• Author Helena Moncrieff and the cover of The Fruitful City

    In her new book The Fruitful City, author Helena Moncrieff explores the surprising productivity of Canada's urban fruit trees and advocates for a renewed connection between communities, nature, and food. (Author photo: Ryan Ramos)

A lyrical dee-dum signals a new email. It’s from Not Far From The Tree announcing another fruit pick. There can’t be many left. Apples this time, and the location looks close. I head to the portal to the click-through process.

I’ve signed up as a volunteer to get a first-hand look at all the ignored fruit in the city. It seems like a simple thing to do. Volunteer to pick someone’s unwanted fruit and cart it away for them. But I’ve moved fast on several notices only to find that, within minutes, I’m ninth on the waiting list. A veteran told me she leaves the web page open when her favourite fruits are in season, refreshing every few minutes to catch the new listings first.

Someone else’s discards have become treasures to this band of fruit hunters. Supply and demand usually drive up prices — I think of the ubiquitous coloured Pyrex bowls of the ’50s, now a coveted find in vintage stores. But in this case, we’re after free, locally grown, probably pesticide-free fruit. There are plenty of heritage trees in the city and plenty of people who want to pick them. The stumbling block is the infrastructure and costs required to connect the two. I’m curious to see who these people are and whether it’s really the fruit they are after.

I feel like a young intern, competing for the experience of working for free. Of course, this won’t define my career, but I’m caught up in the chase and now I want to win.

The emails are always friendly. Still, when you’ve seen four of them in one day without success, the cheeriness gets a bit irksome. There are details about what to wear and how to cancel and then the closing, “Fruitfully Yours, Not Far From The Tree.”

Dundas and High Park is close enough. I could walk there. Sour apples. Would I use them? Throw in some sugar and make a sauce? There’s no time to consider the details. I click “accept.” I’m on the wait list. Darn. By the end of the day, my luck turns. I’m in.

The day of the pick arrives with gloomy skies and sweatshirt weather. The apple tree is just blocks away on my own street. I pedal up the road midafternoon past my old high school. The back field is empty today, grass scuffed from field hockey sticks and football cleats. As I ride past, I can picture heading onto the field again. But who am I kidding? I had let my fitness slide through the summer as I recovered from pneumonia. I can feel the results in my lungs and legs, even on this short trip uphill.

A minute later, I pull into the driveway of the secret address. A sugar maple shadows the third-floor windows, and pots of flowering plants line the stone steps to the porch. Over the past few decades I’ve done a lot of political canvassing and always enjoy doing “drops,” stuffing pamphlets or other campaign literature into mailboxes. You seldom meet anyone, so you can relax your persuasion skills and slip into a monk-like mindfulness. Pull the card from the bundle, lift the lid of the mailbox, drop, close and move on. You also get a lot of exercise moving from house to house, climbing stairs and searching for mailboxes. I try to imagine personality types from the clues left outside. Are the yards wild and natural or manicured and minimalist? Is the porch furniture carefully curated or is the space a jumble of children’s scooters and bikes? Does the aroma of bacon and coffee drift through the screen midmorning or are onions and garlic stewing for later?

Fruit picking brings me past the front door to the private sanctuary of the backyard. Before I started my quest, I spoke to Juby Lee, the project coordinator of Environment Hamilton’s Fruit Tree Project. Juby has been picking for years, harvesting fruit in the port city at the tip of Lake Ontario. Hamilton is well known for its steel industry, but it also has a lot of fruit. It’s on the edge of the soft fruit belt of Ontario and has a substantial Italian population — people who brought to Canada a tradition of homegrown produce. Part of Juby’s job is finding homeowners willing to open their back gates. She has a great appreciation for their generosity. “In this time of liability, when people could say ‘stay off my property,’ it’s a very sweet relationship,” she told me. “Here is a private space that you would never have access to and here’s a moment when the homeowner says ‘come on in.’”

As I wheel up to the address, Alison Smith opens the front door and I introduce myself. Although she and I
live on the same street, we’re too many blocks apart to have connected. But she does exactly what Juby celebrated. “Come on in,” she says.

I head up the asphalt driveway, carefully pushing my bike past a parked car and toe down the kickstand in front of the garage. Alison meets me by the back door, buttoning her pea coat as she steps out.

Shielded by greenery from city noise and concrete, the yard must be an oasis after a long day at work. Alison works in communications for the provincial government and with her husband has teenaged children. We have a lot in common, so it’s not hard to imagine a Friday night barbecue on the flagstone patio, sitting under the vine-covered pergola. Perhaps the kids when younger would have played tag or run through a sprinkler on the lawn that spreads out behind the garage, mature trees shading them from the late-day sun.

We sit together on an iron bench and I explain my project, how we’ve lost the knowledge about what to do with fruit trees.

“I fit right into that category,” Alison shrugs. “I don’t know how to identify them.”

Her apple tree reaches the eavestrough. It is laden with fruit, plenty of it half-eaten by raccoons and squirrels. Even the creatures create waste. I wonder what stops them from finishing or coming back to the same piece. “Honestly I’m not sure our apples are OK,” Alison says when I mention this, adding that years ago she picked some for a pie but the experience left her wanting. “They’re tiny, so it’s really hard to cut them up and core them. They’re super hard and super sour, so I had to add a lot of sugar. The pie was decent, but it seemed like three times more work than just buying apples from the grocery store.”

We’ve calibrated our modern world with a lot of distractions and obligations. Maybe we all feel guilty about wasting food or knowing more about wine pairings than how to grow and use a grape.

The apples on the ground don’t match the oversized fruits we picked at the one-hundred-acre pick-your-own apple farm the weekend previous or most of the fruit I find in grocery stores. These ones are freckled with brown spots and the surfaces are uneven. “There’s not a lot of meat from these guys,” Alison says, flipping a hand at the animals’ leftovers, “so that was my one pie.”

But she remembers it.

Toward the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan prepares a dinner from food made entirely from meat, vegetables and fruit he has harvested himself. He knows it’s not practical for every day but, he writes, “no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real.”

Being able to say “I made it myself” has always appealed to me. I’m an easy touch at bake sales, especially when the chef is counting the sticky change and can tell me exactly what’s in the butter tarts. Pollan sums that up nicely in his prologue. “The pleasures of eating ... are only deepened by knowing.”

That pie Alison made would have been all the more pleasurable, knowing the work it took to produce it. Alison didn’t plant the tree. It was here when she and her husband bought the house in the late ’90s from a couple who must have loved gardening. Flower beds, fruit trees and interesting shapes to the landscaping would have taken years of work to create. But, judging by the tree’s height and Alison’s recollection of that couple’s age, they wouldn’t have planted it either. So three families have watched it grow, I say, asking her what was here when they moved in. “The apple tree was here; there was a cherry tree in front of the shed.” She hesitates, drawing a breath and bracing for my reaction to her next comment: “which we cut down.” She looks away then tries a recovery. “It wasn’t doing very well, it was dying, I think, so ...” She deflates with a big breath out. “Feeding right into your thesis.”

I nod in understanding and look as if to see what’s no longer there.

Alison points to a second cherry tree at the back of the property that’s doing fine. It’s well past the roof lines and, without the fruit on it now, I wouldn’t have guessed it to be a cherry. “We don’t really pick those cherries either,” she confesses. “It’s a feast for the raccoons.” And the neighbour, she tells me, complains bitterly about the mess in her yard.

Alison looks almost guilty. I offer a sympathetic smile. I am trying to keep an open mind. Who isn’t busy? We’ve calibrated our modern world with a lot of distractions and obligations.

We shift on the bench; I push a half-eaten apple from under my feet and Alison sweeps a leaf aside. Maybe we all feel guilty about wasting food or knowing more about wine pairings than how to grow and use a grape.

Alison turns to the grapevines climbing the sides of a brown-stained pergola. The vines are two thumbs thick. They must have been here for decades. But there is no fruit to be seen. Grapes can live and keep on producing for a long time, so I’m curious. Enter the raccoons again, Alison explains. The grapes were so delectable to the mask-wearing beasts that the ground was littered with scat every morning, a big city concern, particularly in yards where young children play. The grapes had to go. They’ve been replaced by wisteria. I look closer and see the stumps six feet up, the floral vines winding around them.

As she tours me through the garden, Alison tells me she grew up in Montreal with a green-thumbed mom and a yard with a crabapple tree and raspberry bushes. Then she points out another plant: “Oh, we have this guy. This guy has some fruit, some sort of a berry.”

It’s probably a weeping mulberry, I tell her.

“Yeah, maybe,” she nods. “We eat those because it’s very convenient. You can just pick them off and eat them.”

Maybe? I’m a bit baffled. “So you eat them but you don’t know what they are?”

“I think someone identified them,” she backtracks, looking down. “My mom came . . . ”

Food Secure Canada, Ontario’s Home Economists and Harvard University are among the many organizations lobbying for programs to improve food literacy. A Conference Board of Canada report on improving food literacy called What’s to Eat? incorporates an understanding of how food is processed as part of that literacy. Each organization talks about the wider issue of knowing what’s good for you. I’ve spoken to many offspring of immigrants who admit they don’t know half of what was planted in their grandparents’ yards or how to use it. It is a collective loss. “It’s too bad,” Alison says.

Val Colden strides into the yard. She is also a volunteer and trained to lead harvests, a “Supreme Gleaner,” as Not Far From The Tree puts it. The supremes run the picks, make sure everyone is safe and carry the equipment in and the fruit out. They also compete for opportunities. I am introduced to quite a few supremes during my tours, and Val is particularly thorough. She’s also been with the organization since its inception.

After explaining the drill to Alison, Val heaves equipment into the yard: pick poles, canvas bags, a hand-held weigh scale, paper yard waste bags and white plastic buckets with body harnesses — so pickers can keep both hands free. I recognize Val’s lettuce-green T-shirt embossed with a taupe sketch of trees making a canopy for a distant city. It’s an original from NFFTT, already vintage for a seven-year-old organization. Val pulls it over her hips, unsnaps her bike helmet and gets the equipment ready. Two more women slip into the yard. Debi Brennen and Heather O’Shea say their hellos, drop their bags on the table and take a look at the tree. Val starts filling us in on the instructions. The pre-pick speech is mandatory. Clean up the windfall first, never use a ladder without someone spotting, don’t do more than you can, keep the fallen fruit separate. You can take it home if you want, but we can’t donate it.

I remember the raccoon scat and think I might give it a pass too.