The day begins very early when, the sole riser at this hour, I open the front door to the soft shimmer of rain on oak leaves – whispering a presence more immediate than anything my sleep-fogged brain could have imagined. A steady sigh pours across the threshold into our darkened house. We have been asleep, hidden away behind our walls; and now to open the front door is to awaken a second time. . . onto a reality we had temporarily forgotten.
Here is a secret world I have found, wild and innocent, a place outside of alarms and media, where nature moves, oblivious of our attention and ultimately beyond the container of language. I should like to open more such doors – awakening over and over – each time penetrating further toward the origin of my thoughts. I wonder whether other folks have looked at their awareness as I have: composed of a series of veils – like Russian dolls, each revealing a place more sacred than the one before, each farther removed from the surface of the world, each closer to the One.
The gray green weather is the continuation of a system which has dumped rain all across the country, filling mud puddles and dog bowls in its more benign moods, relocating trees and cars and forcing evacuations in its more destructive ones. But here, on our little piece of ground, the most destructive thing we have seen are the hordes of oak strings that wash down from trees onto rooftop, windshield, and deck, thereby forcing some attentive maintenance. I search the leafy canopy above and note one tiny window of blue breaking the dark clouds. We’ll see intermittent sun today, perhaps. This is good. Rain and sun in the same day, and a ground water level that becomes more substantial by the week.
“Today is strawberry day. . . ” the thought rises, unbidden, to my mind as I gaze into the pre-dawn morning. And I think, rather agreeably, that time spent in cultivation of these sweet plants would be very close to the very best thing I could do for my soul – plunging my hands into the soil, becoming slowly and happily soaked by the soft rain falling into the afternoon.
For about a week, I have kept a carton of six or eight new plants waiting on a small white table below the rear deck. Until today, other obligations have delayed our settling them in alongside their peers. But today, those moist cubes of soil can finally be separated from their plastic cartons and transplanted into the composted soil of our raised beds. We have prepared well up to this point. Still, a top dressing of well-rotted chicken manure and straw would not be too much nitrogen to consider. . . perhaps in another week.
The new plants are bold and lush – a dark green. They have continued to grow since I brought them home. They reach between six and ten inches in height and are dotted with white flowers. A few stalks have gone leggy; their serrated petals extend above the rest like open hands on outstretched arms. Plants by nature grow in poses of supplication. All display a unique personality, but always they describe some form of sun worship.
A strawberry plant that is well-washed by the sun becomes unassuming and peaceful, quietly living, quietly producing its gorgeous red bounty. Their serrated leaves find a mirroring correspondence in the form of the berries, stippled as they are with their external pods. On these plants, the first tiny green globes are forming in the protected spaces below the leaves. I want nothing more than to get them in the ground and to provide them with the most optimal growing conditions for our space.
Last year was the first season we put in strawberries, and I didn’t know what to expect. Our plants flowered, fruited, and, at the end of the season, vanished in strands of brown decay and matted straw. I wondered whether we would see them again. And like an ancient humanity contemplating the strange magic of fertility, I nursed that secret fear which predates rationality. But new plants have risen from the old crowns, bigger and better than ever, their foliage a bright, vibrant green. Already, many flowers are apparent, the central pistils showing signs of greening into future berries.
We call them berries out of custom, but technically the strawberry is not a true berry at all. It is what botanists have called a “pseudocarp“, or false fruit, -carp being a combining form taken from Greek (karpos) for fruit. The true fruits of this plant are actually the tiny seed-like achenes, which dot the exterior of the ‘berry’ and give it that stippled look. The plump red part is called the ‘receptacle’: that part which produces the fruit rather than the fruit itself. As for the word, Karpos, one might look him up later and find further horizons of meaning in the mythology. Context is what gives beauty to language.
Later this summer, mounds of freshly picked strawberries will yield their gorgeous sweetness to our table, served over a foundation of partially soaked shortbread with a dollop of fresh whipped cream, perhaps a blueberry or two, or some mint leaves for garnish. . . How do you describe the flavor of this food? It is nothing but its own perfection. These are times to quit our internal monologue and simply succumb to a delicious avalanche. I have never understood people who persist in chattering through such experiences.
But certainly, we must resort to the safety and the consensus of shared language to manage our days. Talking, reading, listening: language is where we live, how we maintain our identities. It is where we accomplish everything that requires form and organization. And it is only from language we can construct rational descriptions of places like. . . the Strawberry Fields of our experience. It is tempting to confuse language with reality. But language is, ultimately, itself a pseudo-carp: a premise of meaning constructed over something wilder and beyond description.
There is and has always been a wild place – beyond words, challenging and scary. But to penetrate the veil is to take our words for rain and weather, plants and dirt, souls and strawberries. . . and maybe, just maybe, forget them for a spell.
Can tasting a strawberry really accomplish all that?! I’ll tell you what: I don’t mind practicing. (Where’s the cream?)
* Doorway image: Richard Croft CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons