Remembering Elderberries

Today is our first elderberry harvest. These tart, tiny berries flourish in our area, feeding mostly birds and the occasional human with the inclination to make juice or jelly from them. The bushes are wild and twisted, more like a colony of sinewy trees than a bush of berries. After bunches of berries are plucked, the process of separating them from their stalks begins. As I rubbed the berries, which range from a blue-nearly-black to a white like a luminescent blueberry, from their stalks (they are too small to grasp individually), I experienced a moment. Self-help books encourage us to “live in the moment,” a phrase that to me conjures more Amway, nutraceuticals, Bahamian beaches, and first-class air travel than Henry David Thoreau mooching off his mother in the woods beside Walden Pond. Today the moment came, as they so often do for me, in a nostalgic web of moments.

As my fingertips encountered the gently prickly stalks beneath the berries, I remembered barefoot hiking as a teen in the Uintah Mountains of eastern Utah, brushing my hands against the deep green needles of tall pines. In the moist pliability of these berries stood the reminder of their evanescence. In another week, they will have definitively begun their transition back into the soil. As I stared at the stippled whites, blues, and—when the light was just right—indigos, I enjoyed being able to see. Not so much any particular thing—there was no pattern in them, just the pleasure of their multiplicity. Just the fact of these subtle variations of light and my experience of them. I plunged my hands into my stewpot full of berries. My wife joined me, commenting that they felt like caviar. I agreed, though they lacked the gelatinous coating of most caviar. The berries were cool against my skin. Sitting together on our front steps in the waning autumn light, I remembered our lives a decade ago as we wandered the landscape of the once Soviet Union, what it meant to be in the midst of our twenties with few possessions beyond each other, to have loved those other places, those other peoples and their singing, their meals, their company, their homes. The berries grow in dense clumps, so when the stalks are denuded, a fine root-like structure appears. This blush of ever finer stalks is for me powerfully reminiscent of the rete mirabile, the miraculous meshwork of blood vessels that feeds the brain, at once mighty and fragile.

In this moment of shared being I appreciated viscerally what we hope for when we announce the continuity of life and afterlife. However much I respect and value religions that teach reincarnation, I am no longer capable of believing it myself. These memories, these having-beens are parts of me I do not wish to excise, cannot imagine excising. In a complex and sometimes glorious sense they are me. Perhaps the Atonement means that we will be free to be our good memories without the constant intrusion of the bad. Perhaps in the heavenly kingdom we struggle toward, this interconnectedness of experience and memory will be what we describe as God’s “one eternal round,” the timelessness of eternity as memories, lived moments existing simultaneously in a web of being.

I find that as I grow older (I am not even middle-aged), I have more memories and fewer pat answers, more affection for the sometimes shocking beauty of God’s green earth and less need to be smartest or right. Berries are some of my favorite living things, this explosion of fertility and pleasure, this uplifting interaction of beings that allows the bush to reproduce after its kind by feeding, sustaining its neighbors. They are a bright light in this occasionally dreary world that holds inside itself the promise of a brilliant and celestial future.

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[1] I should confess my debt to Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory, one of my favorite books of all time. It’s like Proust but readable and beautiful.
[1.5] I should also confess that I know almost nothing about elderberries beyond what I have just described.
[2] Yes, the final sentence is an allusion to the earth as Urim and Thummim revelation. I heart Joseph Smith.

Comments

  1. (Insert obligatory Monty Python joke …)

  2. On a serious note – this brings up memories of summer vacations spent in my childhood. Thanks.

  3. This makes me smile. A pleasure to read.

  4. Some of my best childhood memories are of elderberry picking in the mountains near our family cabin. There is still almost no thrill that compares to coming up over a rise and looking down into a little valley and seeing a huge elderberry bush, laden in ridiculous profusion with clumps of berries. We would pick them and take them back to the cabin and juice them and make the best darned jelly imaginable. We still treasure the rare occasion that we get to do this, and have initiated some of our closest and dearest friends into the same thrill of the hunt and the making of jelly. It is a wonderful marriage of enjoying and using God’s unsurpassed gifts and feeling self-sufficient all at the same time.

  5. Thanks for this, Sam. In the academy, I often get too caught up with deconstructing memory and the such–this is a good reminder of the positive functions it can play for us.

  6. “Perhaps the Atonement means that we will be free to be our good memories without the constant intrusion of the bad. Perhaps in the heavenly kingdom we struggle toward, this interconnectedness of experience and memory will be what we describe as God’s “one eternal round,” the timelessness of eternity as memories, lived moments existing simultaneously in a web of being.”

    I love that. The only memory of elderberries have is from _Arsenic and Old Lace_. The old ladies made elderberry wine to murder lonesome old men.

  7. Sam, this is beautiful and profound. Thank you.

  8. PS: the syrup is the best of the things we created from them, and it turns out that a) stalks and stems, b) leaves, and c) unripe berries contain an alkaloid that generates cyanide, so it’s worth being cautious (a la Arsenic and Old Lace). But the syrup is quite good.

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