And my apricots connect me — if briefly, tenuously, with just a taste — to this narrative. These jeweled jars hold tales of a time when money was less meaningful than the vagaries of frost and flood, and fruit could build or break one’s world.