I discovered Hood strawberries about 15 years ago; a classmate brought them to a potluck we had for our final class session. Despite having lived in Oregon for nearly two decades, I had never tasted them, a local berry more tiny, juicy and sweet than any I’d known.
They are named for the mountain I once lived on, which is named for a British admiral who never stepped foot on it, by an invader/explorer who came from the people who took over the land and, thus, got to name it. I’d much prefer that they be called Wy’east berries, which is the name the Multnomah people used for the mountain.
A potluck is not the same thing as a potlatch, which I learned about in second grade in Mrs. Smallwood’s class. “Potlatch” is a word from the Nootka, a northwest Native tribe, that means “gift.” At a potlatch, hosts give away gifts to show their regard for their guests. Hood strawberries, despite their name–which came through a process of theft–would be an appropriate thing to either bring or give away at a gathering. Mrs. Smallwood lived on the shore of Puget Sound, a body of water named by the man who led the expedition of the man who named the mountain, for another man in his party. It is part of the Salish Sea, a name and way of viewing the waters I grew up near that I did not learn about as a child. (Washington state did not officially recognize the name until 2009, long after my childhood had passed on.) Mrs. Smallwood invited all of us to her home on the beach for a potlatch that was more of a potluck. Our parents brought food, and we fired the coil pots we’d made in our classroom in pits in the sand, as we were told the Native people had done. What a gift–no matter the name of the gathering–to be a child in a time and place where a teacher could open her home in such a way.
The strawberries are only available for a few short weeks in June, a gift fleeting as that month’s green grass, mild sun, and rose blossoms. I used to try to make the gift last longer, boiling the berries into jam or freezing them whole. I had fantasies of perfect June berries in my January yogurt, a spot of sunshine in the cloudiest time of year. The jam proved to be no substitute for a solid berry, and the whole ones I froze defrosted into a sloppy mush. I threw them all in the compost bin the next June, after thinking all winter that I would surely do something with them, and finally admitting that I wanted them only the way that I can have them in June, or not at all.
I now have them only once a year, for a few short weeks that are never enough and always so much.
This week my friend Lisa brought Hood strawberries and angel food cake to an impromptu dinner. We talked of many things that are changing: our bodies, our work, our environment, our world. “Enjoy avocados while you can,” she said as we discussed diminishing water supplies and schemes to desalinate ocean water and pipe it to southwest states.
I used to want to dole the berries out and eat them slowly, as if that might somehow make them last longer. Or, I’d only get them when I could make them into some dish worthy of their greatness. Or, I’d only eat them when I could savor them, fully appreciate them. I was afraid, if I ate them too quickly, that I wouldn’t have them when I really wanted them. Inevitably, some would rot while I was waiting for the right time, or I’d end up getting only one carton in a season.
Now, I buy them whenever I see them and eat them while they are fresh. I’ve given myself permission to take a few each time I open the refrigerator. I get them as often as I can, because the season is so short and nothing is guaranteed. For all I know, this is the last year I will get to eat Hood strawberries. I know for sure it is the last year that this version of me will. Next year’s Rita might not be able to enjoy them in the same way that this year’s Rita can.
Life is so full of big, hard things we can barely swallow. People lose their land, their names, their loves, their lives. The more I lose the more determined I am to eat all the sweet things that I can, while I can, with love and appreciation and gusto.