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.
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.”