Last wild strawberry
Nature’s always making a liar out of me. Just yesterday I ran into an old friend who scoffed about my discovery of Labrador tea out in Mount Stewart. “It’s all over Cardigan,” he said. “It’s everywhere!” I sheepishly realized my so called discovery of the “rare” Labrador tea was the equivalent of saying, “Look at this extremely exciting spruce tree I just happened to see in the woods!”
Which brings me to my topic for today. The wild strawberry: gem in the weeds, ruby in hiding. As of today, it’s officially eleven days after the wild strawberries usually arrive on PEI. Mom always said to look for them on Canada Day. And so far she’s been pretty well right. They come around July 1st, and by now they’re done, or should be. When I spotted one yesterday in amongst the tall grass, I said to myself, ‘that’s the last wild strawberry for this year…’ and prepared to write an elegiac homage to this sweet/tart little fruit, and ruminate on transience.
There’s nothing like seeing a whole swath of flowers burst forth in their own prime time. Two weeks ago red clover was in its glory, so fat and sweet and purple (not red).
Now it’s yarrow, one of my favorites, and purple heal all. And already there are the beginnings of bright yellow St Johnswort with its cool Latin name, Hypericum perforatum (the perforatum referring to the teensy almost invisible holes on Hypericum’s already miniscule petals).St Johnswort is filling the ditches, and Queen Anne’s lace is right behind it.
But I was not talking about the prime time, the big splash, rather about the ones left behind, after the party’s over. I love the stragglers, the last ones. There are still a few forlorn lupines standing like candelabra among their bean pod relatives. The lupine kids, too young and too late for the early summer ball, have just now put on their measly gowns.
The odd dandelion stands camouflaged amongst a blaze of hawk weed. Now and then you’ll see a lone red clover…
Even in their prime, there is never, in my limited experience, an actual swath of wild strawberries, not even on Canada Day. That’s the dickens of them. They’re a one by one sort of affair. Hence, it’s always like finding a treasure when you spot them. In their season they give a clue by flashing a bright red leaf here and there to tell you “there’s something red down here—check close to the ground, peek under the leaves, you might just find something…” These berries are often in hiding, tucked under their serrated three leaf canopies.
The sun eats wild strawberries pretty fast. Either the sun, or maybe some tiny strawberry-mowing slug. In the last few days I’ve found a few berries gluey and slick as though someone’s been masticating them—too mushy for my basket. But mostly, they’re all gone.
Imagine wild strawberry jam! Mrs V, whose fisherman sons had a lobster pound behind her house, used to sell wild strawberry jam: wonderful on homemade biscuits already soaked in butter. It never occurred to me what that jam must have cost her—how long it must have taken her to crawl around on her old arthritic knees and pick enough berries for a few jars of jam. You don’t, or at least I don’t, gather wild strawberries in a satisfying handful like you would, say, blueberries. You pick each one separately, take off the stem right then, and pull the berry loose from it. It’s a fussy fussy process! Like writing a sentence word by word by word. Like a poem. The wild strawberries around here, are about the size of pearls and are, in my estimation, about the value of pearls as well. One by one.
How precious that last strawberry was yesterday! It gleamed blood red amongst all the worn out green of a spent crop. I picked it tenderly, and ate it and felt the zing of it go through me. The last one until next year…
Did I say something about Nature making a liar of me? Today in my neighbor’s field there were all kinds of them! —you could almost, though not quite, say a swath. And big! bigger than pearls, sweeter than tart. My dog grazed beside me until I admonished her to go find something else to slobber on. There were a lot of wild strawberries out there. By a lot, I mean enough to fill a clam shell.
Maybe enough for a few strawberry tarts if I can bring myself to make some crème patisserie.
So, you lovely perfect last strawberry, it turns out you weren’t the last after all. You were just ordinary, like the Little Prince’s rose, one among many. Except that, like his rose, you belonged to me; so you seemed quite perfect, unique, not the last, or even next to last, but the one meant most for my eyes.