Sunday, December 1, 2013

Searching For Winter Strawberries

A late October strawberry in my garden
I spent my twentieth year of life in Madrid, Spain, studying Spanish philology.  Studying abroad is like laboratory work in a science class: the experience often teaches much more than lectures or readings could ever do.  Many of the lessons are unanticipated, and depend on the interaction of student and environment.

One day in February, for no particular reason, I wanted to eat strawberries.  A few blocks from my flat there was a market, so I walked there and searched for fruit stands.  Finding one but seeing that they had no strawberries, I asked the proprietor, "Do you know where I can find strawberries?"

"Of course," he replied. "Right here."

"But you don't have any," I observed.

"Of course I don't," he said.

I was confused.  "But you said I could find strawberries right here."

"You can," he replied.  "But not until June."

This took a little while to sink in.  I was accustomed to going to a supermarket at home in New York and buying any fruit I wanted at any time of year.  Now I was being told what should have been perfectly clear: fruit is seasonal.

At first I was disappointed, but it took only a few minutes before I realized that this wasn't such a bad thing.  It meant that the strawberries, when they arrived, would taste that much sweeter.  The disappointment of having to wait would be repaid by the delight when they did arrive.

The experience didn't reform me, of course.  I love eating my favorite foods year-round, despite not having harvested them and usually without knowing where they came from.

But it did make me appreciate some of the rhythms of life around me.  The first part of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, and most of Thoreau's Walden - two of my favorite books - follow the cycle of the seasons in the northern part of the United States.  Their understanding of nature is one that allows nature to undergo its habitual changes.  They might even say that what they know about nature arises from attention to just those changes.  Phenology, the attention to when and how things appear and disappear throughout seasons, is one of the most important parts of learning to see the world.  If I may speak an Emersonian word, phenology attunes us to the music nature wants us to hear.  To speak less mystically, it accustoms us to natural patterns, and much of what the naturalist wants is to learn those patterns so well that we can then see when nature departs from them.

What are the calendars in your life?  Technology has made many of them seem unnecessary, but I suspect that they give us much more than we know, just as my experience in Spain gave me unlooked-for lessons.  We should be careful not to insist that others delight in the absences or disciplines we delight in; what may be a delightful, self-imposed fast to us may be devastating to someone who is genuinely hungry. When we choose them for ourselves, school calendars, planning one's garden, the liturgical calendars and holidays of the world's religions - each of them can offer us rhythms of both discipline and delight as we make ourselves wait for the strawberries to ripen, the hummingbirds to return, the exams to end, the candles to be lit.