May Day: First Fruits of the Season

May Day, First Fruits of the Season
Maypole Dances

A gaggle of girls from ages 4 to 12 are clothed in pretty dresses with flowers woven into their hair.  They giggle, squeal, point and hug each other on this gorgeous late spring May Day.  The older girls, with help from some of the moms, get the group organized.  Each girl holds a bright ribbon attached to a tall Maypole erected in the park.  The music starts.

Dancing the Maypole Dance
Dancing the Maypole Dance, Copyright 1898 by T.W. Ingersoll

May Day is near the midpoint between the first day of spring and the first day of summer.  Most of California’s summer-harvest crops are hardly past the seedling phase.  But, fresh herbs, leafy lettuces, and some fruit trees are already at their prime ripeness.  And these early crops add welcome fresh notes to produce that is still for the most part shipped in from warmer climes.

The children dance, weaving themselves in and out in a circle, plaiting the ribbons around the pole.  When they have woven the ribbons completely, they reverse the dance and unbraid the ribbons.  The occasional misstep results in peals of laughter and a fumbling effort to set the unweaving right again.

1941 Llanfyllin, Wales May Day Carnival and Maypole Dance

The May Day celebration originated in Europe.  In some traditions, the dance takes place without ribbons, but the pole is always festooned with sprays of flowers and other symbols of springtime.

Peter Brueghel the Younger, painting of peasants dancing around a Maypole
A Village Kermesse and Peasants Dancing Round a Maypole, Peter Brueghel the Younger

In earlier centuries May Day was the celebration of first fruits.  The date signaled a welcome respite from the last dregs of preserved and dried vegetables and fruits from the previous year. Fruit on the branch and the earliest leafy greens were a promise of rich harvests to come.

A photograph of barely-red just-ripe cherries on tree branches
Just-Ripe Cherries on the Branch

The May Day tradition came to the United States via European immigrants.   Many towns to this day put on a festival for May First.  Among the ecologically motivated, May 1 is a time of marches and rallies, though Earth Day has come to be the main environmental springtime observance.  Given the current political climate, it’s no surprise that this year May 1 will see a number of marches. The gutting of the EPA, the plans to deregulate environmentally hazardous industries and other acts by the forty-fifth president’s administration have energized a population that had thought clean air and water were near-universal.  The failures were a national disgrace.

To a large extent, May Day has become divorced from its agricultural roots in the United States.  As cities grew, freight transportation also grew to keep urban populations supplied with food and other necessary goods. May Day became a celebration of labor, trade unions and the struggle for fair wages, fair hours, and fair working conditions.

The painting Der Streik by Robert von Koehler
Der Streik, by Robert von Koehler

Still, in city parks all over the country, children (and adults) participate in Maypole dances with no real comprehension of the rhythm of seasons that originally sparked observance of a day marking the approximate turning point from spring toward summer.

What does ‘First Fruits’ even mean anymore?

When you walk into a grocery store’s produce section, the season of the year has little to do with the foods available for you to buy.  Fruits and vegetables from other states, nearby countries, and even from the opposite hemisphere are available year round.  Long-distance food distribution has had profound effects on farming practices and on the types of crop variants that farmers grow.  Tomatoes that stand up well to days or weeks of transport at the expense of flavor, carrots that have a bright orange color instead of their equally tasty variants that were a milder yellow color, strawberries that are large and fleshy, peaches that don’t easily bruise, and the infamous tasteless, mushy Red Delicious apple are all products of urbanization – of population centers that aren’t sustainable simply by a ring of farms surrounding them.  International food distribution has also had the effect of lowering consumers’ awareness of what is actually fresh – what is growing right now on farms in their regions.

From farm to freight truck to train.
Freight trucks and train.

photo credit: dbnunley The Freight Yard via photopin (license)

However, this lack of awareness is changing.  Farm-to-table initiatives, the proliferation of weekend farmers markets in cities and towns alike, the urban farming movement, and the rise of the “think global, buy local” aesthetic has brought an awareness of regional growing seasons and the associated local produce.  Many grocery stores now include country or state of origin on their price signs above fruits and vegetables.

Raised Vegetable Garden
Back Yard Raised Vegetable Garden

photo credit: OakleyOriginals Green is Gorgeous! via photopin (license)

Nothing makes you more aware of what vegetables and fruits grow well in your locale, when they grow, and the complexities of keeping a garden healthy, pest-free and pesticide-free than your own backyard or neighborhood garden.  The impact of rain, temperature, winds, snails, gophers, bees, family pets and other creatures who share your yard becomes an immediate and profound concern for the backyard gardener.  You can lose months of labor and expense to a wind storm or a plague of snails.  That lovely heirloom tomato you’ve eagerly waited to ripen on the vine gets eaten by squirrels or gophers the night before you planned to harvest it for lunch.

While annoying, these backyard natural ‘disasters’ don’t mean the difference between feast and famine.  Such was not the case even a century or less ago. A local or regional pest infestation, a bad drought or destructive storms could cause huge displacements and loss of farmland.  Ask an elderly Oklahoman about the Dust Bowl.

Flood and Drought, Feast and Famine

California’s recent multi-year drought made back-yard vegetable gardening both expensive and ethically questionable for a few years.  The drought brought home to me and many other state citizens how delicate our food supply is.  As a state, we prioritized farm water supply by putting a surcharge on overuse in cities and suburbs.  Food prices rose and to some extent, available food choices decreased.  During the drought, I tried to spend the money I would ordinarily spend on my back yard pocket-farm on farmers market produce, instead.  I hoped that my purchases would help support small farms and co-ops through what had to be some high-cost and difficult years.

Global climate change in the coming years will have even greater impact on California and the world. Climate change has had cyclical devastating impacts on human populations throughout prehistory and in the age of historical records. Climate change has literally drawn our maps for us, both in terms of nation-states and in terms of continental topography.

Coastal Europe and North  America, particularly Northern Europe and the Canadian Maritimes are beneficiaries of the Gulf Stream and related warm ocean currents.  The steady streams of tropics-warmed waters bring warmer temperatures and rains, which make for a short but fecund growing season as well as milder winters than interior regions.  The habitability of these regions has varied over the eons.  Today, due to science and technology we are intimately aware of the annual variations of the Gulf Stream’s path through the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the movement of the Polar Nexus and its effect on winter temperatures throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  During earlier periods of climatic variability our ancestors were viscerally aware of the changes, but unable to fathom the causes.  The differing fates of Norse colonies in Greenland, Labrador, and Iceland are a stark reminder of the fickleness of climate over time.  One of the current theories about the effect of global climate change on Atlantic ocean currents suggests Europe will be spared another mini ice age and instead will benefit from a slower rate of warming than much of the rest of the world as this century progresses.

California has always been a region of climate extremes.  The dam-breaking rains we saw this year have happened before.  The term “Atmospheric River” gives a sense of the almost apocalyptic torrents we experienced.  In the Eurocentric history of this state there have been terrifying floods due to atmospheric river-fueled storms that swept human habitations, farms, ranches, and lives completely off the Central Valley’s map.  This year, I wondered if the huge dams that were built to provide a year-round water supply helped to save the Central Valley from a much worse disaster than the destroyed spillways threatened to do. Strategic weir-opening created a small inland sea between San Francisco and Sacramento.  This release of thousands of cubic feet per second of water into a safe floodplain didn’t completely prevent floods in Sacramento and the Central Valley, but it certainly mitigated them.

Contrary to my speculation this winter, California’s system of dams, spillways and weirs will not prevent another devastating flood of the Central Valley if another ARkStorm like the ones in 1861-62 occurs.  And, climate change is expected to make such storms more frequent. For more about the reshaping of continents due to global warming see this beautifully illustrated, yet terrifying article about what climate change could bring during the next thousand years.

ARkStorm Flood
The hypothetical extent of a California ARkStorm flood, based on the actual extent of the 1862 flood.

By USGS –, Public Domain, Link

Always Coming Home

On this eve of May Day, this WalpurgistNacht, I think about a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin set in a far future California, Always Coming Home.  In this novel, set tens of thousands of years in the future, the land once known as California has profoundly changed.  The Central Valley and much of the San Francisco Bay Area have surrendered to the seas.  There is a vast inland sea running up the center of the state from the Grapevine practically to Mount Shasta.  The coastal mountains and Sierra foothills loom above the waters, home to a much smaller and more agrarian human culture than present-day California.  In LeGuin’s future, the land upon which my house rests is probably above sea level, barring a major resculpting of the hills via earthquakes and erosion. And Most of Napa County still exists, hosting a peaceful agrarian society tucked into valleys and hillsides near the rivers and hot springs.  More hostile environments are home to hardened and more warlike nomadic cultures. For the reader, and to some extent for the characters in the novel, today’s California is a ghost haunting the future landscape.  I read this novel for the first time right after moving from Florida to California.  The premise, that in several thousand years, this landscape would be completely transformed, wiping away nearly every remnant of 20th-21st-century cityscapes, roads, dams, the electric grid, etc wasn’t at all alien to me. The ability of powerful climate and geologic forces to sculpt the land right out from under your feet is a reality for people with any sense of landscape awareness who live in the coastal United States.  I moved from a coastal region where great storms could literally remove islands from existence via storm surge to a coastal region where storms and earthquakes both have left deep marks on the landscape. A few miles to my west, some towns are inch-by-inch falling into the sea right now. Every year brings a new set of condemned homes clinging to crumbling cliffs.

We are accelerating these processes.  That great inland sea which will one day wash over one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions will have a profound negative effect on our populations. But, before the inland sea threatens to return, drought may destroy the farmland in a new Dust Bowl. The current sizes our metropolitan regions may be unsustainable as we lose vast swaths of agricultural land to a varied sequence of changes.


For now, I’ll set aside my long-term worries and enjoy the season of First Fruits. Cherries, particularly Ranier cherries are my best-loved first fruit of springtime. They are delicious in desserts, but I am happy to eat them right out of the basket or off the branch. Ranier cherries are one fruit I will gladly buy when they are out of season in my region.  Rainier cherries ripen first in California, then Oregon and Washington, and finally Canada.  Progressively further flung orchards supply my local grocery stores with the yellow-red high-altitude fruits from early May through late summer.  I draw the line at southern hemisphere cherries.  They arrive in my area too long after their last day on the branch.



Rainier cherries nestled in a ceramic bowl
A bowl of Rainier cherries

Maybe I’ll feel less pensive next May Day.

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