Matthew Stevens sent this wonderful reflection which I published four years ago! It’s sets the northern hemisphere folks up for June — the heart-berry month and for reflecting on strawberries as a “traditional part of the life-cycle.” At the end of this reflection, Matthew talks about faith community and faith growth (in an era of faith-fragment and church decline) — all around the humble June berry, and it resonates so very much for me as I think about what church means.
I think I was drawn back to this piece by my current reading of “Braiding Sweetgrass:: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, because the heart berry appears there as well. Here is Matthew’s piece and my response in poetry and then also my invitation to those of you who are reading.
Send me a poem or a prayer this month inspired by the heart-berry, the legends which surround it, the strawberry stories of your childhood, the sweetness of something that is brief and passing. Please send to the parallel email to this blog email@example.com.
Oh The Humble June-Berry!
June is just around the corner! Okay, that’s not likely to come as a particular revelation to anyone who owns a calendar. But, I’m so excited! Don’t forget that tucked within June’s bountiful apron pockets are fresh, field-grown, strawberries!
Yes, I know. Even in the small town where I live strawberries can unexpectedly show-up in the market at almost anytime of the year – including Christmas. I suppose that strawberries imported from California, Mexico, Chile, or as far away as South Africa are all very nice. But, they’re just not the same thing as I recall from my childhood. There’s simply no comparison to those wonderfully warm little berries, picked on a sunny June morning at the very height of ripened perfection, from that field just down the road and across the creek.
From my mother I first knew strawberries as “heart-berries”, and you need only look at one to understand that origin. Subsequently I learned the Anishinaabe name for the June, “Ode’imin Giizis” literally means “heart-berry moon”, while the Haudenosaunee translate the same idea as Awˆhihte’. Many First Nations regard strawberries among the first gifts of Creator for the health of humanity, and more recent scientific research confirms the medicinal value. The use of strawberries remains an honoured part of ceremonies, and a traditional element of the life-cycle.
For me the ripening of local strawberries also anticipates the return of strawberry shortcake. Now, there is of course all manner of factory produced and blister-packed cakes that attempt to pose as shortcake. Sorry folks, just ain’t the genuine article! Particularly those little round three inch jobbies that resemble drink-coasters. For SHORTcake to be genuinely SHORT, by definition it needs to contain some form of SHORTening. That seems a fairly obvious requirement to me, but in this faux-food era it seems to be routinely overlooked. The shortcake should also be just lightly sweetened so as to not detract from the berries, and served at room temperature – not straight out of the fridge!
Apart from an essential appreciation of proper strawberry shortcake I received in childhood, my culinary education was further enhanced early in my ministry, when I was appointed a student minister to a rural pastorate in the Kawartha region of south-central Ontario. For decades one of the churches had essentially sustained itself on the strength of two annual fundraising events – the Fall Harvest Dinner, and the June Strawberry Social. The memories associated with both events are precious to me, and everything else pales to my vivid remembrances of the latter.
Military generals could easily learn a thing or two about logistical support from the planning associated with the Strawberry Social. Perfected over generations of active involvement, every family knew precisely what was expected of them, and exactly when their services would be required. Everyone was part of a team, and every team was responsible for just one job. The most crucial task fell to the community elders, for if the correct date wasn’t accurately predicted well in advance the whole event could fail. With the combined experience of hundreds of years farming, they always seemed to select the very day when both the crop and weather co-operated.
An early sign of the impending festivities could be witnessed in the sudden materialization on the side lawn of the church, of saw-horses and barn-boards from every farm in the area. On the morning of the appointed day these items, along with stacks of wooden folding-chairs retrieved from the former buggy-shed, would be expertly assembled into dining facilities. Long rolls of oil- cloth tablecloths completed the transformation, held in place by centre-pieces of fresh-cut wild flowers.
Just as these preparations were completed, a horse-drawn wagon from the local Mennonite community would come to a stop in front of the church. A gentleman with a full beard and wearing a wide brimmed straw-hat would step down from the wagon, and from the rear extract the first of the hams ordered for the event. With an uncanny coincidence a farm pickup would pull in behind the wagon, and after helping to unload the rest of the hams, this gentleman would take hold of an enormous hand-crank meat slicer. Patiently over the next hours he would slice the hams, in the process releasing throughout the whole church a delicious fragrance of maple-sugar curing.
By mid-morning the pickers would arrive to turn over their carefully gathered bounty to those engaged with washing, hulling, and slicing the strawberries. Despite the care taken in picking the berries, quality control now soared to an even more enhanced level, systematically rejecting any mark or blemish. Over the ensuing hours of good natured banter and laughter basin after basin were piled high with luscious prepared fruit. Originating in farm-kitchens throughout the area, elsewhere in the kitchen another team completed the mountains of assorted salads that would accompany the sliced ham. As all of these wonderful smells mingled, and so too did the cheerful voices of people happily working together for a common cause.
Last, but by no means least, and hot from dozens farm-ovens, came the actual shortcakes and fresh dinner-rolls. The fragrant melange wafting from the church kitchen was absolutely mouth- watering, and is firmly etched in my memory today thirty years later. The scene was made complete with entrance of the dairy-farm contingent, bearing metal pails filled with fresh whipping cream. Within moments of their arrival the insistent throb of large mix-masters could be heard in close proximity to every available electoral outlet in the church.
Initially I assumed folks were just being polite when all my sincere offers of assistance were routinely met with sentiments such as “…perhaps you could sell tickets.” or “…we’d like you to offer grace” or “…you can be our host.” When greater persistence on my part only yielded me a job directing parking, I must confess to feeling a bit hurt and slightly miffed. However, after witnessing my first Strawberry Social, I quickly recognized that the efforts of anyone untrained in this elaborate choreography would be more akin to distraction than assistance. Over the years of my ministry however I progressed from the parking lot; through a stint with the clean-up and take-down crew; to ultimately achieve the esteemed role of a senior dishwasher. I had arrived!
Looking back from these current days when congregations are aging, and events such as the Strawberry Social are rapidly being relegated to a bygone time, I realize how very fortunate I was to participate. Yes, fundraising was part of the rationale, but I’m genuinely convinced that they were far more importantly community building events. When people are entrusted with accomplishing a specific responsibility, and not over-burdened with a multiplicity of unrelated tasks, there is joy to be found working in tandem with team-mates. The laughter and chat shared over a task is the cement that holds communities together.
In a similar vein, some families who first stopped at the Strawberry Social to grab a bite to eat on the way to their Kawartha cottage, became regular members of our summertime congregation. During the ensuing years their now adult children travelled from the city to be married, or have their children baptised in their summer church home. They in turn brought others seeking an alternative lifestyle, each contributing something unique to the community they helped to form. Not a bad accomplishment for some berries that only last less then a month.
Oh The Humble June-Berry!
Matthew’s reflection led to my seeking Anishinaabe strawberry wisdom, and learning from it. I cannot take that wisdom as if it were mine, like European New Hampshire home dwellers hang dream catchers in their windows. But, knowing how many mistakes I can and will make, I can receive as a gift the wisdom of another and let it open my spirit to new possibility. So this is a poem in my voice that I wrote for Matthew in thanks for his kindness.
Ode’imin Giizis for Matthew Stevens
It is June, heart-berry moon,
not that I have any right
to the old story
of the healing ways of Ode’imin,
the wisdoms of Nookomis,
except to learn,
to be one who sits in the circle,
not at its center,
to hear the storyteller.
European American born,
I listen to new strawberry wisdom –
We who have been takers
can no longer reach out and grab
whatever we want,
but, bending very low,
find and pick what heals us all.
And things most precious
will be brief.
They come silently
and, no matter how busy we are,
and we are a busy people,
they must be tasted
now, in the season they are ripe.
And this, too, perhaps,
we learn —
to call summer by our neighbors’ names –
not July and August, but
red-raspberry moon and
miin(ikaa)-giizis, blueberry moon,