May Berries

May 27, 2014

Yesterday’s Genehouse walk gave me a chance to see old pals. Hummingbird Man was mowing his lawn, his long blond ponytail looped over a bare right shoulder. Bob was outside his house, sweeping catkins off his driveway and talking to his cat which was rolling in the catkins. He was getting ready to hike with his sons in the Gila Wilderness, which straddles New Mexico and Arizona. I have hiked there a few times with my friend Marmie Walther. Aldo Leopold, the godfather of the ecology movement, wrote much of his classic book, “A Sandhill Almanac,” there. A year ago Bob told me he was done with New Mexico—too many memories of his deceased wife. And now he was good to go.

The hike up Stroke Hill was like walking in a jungle. The air was thick and felt like an ill-fitting suit of clothes, and I sweated profusely and my salty skin fed the buffalo gnats. The irises were fading, supplanted by peonies, and the forest now trilled with crickets. Scarlett tanagers, electric and stunning, were plentiful.

I turned into Farmer Orville’s driveway and was greeted by Reba the farm dog, her fur dingy from rolling in cow manure. Orville was standing with hands on hips outside the strawberry field, which was studded with early ripe berries. Did I want some organic strawberries before the Pick Your Own Berries sign was posted? Oh, yes.

I picked five pounds of berries in twenty minutes, popping every fourth one into my mouth, my fingers stained red and my mouth covered in strawberry lipstick. The farm cats decided lying in strawberry leaves was a good thing. They followed my progress down the rows and reclined in the smashed leaves and meowed and lured my hand onto their soft bellies. Scout the Cat was going to diss me, for betrayal.

“Goddamn cats,” Orville muttered. “I dislike people, cats and dogs, and here I am in a strawberry patch with all of the above. I told my pastor I didn’t like people much, and he gave me what for.”

Will you be having your kids and grandkids over for a picnic?

“Oh, they will show up—after I’m through pickin the dang berries. They’ll eat the berries, of course, just not pick them. My son says I am crazy. What a world: work is crazy. I planted extry rows of tomatoes, why I don’t know. You had better eat them.”

Orville was upset by the shootings in California and opined that boys needed parental guidance and church, not fancy cars and fancy parents and fancy indulgences. Could he get an “amen?” When in Rome . . .

“Wait until I put up the pick your own sign,” my friend said. “Women come out here and bend over these berries and they are in various states of dress, or undress. An old man should not be subjected to that.” I resolved to myself to regularly visit the strawberry patch.

I carried my mountain of strawberries in a cardboard box and headed home, feeling like a very rich man. I poured a heap of thumb-size berries into a bowl for my neighbor Irene then I walked to the Genehouse porch and gorged on sweetness and threw the green tops into the grass. The cardinals and scarlet tanagers and goldfinches love the berries, as does a groundhog which shuffles into the yard.

As with spring flowers, daffodils to irises to roses to peonies, so come the fruits of summer, strawberries to blackberries to tomatoes to melons to squash, and asparagus to lettuce to spinach to kale, and mushrooms to potatoes to radishes to carrots.

I resolved to eat my way through summer and fall and praise the lord and pass the tomatoes and tomato sauce and tomato juice and tomato paste, and if someone brewed tomato liquor I would drink it, I would roll in it, I would write poems to it, I would suck it, I would bite it, I would slush it.

Remember “Tess of the D’Urbervilles?” Remember Tess pressing berries to her red lips and fictional men groaning with desire and reading men feel faint? Please pass the strawberries.

About Eugene Jones Baldwin

I am a writer: non-fiction, fiction, journalism (Alton Telegraph), essays (The Genehouse Chronicles) and have a website: I've published a couple dozen short stories and had eleven plays produced. Current projects: "Brother of the Stones" (available on Kindle), a book of short stories; "The Faithful Husband of the Rain, short stories"; "A Black Soldier's Letters Home, WWII,;" "There is No Color in Justice," a commentary on racism; "Ratkillers," a new play. I am an avocational archaeologist and I take parts of my collection of several thousand Indian artifacts (personal finds) to schools, nature centers, libraries etc. and talk about the 20,000 year history of The First people in Illinois. (See link to website) I'm also a playwright (eleven plays produced), musician, historian (authority on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, the Tuskegee Airmen) and teacher.
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