The Mast-Head: Beach Plums Speak

Early European visitors observed that the native people cooked meat with the fruit that grew wild on these shores

Would she want to learn how to make beach plum jelly, I asked my eldest child one morning this week. We were in the truck, driving to a college prep class, and she was going on only a few hours’ sleep.

“No,” she said. “I don’t like the taste.”

“But maybe it would be good if you learned so if you wanted to make jelly some day, you would know how,” I said.

“That’s what the internet’s for,” she answered.

She had a point, but it was one that made me instantly melancholy. I had picked up jelly making in our kitchen as a child. My father, who had learned how to do it from his grandparents, if I recall, passed on a skill that connected me to them, and through them to a long line of Huntings and Edwardses and so on, back to the 17th century.

I think about the people who lived here long ago just about every time I go onto the dunes when the beach plums are ripe. I think about the Native Americans who arrived millennia before the Europeans and how they must have exalted as the days of summer drew shorter and the sweet and tangy purple fruit began to swell. 

Early European visitors observed that the native people cooked meat with the fruit that grew wild on these shores. They also saw them preparing dried sheets of the pulp to save for the cold, barren months.

I could tell from the broken pottery and fragment of fire remains that used to spill from a dune across the road from my house that native people indeed had been here at some point in the past. A new summer palace for a part-timer rises about where as a child I used to find dozens of quartz flakes, evidence that someone long ago had made stone tools there.

It is perhaps sentimental for me to feel a connection through beach plums to the European ancestors and the people whom they deliberately displaced with a thicket of legal restrictions. Early East Hampton Town records are filled with laws restricting native people’s access to guns and powder and penalizing them sharply for the most incidental transgressions. 

I think about all this each year in the beach plum patch, which no one, even the most determined 16-year-old, is going to find on the internet.