Jan
10
2024

Fruits of the Solstice Season: The Connective Wisdom of Strawberries

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For Grievers – For Seekers – Practices for Soul & Spirit

For the past few years I have undertaken what I think of as a simple Solstice to Solstice  practice. I ….

… eat some strawberries on the Summer Solstice.

… freeze other strawberries on the Summer Solstice. 

… eat the frozen strawberries on the Winter Solstice. 

I started doing this practice instinctively. I wasn’t influenced by any past rituals I’d experienced or inspired by any particular symbolism. Strawberries just were ripe during the Summer Solstice and I thought about freezing them for the winter. 

But, yes, strawberries were special to me because my late partner John loved them. We’d walk into the strawberry patch at the Community Supported Agriculture Farm, Mountain View, that we belonged to and he would pluck a berry, hold it up to the sun, and then pop it into his mouth proclaiming the greatness of the ripe red berry. Then he’d keep eating down the row. 

I suppose I did start this practice because it connected me to that memory, because it connected me to John. 

Now each year new connections open to me as I respond to the strawberry’s changing presence in my life and communal life. Their connections layer over each other and mix. The simple berry’s wisdom becomes more complex, offers me deeper and deeper teachings. 

The first year of my strawberry practice I harvested the berries right from Mountain View, a continuation of what I had done for so many years. I remember the berries were bountiful that year. There had been early, sunny warmth and the strawberries ripened quickly. But as they were ready to be picked, rains came suddenly and strong. Afterwards, the berries were still large but their taste was diluted by the over abundance of water. Still, I stood in the field, plucked a berry, pressed it to my tongue and took it as a kind of communion. 

The next year there were no strawberries for picking at the farm. The plants had been set down in their rows protected with black sheeting the fall before but had been damaged. I don’t remember if it was from early warmth being followed by killing frost or an inundation of rain. These are both likely scenarios for Massachusetts’ changing climate. 

So for the past few years I have sought out other farms to do my picking on the actual Solstice day, usually June 21. But it isn’t just Mountain View that is challenged to grow strawberries. Last year winds took off top soil and damaged plants across the area. This year the plants peaked early. I did manage to harvest right on the Solstice, but it required looking around and traveling further afield to find finds with the berries.

The strawberries are showing me a climate pattern. 

It is not just that my farm has problems with strawberry cultivation or that a weather isolated incident has stunted the crop. It is the climate that is changing and through this practice I am experiencing this change not in an abstract, distant way, but in a real impact on the food that I eat. The food that sustains me. The food that brings me joy. 

This year strawberries have connected me to the Middle East. Strawberries grow in the region around the Solstice. Strains of berries that thrive have been bred and spread throughout the region. In Israel, the internet informs me, November is the season to harvest. While in Gaza, strawberry season lasts from December into March.

But, of course, the war …. 

So I wonder if the small white starts of strawberries were trampled, stained with blood, uprooted as violently as the children, women, and men were treated at kibbutzim during the October 7th Hamas attacks. It’s a long list of places: Nirim, Ein HaShosha, Be’eri, Nahal Oz, Nir Oz, Kfar Aza, Zikim, Holtit, Alumin, Kissufrim. I’d heard some of these names—Be’eri, Nahal Oz—but to write this post I looked to see the full list. There were so many names I hadn’t heard. So my strawberry-directed look has me seeing more fully the horror of that day. I wonder about the strawberries but my heart breaks open for the people.

Strawberries seem to be especially important in Gaza. Strawberries are referred to as red gold and grown with great pride. Despite the obstacles to obtain fertilizer and water because of the Israeli government’s blockades, Gazans very successfully cultivate strawberries and they are an important part of the economic life in the Strip. 

Strawberries also appear as cultural symbols. The strawberry figures in the work of the Gazan poet Mosab Abu Toha. His poetry is powerfully direct in its imagery and truth telling. In his collection, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, the bomb and the F-16 are omnipresent. Death is, too. But there are also the joyous images: the bird and the rose. The first line of a poem is: “We love what we have, no matter how little.” This line floats beside a photograph he’s taken of a plate of lush, large strawberries. He uses the strawberry as a personal icon.

Abu Toha wrote about the importance of strawberries in eulogizing his mentor, professor, writer, and poet Refaat Alareer, who was killed in an Israeli Defense Forces airstrike on December 6th. Fighting against his friend becoming just a number in the horrifying large number of Gazans killed, he describes a favorite activity 

Refaat and I loved strawberries. We used to go to Beit Lahia in North Gaza, pick strawberries, then sit and eat. He would not forget to bring a lot of strawberries for his mother and wife and children. We would also sit in the open and play pun games. He would not fail to tease me and our third partner, Waleed. 

Here strawberries connect Mosab Abu Toha to his dead friend just as they connect me to my dead partner. Through strawberries our experiences—though so different—are entwined and because of this I open my ears to the stories coming from Gaza.

The stories are devastating. You’ve no doubt heard the massive numbers of dead. It is a number too hard to wrap the head around really. So far this post has held only two grief stories. How much would need to be written to hold the grief stories of 21,000—and the numbers keep growing each day? 

There is one number that is “smaller” and because I am a poet it opens further connection, just as the strawberries do: Thirteen poets have been killed in Gaza in the past three months. Poets are not more important than other people but because they write we can meet them through their words. Their words enter our ears and drop into our hearts. 

The strawberry is shaped like a heart. 

Perhaps this is why in Native American traditions, the strawberry is connected to stories of forgiveness. The Cherokee tell the story of strawberry bringing First Man and First Woman together after conflict. The Nipmuck of Central Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley where I live have a story of the finding and sharing of berries leading to the ending of quarrels between a brother and sister. A version of the story I encountered on the Friends of Pine Hawk site ends with:

Each year when the strawberry festival is held it is customary for anyone holding a grudge against someone to invite that person to the festival as a token of forgiveness. Anyone who is not ready to make peace with an estranged friend or relative should not take part in the strawberry festival.

Connecting the strawberry to the Solstice now connects the giving and receiving of forgiveness as a practice that flows throughout the whole year from the height of light to longest night. 

True forgiveness is not a simple practice; it is a deep and challenging one. My understanding of forgiveness is inspired by On Repentance and Repair by Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi presenting the teaching of the 12th century philosopher and scholar of Jewish law, Moses Maimonides, for how those who have harmed can make amends. 

Rabbi Ruttenberg states that we all have caused harm, been harmed, and been bystanders to harm. These experiences happen not just in personal ways but also because we are part of larger systems that perpetuate oppression. Her model includes stages of Naming and Owning the Harm, Starting to Change, Restitution and Accepting Consequences; Apology; and Making Different Choices. You can read more details in this post

But before a forgiveness process can begin, the harm must stop.

We have not yet achieved that first step. Gaza must have a permanent ceasefire and humanitarian aid must flow regularly (FYI,Jewish Voice for Peace has been taking powerful action to call for one or if you are a poet check out the poet solidarity here). Leaders need to recognize we are in a climate emergency and respond with changes that are only possible at the institutional level.

These are just first steps toward stopping the harm. And these steps only address the symptoms of our current dis-ease. What are the deeper sources? 

Emerging from this Solstice season I am perceiving disconnection, especially as it results from a mythologized individualism, as a source of our disease. In the US—the context I know—we are taught to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and with a strong enough will we can achieve anything. Problems in our lives result from individual failings or maybe bad luck. In 2018, a majority of people in the US didn’t think that climate change would affect them personally. Wars are moments we see on the TV and move on from.

But across the globe, climate chaos and the global pandemic problems are being experienced together. From crop failure to supply chain issues, our food is being impacted. In the US, we are connected to the carnage in Gaza because our tax dollars are being used to buy the bombs killing women, children, and men, and displacing most of the population—this is not a new reality. 

The turbulence of our time is shaking loose the false belief of our disconnection. We are coming to know in concrete, visceral ways how deep our connections run. 

Yes, this understanding of our connection can spring from great challenge, but it also comes from the beautiful, the daily, the everyday pleasures. Yes, from the joy of eating strawberries, savoring the preciousness of their taste and the wisdom of their stories. Yes, from letting these healing powers course within us. 

Rabbi Ruttenberg ends her outline of forgivenesses steps from  On Repentance and Repair with:

Repentance—tshuuvah—is like the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing broken pottery with gold. You can never unbreak what you have broken. But with the sincere and deep work of transformation, acts of repair have the potential to make something new.

In this Solstice season, strawberries revealed themselves to be a red gold, a kintsugi for the broken open heart to know a connection to the Whole and to be fortified to undertake the tasks of repair. 

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