My senior year of college I took a class called “Writing about Nature and Environmental Issues.” It was my first serious writing class. I was an engineering student. We read an article by Barbara Kingsolver called Stalking the Vegetannual, in which Kingsolver writes of the insanity of fresh raspberries for dessert in a suburban New York household in January, “Because they only grow in temperate zones, not the tropics, these would have come from somewhere deep in the Southern Hemisphere.”… “And I don’t wish to be ungracious, but we get it at a price. Most of that is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unravelings, and global climate change.”
At that time, I hadn’t given much thought to where my food comes from or how much energy it takes to send delicate little berries across continents. How much does the cross-continent trip cost and who bears those costs? How much fossil fuels and refrigerants are necessary? I can barely get raspberries from the grocery store to the refrigerator without squishing them, yet their journey with me is only a small fraction of a much longer voyage. Kingsolver argues that the American desire to have every type of food available all year long has been detrimental to our environment and our relationship with food. Kingsolver’s words sank in alongside a creeping sense of guilt: berries are my favorite thing, yet it seemed, as I checked the country label on the clear plastic half-pint, I had been doing wrong by the berries and by the planet I called home. Had I? The simple answer is yes, but the simple version is rarely all there is.
Growing up, my mom and I sometimes got a half-pint of raspberries and ate them on our way home from the grocery store. It was our special treat. We would load the groceries into the back of her white Ford Expedition, searching each bag for the raspberries. Having located the berries, we’d bring them out front with us, both devouring a few before she started the car. When we got strawberries, I was on a loosely enforced limit of five strawberries per sitting, otherwise I might eat through five dollars before anyone else got a chance to see the little red morsels.
Mornings have always been a struggle for me, and if my mom hadn’t always put my breakfast on the table before school, just the daunting prospect of having to make it myself would have probably kept me in bed an extra hour. I remember even now how cared for I felt when there was a little bowl of sliced strawberries next to my breakfast in the morning. It was an emotion that broke through the morning fog. My mom knew how much I loved strawberries. And I knew how many things she did in the morning before I even woke up. And everyone knows how wholly unnecessary it is to slice strawberries for a kid with a full set of teeth. So, it follows that the bowl of sliced strawberries was nothing short of an act of love, one that let me savor each berry just a little bit longer before heading off to school.
For a few weeks after school was out but before the thick New England summer heat blurred vacation days together, in late June and early July, I could pick strawberries at Butternut Farm, not far from my house. On the day I got to pick my own, I would skip breakfast. I wanted to save room- pick a berry, eat a berry. I looked forward to it all year. Sure, everyone in my family likes strawberries, but the cash my mom left on the table with a note to go pick strawberries and the way my sister really carried the team when it came to the job of picking (turns out you can’t fill a bucket very quickly on a pick-a-berry, eat-a-berry pattern) … those acts were for me. And even then, I knew it.
Though the sliced breakfast berries and the fresh farm berries were both symbols of love recognizable to my young heart, the ones from the farm undoubtedly tasted better. Winter berries are a harder hit to the wallet and a sad replacement for the farm berries to the tastebuds. I didn’t need Barbara Kingsolver to tell me that, but nonetheless, reading Kingsolver and other authors like Michael Pollen changed the way I look at food. These days, I recognize that skipping grocery store strawberries in February and waiting until that early summer bloom is how I can do right by the fruits that carry nutrients and love from mother to daughters.
Now I live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. My mom is still in New Hampshire, but we never go very long without talking. One day on the phone, I told her that when I am finished school and am settled into a permanent home, I will have a strawberry patch outside my doorstep. About a week later a box arrived in the mail for me—"live plants, open immediately.” A little confused, I opened it to find a few bags of dormant strawberry plants. In the moment, I was a little annoyed, I am ashamed to say. I thought, “did she really need to have live plants mailed across the country? I bet this was so expensive. I don’t have time to deal with this today.” I still regret expressing those thoughts to my mom, who replied, “when we talked, I could just picture you sitting in a patch of strawberries, and decided you had to have that.” As it has always been with strawberries, my mom wasn’t driven by necessity, she was driven by love. I thought, if she had “had time” to slice a strawberry for her sleepy-eyed daughter… I now “have time” to plant these plants. For a moment, I had forgotten that these leading berries were the umbilical through which her love traveled across the country. But as I hollowed out scoops of our front yard for each sleeping plant, I remembered.
The Valley is great place to be a berry lover. The strawberries at the farmer’s market arrive weeks before those now living in my front yard, and the first pint is cause for celebration. The excitement, bordering on anxiety, I now feel during the always-too-short berry season and the childish pride I have for my berry-stained face are feelings that ground me in summer. I make it a point to feel them fully and to open my heart to the love that those berries carry. I do my best to do right by the berries.
Berry season is also a reminder to treat myself and those I love with grace. Berries in January aren’t ideal, and there may be “better” ways to acquire plants than through the mail, but sometimes the best way to do right by the berries is to do right by those with whom we have always enjoyed them. To open the cardboard box of sleeping plants, pat the ground around them tenderly, and let the love in. To recognize the power of the gifts from the earth to connect us to the land and to one another.
This week, think about what foods you look forward to every summer. How is their story interwoven with yours? Then, learn something new about that food. Where does it come from? When did people start eating it? What role does it play in different cultures? When is it in season? How might you better do right by that which nourishes you? As always, you can send your response in whatever form seems right to you to email@example.com with “Meet Me Where We Are- summer berries” in the subject line. We will share a few submissions next week!