Tasting Spring

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Last summer, my daughter fell in love. She was two years old at the time. If you think that is too young for a love affair, I urge you to set down this reading and immediately find a child occupied with nothing more than wandering, uninhibited, in the natural world. Watch how they look, listen and touch. Witness their little beings moved by the flooding of the senses with all this good earth has to offer. They are overcome with love, and rightly so.

For the now nearly three years of her life, I’ve watched my daughter as she traverses this deepening love affair. It is both steady while also displaying distinct moments of deepening affection, moments in which a new discovery or a new experience leads to a specific new love amidst her general, growing love for nature.

Last summer, it was the huckleberries. We are fortunate to be blessed with a path right at the edge of our driveway. This path leads into the woods and connects to a whole network of paths. It is just the type of path that promises the very best kind of adventures. Strewn with fallen pine needles and other forest debris, the ground is delicious under bare feet when warmed by the sun. As you wander this path, and especially as you let it lead you deeper and deeper between the trees, your companions are many: squirrels, all sorts of bird life, deer and even the occasional fox or porcupine.

We are doubly fortunate that a particular leg of this path travels along the shore of a large pond, or a small lake, depending on how you look at things. Before you see the water, you can hear the haunting cry of loons, a call that somehow simultaneously captures the joy of life and the ache of death.

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Where the path meets the pond, they begin to spring from the earth – the huckleberry bushes. Their thin branches tangle and tumble towards the path as the patch thickens. In the spring, bright new leaves tickle our arms as we walk. In the fall, the patch bursts into vibrant shades of orange and red, a startlingly gorgeous visual against the blues of the water. And in the late summer, the branches are prolific in berries. Darker and glossier than a wild blueberry but about the same size, the huckleberry has a distinct flavor – simultaneously sweet, sour and somewhat nutty. And last summer, my daughter experienced that flavor for the first time.

Importantly, though, I think her enchantment has much more to do with the experience of finding food in the woods. On late summer mornings, instead of starting our day with breakfast, we’d begin with the path. Often, we wouldn’t even bother with shoes. We’d open the front door and step out of the cool of our house and into the warmth of the morning sun. Our dog would scamper ahead, disappearing around a bend, knowing exactly where we were headed. My daughter would walk for a while, bending occasionally to examine a leaf or collect an acorn. Sometimes we would stop to watch a squirrel busy at their morning breakfast, sitting remarkably straight and alert on a tree stump, a pine cone clutched between paws, munching and staring at us, ready to bolt if we made any predatory move but not wanting to prematurely abandon the feast.  “It’s okay, little one, we won’t hurt you,” I’d say and my daughter would be fascinated. She’d want me to explain over and over why I said those particular words, why the squirrel might be afraid of us.

Eventually, I’d hoist her onto my shoulders and we’d catch up to our dog, traipsing down a short hill towards the water and then around a bend and there they would be. “I want to get down!” my daughter would exclaim as she started to wiggle with excitement. I’d plop her onto her feet and hand her the little cup we had brought along for gathering purposes. And we’d begin to pick. One for the cup, one for immediate consumption.

It quickly became evident that my daughter would pick without end, each berry more enticing than the last. “We need to leave some on the bushes,” I told her, early in the huckleberry season. “Why?!” – total incomprehension at this nonsensical suggestion. “Because, we aren’t the only animals that eat these berries.” And sure enough, we’d watch as birds darted between branches, occupied with their own morning snack. A lesson in harvesting honorably, in a manner that acknowledges our true place within a complex and interdependent web. We do not own this huckleberry patch; we are exceptionally blessed by its presence just a short walk from our house. I like to believe that the concept of this shared blessing only increased my daughter’s love for the little black berries. She did learn to modify her harvest, picking to fill her cup and then stopping.

We’d sit just beyond the bushes on a moss-covered rock and eat the berries as we gazed at the sparkling water below. The only thing that could motivate us onward in our morning loop of the path was the knowledge that, just a few minutes further along, we would come into full sunshine at the very edge of the water, standing on a rock that slopes into the cool depths. If we were lucky, we’d see the loons, calmly gliding further out, serenely surveying the new day. Assuredly, we’d abandon clothing and slip into the coolness, my daughter in my arms, her breath catching just briefly as her little body was surrounded by the water’s embrace.

It was a sad day when my daughter’s hands reached for berries and found only dried, shriveled remnants. A lesson in change, in the cycle of the seasons, in plant life. We still had a swim to look forward to, but even that eventually ended, as the water grew too cold.

“It will all be back next summer,” I promised. But through Maine’s long winter months, that must have seemed hard to believe. Bundled nearly to the point of immobility, we’d pass between the huckleberry bushes on our walks and my daughter’s mittens would brush the branches. Sometimes she’d ask to be reminded about the cycle of the plant’s life and when the berries would be back. Sometimes she’d just look, longingly, missing her beloved fruits.

It was early April before her patience began to pay-off and my story became more than just a story. We had nearly passed through the patch – me dismissing the bare branches for any sign of new action – when suddenly I saw it. I bent for a closer look and then called ecstatically for my daughter. She came at a clip. “Look!” I exclaimed. “Look at that!” At the end of many of the little branches – not all, but many – were buds. Beautiful, tiny, delicate pink buds. “Those are buds,” I explained. “They will open into leaves. That’s the first sign of the plant getting ready to make more berries.”

We were fortunate to be walking with a dear friend, an “auntie”, who is a student of botany. She and I worked together to describe how plants use leaves to make food, how that energy is put into making the flowers that, once pollinated, become the berries we so love. My daughter did not take her eyes from the little burst of pink as we relayed the science lesson with great enthusiasm. When we were done, she slowly lifted her hands and removed her mittens. She then extended one hand and oh-so-gently took the bud between her forefinger and her thumb. She held the little packet of life for a moment, then released it and licked her fingers. She looked at me, a huge grin spread across her small face. “I taste them, Mama,” she said. “The huckleberries.”

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The illusion of a divide

My family and I are vacationing on the west coast of Florida – a stand-in for our preferred destination of Costa Rica as I am seven months pregnant and avoiding Zika. I am walking at an early afternoon high tide, feet in the subtle waves at the water’s edge. At first, the idyllic scene washes over me: the blues of the water, the white sand, the gentle breeze. My bare skin soaks up sun and warmth, foreign at this time of year in Maine.

As I walk, however, the feeling grows that I am tracing the steps of a sharp divide. On one side of me, human society sprawls over the sand. Plastic beach loungers are filled with travelers, not unlike myself. They drink from plastic cups through plastic straws and play beach games with plastic toys.

On the other side, nonhuman nature ebbs, flows and soars. Pelicans glide purposefully over the water, then suddenly pierce the depths. Terns dart, sea gulls swoop. The water glistens in the afternoon light as currents flow.

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The contrast is stark and startling. Like me, many of the people to my right were drawn here by nature’s beauty. Like me, they dip into the water, scoop sand, and marvel at the bird life. But as I watch the two sides of the divide, I am struck by how sharply it is just that: a divide. And I wonder. I worry, as I do daily, about the future of the natural world, human and nonhuman alike. I wonder: as long as human interaction with the rest of the natural world is so clearly defined by our terms, terms driven by our wants and demands, will we ever be motivated to truly question the ultimate impact of those lounge chairs, air miles and plastic cups and straws?

My toe grazes something hard and smooth. I bend to examine. A shell, a wide spiral. Like the rest of the natural world, perfectly designed for purpose with a simple, elegant beauty. I pick up the shell. My daughter is napping as I walk, and I imagine her delight over the shell when she awakens. I can hear her: “Ooooooh, Mama!” – eyes and fingers spreading wide in a desire to experience the shell with as many senses as possible. Earlier, she darted in and out of the waves, not unlike a sandpiper. Occasionally, she would fling herself down on her belly, completely unbothered by the wet sand, completely propelled to immerse herself as fully as possible in her surroundings. Or she would sit herself down in the water, cross-legged, gazing out to sea as waves ebbed and flowed around her small body, for all the world like a little bathing suit-clad Buddha.

Amongst all the people along the water’s edge, the children are consistently the ones most immersing themselves in the sounds, sights and feels of the rest of the natural world. They have not forgotten that they are a part of this world, after all. I say this while wanting to be very careful not to over-romanticize that relationship. The natural world deserves our respect. It is strong, powerful and holds an overarching wisdom and sense of purpose that many of us humans have forgotten.

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I notice a sole person venturing to swim the deeper water. His strokes aim him straight for a bobbing group of pelicans. I stop to watch. He draws ever-closer and I almost hold my breath. And then – the inevitable – the pelicans take flight. Nonhuman nature once again is moved aside. It almost appears to be placed in a way to accommodate human needs first and foremost. But this is an illusion. We humans will not be accommodated endlessly. To everything, there is a limit.

I dip into the water myself. As I swim, I watch a large group of pelicans fly over the tall buildings that were constructed practically on the sand. Like fortresses, the buildings stand prepared to protect their inhabitants, with air-conditioning and refrigeration and running water and electricity and Wi-Fi and the many other modern technologies that allow us to believe that we function apart from the rest of the natural world. These technologies support that illusion that we can meet all our wants regardless of what happens to the water and the air and the fish and the birds just outside.

The pelicans soar in formation straight towards the buildings, like a group of fighter jets. But what can they do? Peck at the roof-tops? Push their bodies through the windows?

We humans have made ourselves too impenetrable, too unyielding, too aloof. We have built too distinct a divide, there at the water’s edge and in many other parts of our lives. We have erected walls so thick they allow us the comfort of our delusional separation.

As I shake salt water from my eyes, I pray for greater clarity, for all of us. May we not just know, may we experience our interconnection. Every decision and action we take impacts the rest of life and, in turn, comes back to us. There is no divide. There is only all of us, all of life, together. We can seek the wisdom of the perfectly spiraled shells or we can stay on our beach chairs. The choice is ours. The consequences are extreme.

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