IN THE SUMMER OF 2021, I strapped my two small children into the car and drove twelve hundred miles through hurricane rains and clouds of wildfire ash to can peaches with a woman I was terrified of falling in love with. We had been dating for six months, but she had never spent more than a day with my children. Now we would be living together for two weeks, and by the end of it, we would know whether or not we were going to become a family.
Every summer for the past four decades, my girlfriend’s family has gathered in Wisconsin for peaches. The fruit arrives on a truck twice during the season, driven up from a fifth-generation family farm in Georgia by another multigenerational family business that saw an early market in delivering fresh produce to the heartland. They turn up more or less on the day, and the fruit is offloaded by the crate to a line of waiting customers, many of whom arrive before dawn to secure their place in the queue. Even during the first shuttered months of COVID, the peaches appeared, offered up like sun-kissed promises that the world would continue.
I had never canned or preserved my own food and, turns out, neither had my girlfriend. But the pandemic and ever mounting climate catastrophes unleashed a maelstrom of fear. Will there even be peaches in another ten, twenty years? Will there be roads? Fuel? Supply lines? Will the grid hold? Will the government?
On the day we began our drive, the subways beneath our Manhattan apartment surged with waist-deep floodwaters as the fifth hurricane of the season gored the East Coast—churning trees and homes into the Atlantic—meanwhile in the West, record-defying heat waves scorched land desiccated by decades of drought. Under a parched stand of old-growth pine on the ancestral Klamath lands of southern Oregon, lightning sparked brittle duff and ignited a blaze of unfathomable scale and ferocity.
Battering rains gave way to smoke-smeared sky as we drove toward the boreal forests of Wisconsin and the woman I hoped would become my future.
A JAR OF PEACHES IS MORE THAN just food. It is stored sunlight; captive summer; crescents of memory anointed and laid like lanterns along a pantry shelf, quiet sentinels against winter dark. Once this Northwoods home held generations of women who knew how to preserve things, constellations of aunts, cousins, grandmothers, and daughters, collecting and colliding across a century of summers. But somewhere there was a rupture. We possessed none of their skills for basic living.
Beneath the wonder of new love unfurling, there was precarity. What if we were asked to care for one another and we no longer knew how?
FROM HER GRANDMOTHER’S Hoosier cabinet, we unearthed cookbooks and Mason jars, resurrected tongs and racks and ladles. We borrowed a pressure canner from a neighbor and watched several stressful YouTube videos about the dangers of botulism. The process, we learned, required precision.
The jars must be heated, the peaches scalded, dipped into boiling water then bathed in ice and wriggled free of their skins. The fruit must be halved or quartered, the flesh pried gently from the stone, the slices carved and spooned into waiting jars. We dissolved sugar into syrup and poured it into every jar, creating cylindrical pools of opaque light to be capped, sealed, and transferred to the canner.
Steam filled the cottage as we worked, pressed close enough in the small kitchen that our arms brushed with each movement, our bodies curved in careful choreography as we maneuvered from stove to counter and back again. Heat crackled around us, and I became clumsy, dizzied by our proximity. I knocked into a bowl and peaches splashed everywhere, arcs of syrup splattering my arms.
My girlfriend caught my wrist, held my gaze as she licked a sticky rivulet from my palm. Behind us, the canner let out a long hiss, the petcock erupting in the rocking shimmy that signaled it had reached the ideal pressure.
“We have thirty minutes until the batch is finished.” She waggled a brow.
We set the timer and stumbled to the bedroom, clothes sloughed and scattered to the floor. From the kitchen, the canner screeched and rattled, and it seemed impossible that this awkward raucous clamor would yield not catastrophe but preservation. I lost track of everything but her body, and it was not until the timer sounded and we broke apart that I realized it had finally begun to rain.
In the morning we woke to a world made new: the kitchen clean, the sky wrung free of ash. Loons called across the lake as darkness edged way to dawn. The children wandered in with the sun and piled like mewling kittens on the bed.
By day, we managed tantrums and messes, discovered ways we might all fit together. A week passed, then two. The Oregon fire grew so immense it created its own weather, shot plumes of pyrocumulus clouds eight miles high, unleashing storms of wild lightning. Other fires swirled and merged. A long shadow of smoke covered the continent like a shroud.
At night, when the smoke-hazed sun gave way to the orange warning of the fire-singed moon, we found each other in the kitchen—a pot of boiling water, a cask of sugar, another crate of peaches. We reached deep into a shared muscle memory of survival to rediscover old ways of storing up sustenance and hope. Side by side, we passed the fruit through the stages of its transformation, our hands adapting and relearning, and hoped that this time we could create something that would last.