Monday, June 10, 2019

Berry deep thoughts

It’s mulberry season right now, a fact I didn’t know until three years ago when a section of our driveway turned purple. In early June the big tree in front of our house bursts with berries, which ripen and fall so rapidly—it’s a very short season, barely 2 weeks—that I never have time to harvest more than a small fraction of the total yield. In past years I’ve tried laying a tarp on the ground to catch fallen fruit, but all that yielded was a buggy, mushy mess. This year we were inventive and created several mulberry catchers—old screens stapled to wood frames, raised off the ground so that water would sluice through. We’re still missing a lot, but the indigo hue of my fingers as I type this reminds me that there are a couple of gallons of mulberries in the freezer, which is very satisfying indeed.

Mulberries, for those who have never tried them, look a lot like blackberries, but their taste is very mild. Pulverized in a blender with water and strained, the juice is dark purple but the flavor is more like cucumber than berry. I add a little salt and lemon juice and bottle it for a refreshing “electrolyte beverage” after long runs in hot weather—homemade Gatorade, without additives or reptilian logo. Besides this, there have been mulberry muffins, mulberry pancake syrup, mulberry jam, and mulberry-jam-filled cookies. And, of course, just plain mulberries, fresh off the tree. There’s a tiny stem that comes with each berry, and at first I’d tried to pick these painstakingly off. After websites assured me that the stems were edible and not to bother, I didn’t bother. Food that requires tweezers is just too fussy.

K and I are not the only ones who enjoy this bounty. K will put Boston and Phoenix in our biggest tree and let them do some real foraging. Boston, ever the more aloof of the two, will pick a berry or two, but Phoenix gets serious. He’ll stand on a branch near a clump of berries and pick them off, meticulously, one by one, occasionally murmuring “mmm” in delight. This is something he picked up from Fred, who regularly says “mmm!” when given a favorite treat. It is up for debate whether Fred and Phoenix really know that “mmm” is reserved for especially delicious food, or whether it’s something they just do automatically upon receiving food, because the people who gave them the food seemed so pleased when it happened and frequently then gave more food. Personally, I can’t help but believe they’re expressing personal preference. Boring old pellet food never gets an “mmm.”

It’s kind of funny seeing Phoenix foraging in the mulberry tree like that, even though this is probably closer to what a macaw in the wild might do. But he isn’t a wild bird, of course, any more than we are “wild” people. All of us were born and raised in an environment where many of our needs were provided by others. This is not, by itself, a bad thing. You can lament all you want, as some people including myself are wont to do, that technology and automation have made us passive and helpless. When we want to go somewhere, we sit in a car. When we want to eat, we continue to sit in a car until it’s our turn to yell into a sign, or else we don’t even bother with the car and just wait for the large two-topping thin crust to come to us. When we are lonely, well, who’s got two thumbs and a phone? Everybody! Yeah, yeah, all that fussy old crank stuff, but let’s get real. No organism is completely self-sufficient; that’s antithetical to being alive. What’s more, it does not take very much to return to our sense of wildness—because, I think, it never really leaves us. These are not either/ors; they are ands—wild and tame, savage and civilized, human and animal.

I include that last dichotomy to hit home my point: as unique a species as we are, any given human has a hell of a lot more in common with a so-called wild animal than with a cellphone. We have the same essential needs, including nourishment, whether it comes right off a tree or right from the microwave. When I look at Phoenix in the mulberry tree, I see not just his origins but my own. I do not think, as some do, what a pity it is that he has been raised in captivity, how sad it is that he can’t be free. He can’t be free because he was never imprisoned in the first place. He was born into his particular life, as were each of us into ours. Whether that life is a good and satisfying one depends on a lot of things, including, very prominently, how we treat each other. We’re not free. We’re alive, and we’re interdependent. How we fulfill our needs, for nourishment or anything else, has consequences. Hopefully, the worst consequence of eating mulberries is purple fingers or a purple beak. I think Phoenix and I could both live with that.