With all this in mind, we pick with cautious determination, to save as many berries as possible from ending up in the dirt. Yet we are also thinking ahead to next week. There are still berries that are not yet ripe – their yellowish green tone and awkward shape make them look shy and hopeful. We try to find the right balance, the perfect fruit to take for ourselves and try to remember to leave some for the next person coming down the isle, as others have left them for us. It is hard not to think of community when you are picking strawberries at a farm. You think of who came before, who planted and tended and worried about the weather. You think about who will come next, your neighbors and their families looking for that perfect berry. And their children, to whom this land may become a sacrament, a lineage, a memory of hands and the tastes of summer.
The berries that are so ripe that they will squish in our green baskets, must be eaten. With strawberry juice running down my fingers, chin, chest – I have a hard time filling my basket. Sometimes, with the perfect berry in hand I think ahead to granola with strawberries, vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries, strawberries in a bowl with a little sugar sprinkled on the top, strawberry jam, and strawberry pie… and other times I think of calling my wife over, showing her the extraordinary symmetry, the perfect cleft at its point, I think about writing an ode to its perfect color, its iconic stem. But then I wonder, with a berry this beautiful, how must it taste, and without another thought I pop it into my mouth and close my teeth around its soft seeded skin. And then, with the crushed berry sitting on my tongue, I am sure it was the perfect berry.
After an hour of picking, and eating, and laughing I think about how each strawberry tastes different. There is no strawberry taste, no matter what the bubble gum, ice cream, and candy companies may have convinced us. There are only strawberry flavors. And even the strawberries you buy in the store taste too homogeneous, their pale white inner meat, picked too early to assure a long life in transit, shipped across nations and oceans to arrive in our local grocery store. These berries are a different breed, each flavored by the angle of the sun, and canopy of leaves, the particular part of the field.
Somehow, through all this, my baskets fill up, nearly to overflowing. And I walk carefully to the end of the row, eyes still probing the dark bushes, not wanting to pass anything up. My wife meets there with strawberry stained kisses and we compare purple fingers. We size up our collected harvest, and rub each other’s backs, sore from stooping. We taste a few more berries and talk about cleaning, canning, freezing, and slicing them all when we get home. We talk about jam in December, and smoothies in October, and the occasional chocolate covered strawberry next April. We talk about the strawberry shortcake we had at our wedding four years ago this week. We hold our strawberry stained hands and think about sweetness, and community, and living well. It is hard not to think about these things when you are picking strawberries.