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The Devastating Flight of Marionberry Pie

Matthew Gavin Frank

Alis volat propriis, Uncle says, citing the Oregon State motto.  His lips are stained with marionberry juice, and crumbs of the flakiest pie crust this side of the Snake River collect in his moustache, form a colony against, perhaps, your Aunt in the kitchen who kneads and kneads for next month’s contest at the State Fair.  You know that our state motto was written in 1854 by judge Jesse Quinn Thornton, that he traveled from Virginia to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, and finally to Oregon to “improve” his health.  You know that members of Thornton’s wagon train eventually split off for California and became the Donner Party.  You know that, on the trail, Thornton often butt heads over the distribution of provisions with a fellow traveler named Johnny B. Goode, who was adept at sneezing blood into his handkerchief, making oddly floral shapes, but who couldn’t play the guitar worth a damn.  You know that Thornton and his wife, Agnes, would remain childless, and that he longed always for a daughter, and, as such, favored feminine pronouns, even in the face of mistranslation, and so imposed gender and, perhaps, the ghost of the daughter who was not to be, onto the Oregon State motto, translating the genderless Alis volat propriis (“It flies with its own wings”) into English as, “She flies with her own wings,” and maybe this was his stab at parenthood (Thornton often spoke of “raising Oregon”), or maybe he was taken with the yellow half-moon breast of the Western Meadowlark, our state bird, as she dive bombs the trailing vines of the marionberry—the vines that Uncle describes as damn-near bridal—emerging with a gaped beak that could be purpled, as if, with decades-old blood.

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Here, any reminder of blood is just another kind of ring-less covenant…

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According to the article, Cannibalism Along the Oregon Trail, “A family of four needed over a thousand pounds of food to sustain them on the long journey to Oregon, and when bad weather delayed the journey the food supply sometimes ran out, leaving the hungry pioneers facing death from starvation;” and Uncle starts on the new test pie, talks about hunger as if it’s something that can be bred, cultivated, and therefore, just as easily destroyed.  You want to ask him to clarify, but he has so many drupelets stuck in his throat.

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The marionberry was developed in the laboratories of Oregon State University, in conjunction with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, by George F. Waldo in 1945, as the crossbred offspring of the Chehalem and Olallie berries, and was released onto the general public only eleven years later, after extensive “testing”—locating the perfect climate in which the berry thrive, which just happened to be the area in and around Marion County in the Willamette Valley.  The new fruit was soon marketed as the Cabernet Sauvignon of Blackberries, due to its earthiness tempered by sweetness, the volume of its smashing juice, and its “powerful size.”  Uncle swallows and sniffs, thinks of chainsaws and rain, evergreen needles, and the longest unrestricted coastline in the continental U.S.  All here, he says.  He says, As long as we’re willing to cut something down, we’ll never starve.
 
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Ask the pioneers: Sauvignon means savage.  Cabernet derives from the Latin, caput, which means, depending on the context, head, sense, top, summit, source, root, mind, mouth.  That the word kaput also derives from this source inspires Uncle to kiss his paper napkin, and wonder, you guess, about the point at which all upper, oral savagery goes extinct.

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Here, we name our state berry after the wine that most evokes our desire to take a bite out of one another.

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Uncle wonders if in cannibalism is the urge toward extinction, or infinity.

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Uncle wonders if he’ll ever stop laughing at bad jokes long enough to finish his third slice, kiss Aunt on the most tender of her scars.  And according to the Oregon Historical Society, “cannibalism was practiced on the Northwest Coast of America…off the mouth of the Umpqua River in Oregon,” and Uncle laughs the crumbs at the ceiling, and Aunt punches through another curtain of dough.

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Uncle has all of them in a thick book on the toilet tank:

Q: What do tornadoes and graduates from the University of Oregon have in common?
A: They both end up in trailer parks.

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Here, we punch not to hurt, but to soften.

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According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “As they forage, meadowlarks use a feeding behavior called ‘gaping’—inserting their bill in the soil or other substrate, and prying it open to access seeds and insects that many bird species can’t reach. Western Meadowlarks occasionally eat the eggs of other grassland bird species. During hard winters, they may even feed at carcasses such as roadkill… The buoyant, flutelike melody of the Western Meadowlark ringing out across a field can brighten anyone’s day.”

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Pliny the Elder—who wrote of Scythian cannibals who wore necklaces of human scalps; who first called the berry, wild—may have written of another ghost-daughter, She is mastery, broken, tangled in a white lawn chair.  Fall, six meadowlarks cast flight shadows over her forehead.  She’s eating something vanilla, something sour with a silver spoon.  You wonder: lemon, yogurt, paralysis, horsefly… The bird plucks the fruit from the vine, shits an insect into your bowl, and you can’t move your legs, no matter how coppered, no matter how long… 

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The meadowlark knows: the world survives by being buccal, by taking us into both of its cheeks, our flavor slowly seeping into cavity after cavity.  Uncle assures you: the day will brighten—perhaps even melodiously—with or without us.

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The cornstarch binds berry to berry.  At the treetops, as within us, another kind of binding agent gathers.

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The spruce tickles the windowpane like an awful violin.  This is not meant to be savage.

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To drown out the sound of the trees, the berries hissing as their juice evaporates, to prove your hands still work, you compel your fingers to tango the broken piano, snaking the keys like the river, like the roaches through the sugar.

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According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Umpqua River is wild and scenic, the beautiful heart of the timber industry.  In 1854, the Coquille tribe, who inhabited the river’s valley, ceded nearly all of its land to the U.S. government.  Seven years later, the river spilled its banks in what was then the greatest recorded flood of the American West.  According to a December 14, 1861 article in the Oregon City Argus, a gloom settled on a scene such as probably never was witnessed in our Valley before. The ceaseless roar of the stream made a fearful elemental music widely different from the ordinary monotone of the Falls; while the darkness was only made more visible by the glare of torches and hurrying lights, which with the shouts of people from the windows of houses surrounded by the water, all conspired to render the hour one of intense and painful excitement… the insatiate monster is still creeping up inch by inch, winding its swelling folds round the pillars and foundations of all the houses in its way, crushing and grinding them in the maw of destruction, and sweeping the broken fragments into a common vortex of ruin… On the fragments of a large barn, sat a number of chickens, bearing melancholy evidence of devastation above…

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Here, beautiful hearts are born of devastation.   From its maw, come the berries of hybrid parentage that now line the Umpqua’s banks…

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This has little to do with music, and every sound we use to drown out other sounds.

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Uncle wonders: in what way is naming predictive?  He knows: ouragan, in French, means hurricane.

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Marion County and, in turn, the marionberry, is named after Francis Marion, a slave-owning brigadier general in the American Revolutionary War (nickname: Swamp Fox) who is considered the father of modern guerilla warfare and who forced the Cherokee toward starvation and desperate cannibalism after decimating their villages and burning their crops, and who was tasked with hunting and executing freed slaves, and who inspired Lord Cornwallis to say, “Marion had so wrought the minds of the people, partly by the terror of his threats and cruelty of his punishments, and partly by the promise of plunder,” and who inspired author Neil Norman to call him, “a thoroughly unpleasant dude who was, basically, a terrorist,” and who inspired historian Christopher Hibbert to call him, “not at all the sort of chap who should be celebrated as a hero…  [He was] very active in the persecution of the Cherokee Indians and… committed atrocities as bad as, if not worse, than those perpetuated by the British… [and had] a reputation as a racist who hunted Indians for sport and regularly raped his female slaves,” and who was known on the trail for entertaining his men by trapping birds and breaking their wings and watching the poor beasts waddle in confused circles before mercy compelled him, with his boot-tip, to kick their bodies into the campfire, and who is now our pie, our pie, our pie.

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Here, mercy is just another form of terror.  Here, we don’t quite understand the mechanism with which our state berry has flown to such heights of flavor and fame, or who precisely possesses it.

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Cannibals capture three men on the Oregon Trail. The men are told that they will be skinned and eaten and then their skin will be used to make canoes. Then they are each given a final request. The first man asks to be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible. His request is granted, and they poison him. The second man asks for paper and a pen so that he can write a farewell letter to his family. This request is granted, and after he writes his letter, they kill him saving his skin for their canoes. Now it is the third man’s turn. He asks for a fork. The cannibals are confused, but it is his final request, so they give him a fork. As soon as he has the fork he begins stabbing himself all over and shouts, “To hell with your canoes!”

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If one misspells Alis volat propriis, Alis volat propiis, that translates as Wings fly closer, suggesting the presence of a second entity.  Closer than what?  Or: closer to what?  In this is a cocktail of intimacy and foreboding, a little shock and just a pinch of terror, another series of ingredients we incompletely understand, but still, we name our counties, and our pies, after it.

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Think about lionize, Uncle says, with a purple mouth.  A lion’ll rip your viscera out.  Watch it cook in the sun.

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Audubon gave the Western Meadowlark the binomial nomenclature, Sturnella neglecta—meaning “forgotten race”—as he believed that the early settlers who ventured west of the Mississippi ignored this widespread bird precisely because it was so common.

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The early settlers knew: our arteries only want to untangle like shoelaces, like the ribbon that tops a box made of cellophane and cardboard, in which this year’s winning pie will soon be coffined, cooling, gelling into the sort of softness that allows us to eat it without teeth.

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Q: What is the definition of an Oregon virgin?
A: An ugly twelve year old who can outrun her brothers.

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In the 2009 Oregon State Fair’s Marionberry Pie contest, first place went to Arlene Thorp’s Marionberry Surprise Pie, so-called for the “shocking” and “hidden” layer of cream cheese frosting, sweetened with sugar and vanilla, in between the outer piecrust, and the inner filling of local marionberries stewed with sugar and thickened with cornstarch.  According to the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission, Thorp’s pie is more likely than other pies to “protect against cancer, heart and circulatory diseases, and age-related mental decline,” until, of course, we get to that uncommon layer for which her dish is named.

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Marion, Uncle says, and he does not say, berry.  You can’t tell if this is an utterance of damnation, or reverence.

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If we can crush our food with only tongue and palate, we can convince ourselves that we’re not so violent.  In this way, survival on the trail, like our pie, can be fall-off-the-bone.

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If one truncates Alis volat propriis to Alis volat, that translates as flies wings, which evokes that frenzied cloud buzzing over the corpses.

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From Whispers: A Man Questions God, by Anonymous:

The man whispered, “God, speak to me.”
And a meadowlark sang.
But the man did not hear.

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Even on the most current word processing computer programs, marionberry appears with a squiggly red line beneath it, indicating a misspelling.  A right-click on the word brings up a menu without any alternative spellings, but with only the generic options, HELP, IGNORE, IGNORE ALL…

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In the article What to Eat When There is No Food, Nutritionist Tess Pennington states, “What will you do if your family is starving and there is no food to be found?  This fear is always in the back of our minds. There are many choices of tree bark that can be eaten,” which makes you wonder how long the pioneers endured sustenance by Oregon’s alder and ash and cherry and plum, juniper, fir, chestnut and locust before turning their teeth on each other.

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Sauvignon for everybody…

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Hail Marion, full of his Surprise Pie.

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“The wood smell is the smell of Oregon,” Log Marker Ray Agee says, “When I come home from work, I’ve got tree sap all over me.  It’s on my glasses and in my hair,” and in this way, the body makes a pact with the woods that only starvation can break.

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We watch the sky, the trees, the river, the oven.  We wonder, and wonder what’s coming…

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“Promises that you make to yourself,” Francis Marion says, “are often like the Japanese plum tree—they bear no fruit,” and Uncle spits the harder of the marionberry seeds into a napkin with a wagon on it.

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…and the meadowlark with still-working wings builds over its nest, a roof of grass and a six-foot long entrance tunnel, hatching its eggs and digesting its berries in this concealed layer between earth and sky.

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Excerpt from The Eugene Register-Guard article, “OREGON’S MARIONBERRY IS NO JOKE,” by Jan Roberts-Dominguez (July 15, 1998):

The amused caller, a features editor from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, had just finished reading through the story and recipes on Northwest berries I had sent her.  My inclusion of the marionberry—one of Oregon’s agricultural pride and joys—had created a comical stir among the newsroom staff.

To them, it wasn’t Marion—“the berry.”  And they sure couldn’t figure out why anybody out in Oregon would name a wonderful piece of fruit after the mayor of Washington, D.C.  Then the marionberry jokes began to fly: “Are they habit forming?”  “Can you only eat them in hotel rooms?”  “They must be pretty seedy…” this unique variety… this special berry… perfect for hand-to-mouth consumption…

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Step six in above article’s Marionberry Pie recipe: Prick dough with fork.
           
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The marionberry, due to its “powerful flavor,” now dominates the current blackberry market, allowing us to forget its more subtly tasty ancestors—the dewberry, youngberry, santiam berry, the chehalem and the olallie—push them toward extinction, or the sort of infinity that’s ever eating itself, thus ever-surviving.

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Q. What’s the difference between a Portland State University sorority sister and a scarecrow?
A. One lives in a field and is stuffed with hay. The other frightens birds and small animals.

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Here, in our mouths, all species go hybrid and confused.  Our throats don’t know whether to swallow, or laugh.  Aunt brings out her 5th test pie like a punchline, the steam trailing into the air.  You think of vines, or bridal trains.  Between her stained front teeth, you can’t tell—marionberry seed, or cuticle.  The trees scream against the window, but they scream softly.  Before he even tastes it, he knows.  This, Uncle says, is the winner, baby.  He’s never been sweeter.

1 Comment

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  1. Jan Wright says:

    Thank you teacher – can I quote you?

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