Harvest - image: Matt Bieker

Wild harvest – Part 1

I’ve lived in Reno’s West University neighborhood my whole life. It’s a small swath of the city, a few miles across, contained by I-80 to the south and McCarran Boulevard to the north. The area straddles the rolling foothills and sloping grades of Peavine Mountain, and much of the town’s northwest is crisscrossed by streams and ditches that meet up with the Truckee River. Named for its proximity to the University of Nevada, Reno, the water and the abundant tree cover also make the neighborhood suitable for two unusual desert hobbies: gardening and going on long walks.

In the spring of 2020, after losing my job when the first pandemic quarantine measures took effect, I suddenly had ample time to pursue both. Around the same time I was planting my seedlings for the season, the news began reporting images of barren shelves and vast lines at checkout counters across the country; elderly citizens gazing in quiet dismay as others loaded pallets of water and toilet paper into pickup trucks; the plainest of household necessities sold at exorbitant markups—and bought by increasingly desperate people. 

At my local grocery store, some of my own favorite products had either disappeared entirely or were under a strict purchase limit. Trying to be pragmatic, I wondered if I really needed the processed white bread or expensive organic milk I came to buy, but the experience was still a little surreal. Most Americans are used to sheer abundance at the grocery store, me included.

In hindsight, most shortages of essential products were quickly rectified. And, while global supply chain issues continue to plague the world’s economy two years later, the prospect of widespread food instability or rationing, as some feared, seems unrealistic even now with the spread of the omicron variant. Still, at that time, standing amongst the other newly masked shoppers, I wondered just how bad things could get.

Pear Blossom – image: Matt Bieker

At home, I looked at the planter in my backyard and my modest crop of cherry tomatoes, eggplant, beans, and peppers with renewed scrutiny. I grimly considered that, if the worst should happen and my neighborhood’s connection to the bountiful fields of central California were somehow severed, I could survive for maybe a week on homemade salsa—a delicious and depressing prospect. 

While I spent my afternoons walking the uneven streets and steep hills of the neigborhood, though, I was amazed at just how much food was growing within a mile of my house. Most of it, of course, was the produce of my neighbors’ green thumbs—an elite corps of intrepid desert gardeners who pull prize-winning pumpkins, corn and greens out the obstinate clay and pebbles of Great Basin soil. At least a few of the edible plants I recognized, though, grew in the form of a wild, or at least an unused, resource.

Some of the most abundant food sources in the West University neighborhood are its fruit trees—many of them quite old. The 70-year-old property I live in has a gnarled, ancient-looking pear tree and apple tree—two common species in the northwest—although I have also spotted large, established examples of plum, apricot, peach, cherry, mulberry, and black walnut growing nearby.

A neighbor told me that many of the old trees were once part of the orchards maintained by UNR’s botany department early in the school’s founding and were parcelled off with the land as housing expanded after the Second World War. I was unable to verify just how much of the land owned by the university, nor the age of the trees visible from the streets, but it’s easy to believe that many of the trees that crack the sidewalks with their roots and grow heavy with fruit every year might predate the houses they surround.

Today, many of these trees grow in the lots around rental houses usually occupied by UNR students. Whether abandoned by the renters or landlords, during summer in the northwest, it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of pounds of fruit left to drop on sidewalks or front yards. It’s these trees that are most tempting to relieve of their food, and I admit, as a student, I would often snag ripe apples off overhanging branches on my way to class. This is, of course, technically a crime.

Instead, I’ve found that most people with visibly unused fruit respond well to a knock on the door and a gentle request to take some of it off their hands. Most of them are glad to have help getting rid of it. Bring your own bags and if you end up processing any of the fruit into pies or preserves, the neighborly thing to do is return a share of the bounty. 

Sweetpea – image: Matt Bieker

However, my pandemic experiments started early on with blackberries growing in the municipal creek bed next to my house—I figured being a taxpayer meant I had enough of a claim. I ended up with a pint or two of surprisingly good jam that made my morning toast in the summer that much better. The same creek also provided a crop of wild summer sweet peas—noticeable by their blazing purple flowers and grasping vines—which I would eat plain as I found them pretty much indistinguishable from the snap peas at the grocery store.

 I was buoyed. I wasn’t convinced I would be abandoning the grocery store anytime soon, but it felt good to take advantage of nearby resources at a time when the fragilities of the nation’s food supply chain were so harshly exposed.

I wanted to know what else I could eat around here.

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014 and is currently writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally, Double Scoop, Reno News & Review, and other publications.  Support Matt’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.

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