On Rotting

Gouache on paper

Keene Short

Halfway up the hill, I smell it before I see it, before I hear the wasps and flies. Paint-stain fresh, mildew wine, an aftertaste of cherry bile. The smell pools where the path arcs and bends. Like all rotting fruit, the scent is a jump-scare to me, its sour-honey tang repulsing, but after the initial shock wears off, the sweetness-rot pulls me forward.

This uphill path that begins at a historic bridge in Heidelberg’s old city is appropriately called the Schlangenweg, or Snake Way. Red sandstone walls narrowly guard either side, delineating the public path from the orchards on either side. This late in the afternoon, the record-breaking temperatures have already turned the trail into an oven. Whatever has rotted is now beginning to cook.

The fruity sweetness underpinning the decay tricks me. I imagine delicious yellow plums, engorged with loose flesh and sugary juice beneath their seam-wary skins, the tragedy of their abandonment all the worse for what could have been, so many tarts and cocktails lost to the eventuality of decay. 

Instead, when I turn a corner, what I discover are dozens and dozens of fallen medlars, each the color of a blood-stained violin, mashed by days of foot traffic and mangled into a thick putrefying jam in the cobblestone. By the time I find them, the stench no longer seems rotten, but more like ripeness that has gotten away from itself. It is earthy, a little suggestive.

The sight is much worse, though. Fused together by heat and feet, the medlars resemble the dissolving hide of a deer carcass. Insects swarm around the paste, crawling through it, their legs sticking to the ill-borne syrup. I press my back against the wall, almost in the shade of the medlar trees themselves, giving space to the wasps hovering deliriously above their feast.


There are moments, whole weeks on end, when I dissociate so thoroughly that I think the best thing I can do for the climate is to become fertilizer as quickly as possible. The worms don’t have to vote on a steering committee before crawling through me. The process would be efficient. Easy. Quick, for geologic time. When the trees are the only beings capturing carbon, why shouldn’t we all just curl up and feed them our phosphorus and nitrogen? Why wait for the inevitable? These thoughts sneak up on me. Before I know it, I’m entirely consumed by them, like something else has eaten me alive but left me conscious enough to watch.

This is the news of the day: A heatwave has settled over Europe, and I’ve spent a week in July photographing climate strike posters and environmentalist graffiti throughout Heidelberg, gathering data for the climate organization I volunteer for back home in eastern Washington. My purpose, ostensibly, is to gather a snapshot of Germany’s intricate and increasingly renewable public transportation system. County commissioner elections are coming up, and I want to help make the case that my own riverside city can adopt better policies for the ecosystem we inhabit, for the air and river with whom we share a valley. I document enormous rows of bikes, bustling train stations, detailed bus schedules. It’s so different from the ultra-wide streets of Spokane that sprawl outward from the waterworks to Liberty Lake, such an American city where cars outnumber people. But I keep getting distracted by wild huckleberries on the tracks and the heat and the graffiti. There are stickers throughout Heidelberg with antifascist slogans plastered over older, more ominous stickers whose messages are obscured, but the obscuring says enough. This, too, is the news of the day.

The Snake Way cuts through orchards, but this hillside used to be a vineyard. The path itself leads to a longer network called the Philosopher’s Way, a network of forested trails that faculty from the university used to wander, their intensive research contributing to the university’s reputation as an institution devoted to scientific inquiry. Some faculty left or were ousted or arrested during the Nazi era, and those who remained participated in book burnings and forced sterilizations.

Long before the university, before the vineyards and trains and Heidelberg itself, the Romans brought wild medlars to the Neckar Valley, but their popularity did not survive beyond the medieval era. Almost everything written about the medlar eventually has to note that during the Renaissance they were referred to as “open arses” because of their shape and taste. To properly soften, medlars have to be left aside for some time after picking, a process called bletting that is often confused with rotting. Kate Lebo compares their taste to “flavored lip gloss, the kind I don’t mean to eat but do, just a little, every time I lick my lips.”1 At their peak, they are not actually rotten, but more than any other fruit, medlars blur the boundary separating fresh from too fresh. To my knowledge, this is the first time I have actually seen medlars in person.


I inch my way around the mashed fruit, avoiding the wasps, but around another corner is another table-wide spread of decaying medlars. This time, I stop in front of them. I am curious about what would cause so much fruit to be left to the elements, so close together. I take my camera from around my neck and kneel in as close as I can.

Zooming in doesn’t reveal much. There is one whole medlar punctured on its surface, as if with a needle, and a pimple of juice has dried at the wound. The rest of the fruits are shapeless. There are no charismatic molds, no fluffy patches of moss-colored fur. The degrowth is microscopic, but ever-present.

I stand up. I breathe in. I invite whatever spores and pollen and microbes are in the air. I breathe out. There is a waning pleasure in the scent, like all the days I spent as a child digging holes in the backyard, scraping past the dusty top layer to plunge my fingers into the moist, dark-brown dermis where roots and worms made their livelihood.

The medlar stench changes every time I breathe in. I inhale again and close my eyes and try to taste its layers, try to separate the sweet from the sour. It smells sticky and raucous and withheld. A gust of wind shifts the smell closer to the earth, adding nutty hints of wet pavement. The wind dies down and the sweet-rot takes on the air of smoked bourbon and used socks. I get shades of camping-trip-mellow and summer’s-death-mulch. What a gift, to resonate with the unsavory.

Rotting is such a visceral word. It’s a sign that something is wrong. The system is rotten, corrupt leaders are rotten, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The smell alone is a sign that a body has been left unburied, a soul left to the elements. When food begins to rot we say it’s turned, the same word we use for reaching birthdays and becoming a vampire and betraying one’s country.

I am wary of spoiling food. At the restaurant where I work back home, we throw out food simply because it seems like it might threaten to begin to rot, and when I’m not in one of my numb moods, being asked to throw out eggs we won’t use in a week pains me. My own diet is mostly beans, fruits, and vegetables, and in Washington’s heat dome, only a few stems and pits invite colonies of fruit-fly larvae. I am easily distracted. More than once, I’ve spent pre-dawn hours scraping their meandering yellow-white bodies, plump as overcooked rice, from the bottom side of my trash can lid before going to the river to bake bread while a prep cook fills the kitchen with the fragrance of fresh basil and perfectly ripe tomatoes.

Ripening bleeds into rotting. Is this distinction so easy to demarcate? “Anthropocentric discourse,” as Heather H. Yeung sees it, “pastes a label of impropriety upon anything out of place in a human cultural context,” so that “to mark the bounds of a territory is also a gesture of inscription, of ownership, the production of a status quo.”2 But rotting is the status quo. Rotting isn’t the destruction of organic matter, but its disintegration in a literal sense, the decomposition of its elements from one to another. The smell of rotten food is a sign that we missed our chance to feast and that decomposers are in charge now, like God separating the elements of Creation, not just the medlars left in the sun but ourselves, too. Tiny organisms will unbuild us bit by bit and leave behind a garden of calcium, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. Not unlike wildfires, rotting is as necessary to a healthy ecosystem as white-hot sunshine.

But something else has gone wrong on the Snake Way.

It is July, and medlars are an autumn fruit. I pass a third patch of them uphill, fallen from another tree. These medlars seem fresher; some are even round. Perhaps the heat loosened them. Perhaps they sprouted too early, confused at the chronic disarray of the seasons. I can only wonder at so much spoiled food. Massimo Montanari writes that Germanic tribes in the ancient world “developed a strong preference for the products of virgin nature and uncultivated spaces. Hunting and fishing, the gathering of wild fruits, the free pasturing of livestock in the woods” made up a typical diet two thousand years ago.3  As natural as the process is, fruit evolved to resist rotting, and for millennia, humans joined birds and mammals in carrying seeds from forest to forest. Food rotted, but it grew at its own pace, too. Today, a third of the food intended for consumption in the US is thrown out, adding to the 170 million metric cons of carbon dioxide that food waste flushes into the atmosphere.4

I like that I like the rotting scent. I like that it fascinates me so much, that it excites me a little. That it un-numbs me, even for a while. In a way, it reminds me of Spokane. A neighbor of mine has a peach tree on his front yard that plummets fragrant, ripe peaches that he leaves to the elements, peaches which I would be happy to help clean from his lawn were it not for the Gadsden flags and the sign in his window reading “I Don’t Fire Warning Shots.”


Lost in the smell, I keep walking up the Snake Way. The path is still festooned with rotting medlars, but in smaller and smaller patches. Uphill, taller and older trees reach to each other across the path, and in their shade, the air cools, the scent shrinks.

At last, I ascend to the Philosopher’s Way, cut horizontally along the hillside. The air here is agreeably bland. Uphill, there are more orchards enclosed behind more walls. I don’t walk far here. Instead, I linger in the shade of trees cultivated and transplanted and cared for over long and terrible centuries, their deep roots interlocking in the hillside with the diligence of a couple holding hands. Not far beneath me, those roots slurp up rainfall and river water. I look out at Heidelberg, a city of baroque red sandstone arching toothily against wild deciduous woods.

I sit on a bench in the shade and picture this hillside in just a few months, the forests themselves ripening into orange and yellow. I picture cold wind, even snow, and baskets of medlars still frosted from the morning chill, their stench a familiar delight.

[1] Kate Lebo, The Book of Difficult Fruit (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2021), 176.

[2] Heather H. Yeung, “Toward an Improper Poetics,” in Ecopoetics and the Global Landscape, ed. Isabel Sobral Campos (New York: Lexington Books, 2019), 254.

[3] Massimo Montanari, The Culture of Food (New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 6.

[4] Jean Buzby, “Food Waste and its Links to Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change,” USDA, January 26, 2022, www.usda.gov.

Keene Short writes and teaches in southern Indiana and serves as the editor-in-chief for Atticus Review. His work has appeared in Camas, HAD, Peatsmoke, Barzakh, Split Lip Magazine, Waxwing, and elsewhere. More can be found at keeneshort.com.

Artwork: “Unrestricted” by Michael Moreth

Gouache on paper

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