18
Jul 04

I’ve been missing wild strawberries.

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 565 views

I’ve been missing wild strawberries.

When I was a kid — a very little kid — there were wild strawberries growing down by the lake where we have our summer place. The houses are all built on a sloping rise crescenting the beach: the furthest one at one end looks out over the lake from a few dozen feet up on a little peak, we’re the next one after that slightly lower and set back more, behind evergreen bushes and low-growing wild wintergreen; and at the opposite end, the slope has come down far enough that you have only a slight rise, like a wheelchair ramp, from the beach area to the cabin.

From our place, you walked down the pine-needle-and-twig-covered hill to the beach, which was always a pain since we were kids and it was summer and our shoes were reserved for things like going to the movie theatre (it’s one of those places where everything’s got the r before the e) or to FrankenSundae to see what fresh hell we could wreak at the unlimited toppings sundae bar. J.B. Scoops — a major attraction of the area later, and now as well I assume — wasn’t even there yet, with their Chocolate Obscene and Smurfberry Crunch ice creams.

So you walk down this hill, and the lake is on your right when you get to the bottom, and continues in front of you and on to your left: you are facing the long leg of an L that has been mirror-imaged and turned ninety. This is Dog Cove, the far end of Squam Lake, aka Golden Pond — Rattlesnake Mountain is at the opposite end, and visible on all but muggy days, easy to spot with its bald patch of rock at the peak and Mount Washington and the other big brothers of the Appalachians towering behind it.

So your beach area here is square-shaped, essentially, with two of those sides on water — keep going to your left and you come across the docks where everyone keeps their canoes and sailboats, and if you keep going after that, the lake tapers off into a mosquito-infested pisstrail in the woods. Go straight ahead, and the bottom of the lake drops off sharply, so that as soon as you swim you’re in the deep end, with catfish below you. Going out from the corner into the water is a line of rocks, good for playing on, fishing from, looking for snails around, etc.

On the right is the “real” beach, with the sandy bottom, and the gradual slope from the shore so you can walk in the water before you swim. Sand’s piled up on the shore there for towels, castles, etc.

And in the elbow there, where the beach tapers out into grass, is where the wild strawberries grew. Not many of them. Three plants, I think, which means on a good day I’d find six strawberries, each of them the size of a Cheerio, tiny and more heart-shaped than ordinary strawberries, much more intensely flavored, like it was all packed in there: sweet, sure, but tart, like a mild Sour Patch Kid (which didn’t exist yet).

No one seemed to know about the strawberries but me, or at least no one bothered eating them. I showed them to my mother, sure, out of habit so she could make sure it wasn’t poison I was eating (before New Hampshire got sent to development hell, waddling around and eating things from the ground was a pretty common childhood pastime: there are tons of wild foods and cultivars that escaped from their domesticators hundreds of years ago, largely unnoticed).

Me, I’d check the plants every day or so, or at least every day I remembered. They were damn. good. strawberries.

But we were at the end of the lake, and the current, such as it is, flowed in our direction.

So every day, the water took a little bit more of the beach with it, down into that mosquito trickle. And every day, the lakebottom lost a little more sand and accumulated a little more mud. So eventually, as they’d done every once in awhile before, the housing association pooled money together to a) dredge the lakebottom and get rid of some of that mud, and b) dump sand back in there.

Which was fine. It was good. I hated getting my feet in the muck accidentally, where it’d be suddenly and inexplicably cold, which I knew was a sign the catfish were going to eat me.

But the truck ran over the wild strawberries, and those big ridged wheels tore the plants out, roots and all.

They can’t be blamed: they had no way to know, and the strawberries were right there only inches from the footpath, where they’d remarkably never been trampled even by Flip-Flops, and no one really knew about them but me: no one knew that just as the French fraises des bois are one of the world’s most prized fruits, the truffle of the sweet-and-tart world, and has for hundreds of years resisted cultivation, so too is its cousin fragaria virginiana, which is indigenous to the Atlantic coast of North America.

That was over twenty years ago, and you just can’t get wild strawberries at the store — nor even at the Farmer’s Markets I’ve been to, because they aren’t farmed as such. You occasionally see wild strawberry preserves, but these are just as often the French fraises des bois — perfectly great, but silly to import when we have our own local analogue — or fragaria ananassa, which is actually a cultivated berry that’s the ancestor of the modern strawberry — smaller, tarter, tasty, but no virginiana, Santa Claus.

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