Last Morsel—Three Weeks in June
Written onJune 01 , 2010
We arrived at the campground in Watsonville, California, long after dark. Stepping out of the van, I paused, tilting my ear toward the distant sound of crashing waves. Overhead, the moon gleamed, half full beneath a thin layer of clouds. I turned toward the west—at least where I thought west was—and gazed at the ocean. It was glinting, shiny, and mysteriously still. I gazed at it for a long time, absorbing the distant calm of the water. Waves, I thought to myself, must not look the same from a nighttime distance, in hazy moonlight.
The next morning, I woke up excited to explore the long stretches of beach and ocean that had enchanted me the night before. I stepped out of the camper and gazed toward the ocean—only it wasn’t the ocean. That serene, beautiful body of water was actually an endless expanse of black agricultural plastic, row after row of it laid on the ground for strawberry production. It rippled in the sunlight, and suddenly I felt furious. The utterly man–made, utterly tamed landscape was a far cry from the wild, magnificent ocean I had expected. It was actually land held in captivity, suffocating under a cloak of dark plastic. The ocean was in the other direction, blocked from view by a sand dune, but crashing with untamed fervor.
We had arrived in the land of never-ending strawberry harvests, where temperate coastal winds dip and glide through fields of fruit, providing the perfect aeration for strawberry production. California grows 87 percent of the nation’s strawberries, close to two billion pounds. If every household in the U.S. got an equal share of these berries, 12 pints would arrive annually at every home. These berries are grown almost exclusively on plastic—material that is simply dumped in landfills when no longer needed. The fields are aligned with mathematical, computerized precision, irrigated, fertilized, and sprayed with the most up-to-date techniques. Periodically, a swarm of pickers stirs the fields to life. Quick, brown hands glide over the plants, gently and deftly layering the firm berries in plastic pints. The pickers pass through the fields quickly, briefly splashing their human vibrancy onto the silent canvas of black plastic fields.
In Vermont, strawberry production is a mere stain on the map of the American berry growing business. Our season lasts about three weeks if we’re lucky, although sometimes it lasts for more, and then it’s back to waiting 11 long months for the next ripe strawberry. Unlike the “everbearing,” or “day–neutral,” California varieties—which produce fruit all year—most Vermont strawberries are “June-bearers,” plants that bear fruit only in the month of June. When that month arrives, the ensuing weeks of gorging, of thinking exclusively about fitting as many berries as possible into my stomach, is tummy-stretchingly painful, but mostly it is ecstasy. I want to lie in the patch on my side, pull the berries and chomp away. I want to preserve it all: the lengthening days, the cool nights, the call of peepers echoing through the early summer air, the juicy tenacity of that flavor rolling over and through my winter-dulled taste buds, and the hoarding sensation I have of wanting to eat berries all year long.
But when the strawberry patches lie dormant again and winter comes, I find no allure in the plastic, boxed California strawberries, dull from the 3,000 miles of travel it took to get them here, cheapened by the weary underpaid Mexican hands that picked them, poisoned by the methyl bromide that was pumped into the already sterile soil that lay beneath the acres of plastic on which they grew. I instead choose to fill myself with Vermont berries for only three weeks, then pause, waiting for the turn of the seasons that will bring me the next ripe berry.