The Unexpected

We’re in the dog days of a dry, dry summer. In late July, just after my birthday, we spent a week in the Alps where it’s cooler than in Kaiserstuhl. Much cooler. We returned to a desiccated lawn littered with brown and curled leaves fallen from the hazelnut and linden trees. We keep the rhododendrons and azaleas, along with my beds of wild strawberries, the roses, peonies, summer squash, calendula and snapdragons that are flowering, the cherry tree and red currant bush, and especially our newly planted fig tree, sufficiently watered. The rest of what remains green in our yard—the lavender, rosemary, sage, hibiscus, and table grapes—seems to have deep roots; our house sits on the edge of an aquifer.

When Markus was a boy, the fields between our town and the next village would flood in winter from the rising water table. When it froze, he and his friends would play hockey on the ice. These days, all the fields are too well drained to flood, and our kids never owned a pair of skates.

Before leaving for the Alps, I made a quick round of the blackberries I forage. They appeared to be ripening early. And I worried that I might miss them altogether while gone. Last year, due to our travels to the States, I’d missed the blackberry season. No pies. No crisps. No Muesli stained berry purple.

No fun.

Earlier this year, for the first time since discovering where the wild strawberries best grew, I skipped gleaning them. The plants that I had transferred to my own flowerbeds provide sufficient fruit to produce a supply of jam and sauce for scones, vanilla ice cream, and cheesecake—and bonus, I don’t have to worry about ticks as I harvest in my own garden. The wild white strawberries I transferred haven’t spread well enough to supply me with jars of jam. Some things take time to transfer and establish themselves. And the heat this summer is tough on my transplants. Luckily, I did start a home patch of the white berries when I did. The town landscaper has since turned his weed-eater onto the original patch, chopping away at least fifty percent of the fruit-bearing plants.

When I returned from the mountains, the fruit of the blackberry vines I’d scouted out before leaving resembled raisins. I harvested a total of three kilos from the patches that usually produce three kilos each. Nettles usually frustrate my work. Where the plumpest berries hang, the nettles usually grow vigorous and tall. This year, the nettles surviving are doing so by keeping close to the ground.

The air dry; the sun hot; sweat dripping down my face and the back of my knees; I retraced my steps, walking in the shade of deciduous trees. The leaves rustling sound like pouring grain. There are vines I leave for last. They grow along the shaded and blind edge of a Renaissance-type garden that belongs to a large villa on the outskirts of our town. In the best of years, they haven’t produced the best of berries, and the ditch they arc over is steeply sloped. At some point, someone hacked them back, filling the ditch with tentacles of slashed vines, the thorns made sharper by drying out. I’m always weary of making a wrong step and tumbling into the cruel cache of thorns.

Hardly worth the trouble picking them. My basket felt too light, but what could such vines produce in a dry year, anyway? How much weight would they add?

Yet I came upon the shaded and gently winding path of red gravel that lead to them. Too welcoming to pass by—especially as my walk home along the railroad tracks simmered under a glaring sun.

And what did I find? Vines thick with berries twice the size of what I’d already collected, their drupelets fat and glossy. Wholly unexpected. I quickly filled my basket. In this dry year, the renaissance garden is being well irrigated, and the vines have profited. And so, have I.

Too often, the places where we expect to find disappointment enchant us instead.