We slide the boat down the muddy bank and into the creek. The water is high and brown with silt from a heavy rain the night before. Scout, our black and white spotted pit bull mix, chases bobbing sticks and floating yellow leaves, his toenails clinking and hissing against the metal belly of the boat. Jake paddles us along with an old kayak oar as I sit at the bow and scan the shore. We’re out looking for pawpaws this morning, a tropical tree fruit that looks like a mango and tastes like banana custard. I’d never heard of a pawpaw until moving back to Virginia. My curiosity was piqued, of course, by this curious sounding wild edible. We spot a thicket of pawpaw trees along the bank. They are thin-trunked and have big green leaves that look like floppy rabbit ears. Jake maneuvers the boat up to the shore and I grasp a branch in my hand then bend the whole tree gently over the boat. We pluck bunches of fruit from the limbs and I think of the word “bower.” I think of this word later when writing this column, too, when trying to describe the feeling of being closed in by the arch of a bent tree. I look up “bower” in the dictionary and I learn that it is also a word for an “anchor carried at a ship’s bow.” I like this very much, to have been within a bower made of pawpaw trees, and for the pawpaw tree to have also been a sort of bower in the other sense, anchoring us to the shore.
This experience made me recall a piece of writing I once read in Ecotone, a literary magazine about place, that’s published by the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. In the essay that came to mind---“Naming our Place”---David Gessner thinks on the relationship between words and things in nature. The part I thought of while picking pawpaws was this, which Gessner writes about Barry Lopez’s book Home Ground:
“Skim through this encyclopedia of terms for particular places, and if you’re like me, your synapses will snap like popcorn. Just take the B’s, for instance: berm and biscuit and board and borderland and boreal forest and borrow pit and bosque and box canyon and braided stream.”
Add to that list bower, and my synapses do go pop!pop!pop! At the sound or sight of certain words I think of that morning on the creek. I think of the soft light filtered through the big rabbit ear leaves. I feel the silky pawpaw in my hand and taste its crème brulee-like pulp. I experience that sense of place for a second time, almost more clearly now as filtered through my imagination. It's thinking about the particular words for that place ---the bank of the creek, the bend of the tree, the shape of a bower---and linking my experience and memories to those words, that focuses and clarifies my memories.
And that’s Gessner’s point, I guess, because he continues: “These are physical words describing physical places, and they have heft to them, and distinctness, and we can say of them what Emerson said of Montaigne’s sentences: ‘Cut them, and they will bleed.’”
I wonder if we could say of words about food: “Eat them, and they will be tasty,” too? While hearing or reading the word "pawpaw" may not literally fill me up, I'll still feel sated in a way. Bower. Bank. Pawpaw. The words elicit a sense of a very particular place and time. Of balancing on my tip-toes in the bobbing boat and anchoring myself to shore, of the a cool round pawpaw smooth in my palm. I can't eat these words, but I can use them to tether me to that beautiful morning on the creek. And that, I think, is quite appetizing.