Sunday, July 04, 2010

`What Beautiful and Palatable Bread!'

“What flavor can be more agreeable to our palates than that of this little fruit, which thus, as it were, exudes from the earth at the very beginning of the summer, without any care of ours? What beautiful and palatable bread! I make haste to pluck and eat this first fruit of the year, though they are green on the underside, somewhat acid as yet, and a little gritty from lying so low. I taste a little strawberry-flavored earth with them. I get enough to redden my fingers and lips at least.”

Readers who judge Thoreau a pleasure-denying ascetic ought to close his books now (the above is from Wild Fruits, 2000) and open one of Gary Snyder’s volumes of macrobiotic verse. Thoreau’s notion of pleasure is not ours but probably more discerning and nuanced. Who else would savor “strawberry-flavored earth?” I write this with reddened fingers, just returned from ninety minutes bent over in a strawberry field. My wife, my sister-in-law and her boyfriend picked raspberries; my two younger sons, my nephew and I, the strawberries.

Why the name? Etymologists say the Old English root is streawberige – that is, “straw” and “berry,” and not very helpful. Webster’s Third suggests the name derive from “the resemblance of the achenes on the surface to fragments of straw.” That’s a stretch. To my eyes it resembles a bulbous human nose pitted with blackheads. Thoreau offers an equally fanciful etymology:

“This is one of the fruits as remarkable for its fragrance as its flavor, and it is said to have got its Latin name, fraga, from this fact. Its fragrance, like that of the checkerberry, is a very prevalent one. Wilted young twigs of several evergreens, especially the fir-balsam, smell very much like it.”

Thoreau’s senses are electrically alive. Only the auditory (unsurprisingly) is missing. At the end of his eight-page entry for strawberries he writes: “You occasionally find a few ripe ones of a second crop in November, a slight evening red, answering to that morning one.” That other great celebrator of spring, Father Hopkins, asks in “The May Magnificat”: “What is Spring?” His answer:

“Growth in every thing—

“Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

“Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.”

“Star-eyed strawberry-breasted” is ravishing and Thoreau would have loved it. Both men, dead at age forty-four of diseases readily cured today, lived intense sensory lives. Both were equipped to relish the color, flavor and fragrance of strawberries. Thoreau’s final words were “Now comes good sailing,” followed by “moose” and “Indian.” Hopkins’ were "I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.”


Dave Lull said...


The Etymology of Strawberry

Anonymous said...

Anyone who´s last words included "moose" is all right in my book.