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A Garden of Strawberries

On a fresh, March morning, the mist of dawn still hangs low in the air. It’s 2011, and life is simple. The politics of family dynamics and teenage angst have not yet hit: you love to wear cargo shorts, climb trees, swim in muddy lakes, and paint your face colourfully with your mother’s makeup. You’ve always been quiet, but you’re not yet self-conscious, you exist moment to moment, and you take nothing and everything for granted. You still love to be told stories, and you’re not yet ashamed of your appetite or for taking up space. Your understanding of the injustices of the world and your gender only go as deep as confusion at being told to close your legs when you sit down, to put a top on when you play in the garden, to act more “ladylike”. These things sting, but you don’t stop to consider why, and you won’t understand for years to come anyway. But this March morning, there’s only one thing on your mind. You wake to amniotic light soaking through the curtains, excitement slowly bubbling up from the pit of your stomach at a new day’s possibilities. The sound of the kettle boiling and the soft, morning voices of your parents float up the stairs through your slightly ajar door. Even though you start high school this year, you still don’t like sleeping with the door shut. Family, to you, means cosiness, unconditional love, silliness, adventure. There’s nothing the three of you won’t do together, and there’s no time you feel this stronger than first thing in the morning. You jump out of bed and rush down the stairs to the smells of eggs scrambling in butter, and warm toast. 

Today is a gardening day. Despite the crisp edge of a recently passed frost still in the air, spring has definitely arrived. You can see it in the sunbeams caught in dewdrops on cobwebs and blades of grass, and in the chirps of sparrows and bluetits and the coos of wood pigeons and collared-doves, a bright symphony to greet the morning. The garden is still quite new, unpolished, almost bare. The first buds are coming through, but the plants are still recovering from a late February snow spell. But today is for planting. Your mother kneels beside you with her trowel and gloves, but you love to dig your hands deep into the earth, feel the dirt beneath your fingernails. Scrubbing them clean is a problem for later, at this moment all that matters is the immediacy of the soil, rich with red clay from the ancient sandstone upon which you were raised, that sustains the forest around you. Your father stands behind you, a rhythmic scraping thud from burying the spade deep into the earth and then turning over the soil. Every so often a pink worm wriggles up, disturbed by your digging; your father says to leave it, it’s good for the earth. It’s entire life revolves around keeping the soil fertile, a better gardener than you could ever be. You won’t know how long you’ve been there; the only indicator of the passing of time is the musky smell of your mother’s sweat as the sun burns higher into late morning. Finally, an interlude marked by “shall we have a cup of tea?”, you didn’t realise how tired your arms were getting, and the ache in your thighs from crouching for so long. You look up, take a few steps back, and survey the morning’s work. A rectangle of raw earth, fertile and pungent with deep soil scents, is laid out before you, fresh with possibility. 

You planted strawberry seeds, but come late June, there was nothing to harvest. In your mind, you had pictured juicy, fresh fruits in abundance, but a few fan-shaped deep green leaves were all that emerged from the ground that year. Life went on, you started high school, met new friends and fell out with old ones, started your period, and long days cycling in the forest were slowly replaced with long days in town browsing shops and sitting in cafes. You still loved to read, but the content of your books grew darker, adult themes of love and rebellion wrapped up in the pretence of having a young teenage protagonist. You lapped them up, and would have years of unlearning to do as a consequence. Your birthday passed, then bonfire night, then Christmas; the cosy family feeling remained but was punctuated with the beginnings of anxiety at finding your place in the world. The next summer, again no fruits came. 

On a soft, bright June morning, the world aches with confusion and life feels disjointed. It’s 2020, and your definition of normalcy has been spun around so many times it no longer knows which way is up. You spend your days teetering on the edge of questioning where you came from and how you got here but you don’t dare risk the fall. You wonder when anxiety became the baseline mode of your existence, as you are not yet at the time where the universe will force you to remember your own strength. Home is changing, a definition and a time that morphs unrecognisably yet is achingly familiar. You are slowly starting to understand what it means, that the past is dead. The days where you took each moment as it came, with acceptance and presence, are long gone, but you’re trying to find them again. Your roles, a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend, a lover, weigh you down with expectations put on you by nobody but yourself. Yet throughout, you find small joys, predominantly in nature. The neighbour’s playful ginger cat, the fresh fragrant air of summer fields. You spend your time with food, creating, loving people through it. You take from nature and you give. This June morning, however, nature decides to teach you something. 

The sun streams through the curtains, falling diagonally across the room in front of you. You go to check your phone, the ever-present knot of anxiety already in your throat. You come to the resolute decision to go on and begin the day, regardless. You do not dress, but pad softly down the stairs to where the coffee is brewing. “Come and see what’s in the garden, Soph.” Your father’s voice breaks the sacred morning quiet, but intrigue pushes you to follow him out the door. The prickle of bare feet on the dry summer lawn grounds you to the present. Rounding the corner, you are greeted with a small bowl on the ground, filled to the brim with bright red, huge strawberries.

Quietly, unobserved, the seeds you planted all those years ago had spread along the bank, crawling a few inches further every year. Previous years had yielded one or two small, sour berries, yet this year something had changed. You had noticed the delicate white flowers offhandedly a few weeks prior, but suddenly as if cued by a great conductor beneath the earth, hundreds of fruits had chosen that morning to ripen to a gorgeous deep crimson. Your father had picked twenty or so already, but there were dozens more dripping from the green stems like rubies. You lower yourself to the ground. With the first bite, the fruit explodes with juice like sweet liquid sunlight, dripping down your hand and down your chin.  A tiny piece of that childhood urge, to experience life at its most raw, resurfaces from its hiding place.

Intuitively, we know that the day we plant the seed is not the day we harvest the fruit. My strawberry plants took nine years to produce fruits in abundance. Laying dormant for some, roots slowly creeping under the earth for others, laying the groundwork, invisible to our eyes. But nature takes her time. We cannot expect ourselves to constantly produce if we do not expect this of nature, as after all, we come from nature and to nature we will return. We often forget that our bodies are soft, vulnerable things, as our culture of hyper-productivity tells us that if we are not constantly creating, we have failed. But laying foundations, learning and absorbing, even rest, are all equally as valuable as the end result of a project. In the two loves of my life, language learning and music, I see this reflected: would I be able to have a fulfilling conversation in another language, without spending hours studying the same grammar structures, feeling like I’m getting nowhere? Would I be able to write music, without spending years practicing scales, and having experiences I could later pour out into songs? If there’s anything I’ve learnt in the past year, it is that progress is not in the least bit linear. So please, have patience with yourself, trust your body and trust your process. One day, you might reap the benefits in ways you could never have imagined.

3 thoughts on “A Garden of Strawberries

  1. This is absolutely stunning! Written so articulately and bursting with linguistic colour. Thank you for this gift!

  2. Beautiful. Resonates with our discussion about ‘Atomic habits’ (James Clear). It’s the little things done daily that eventually bloom unexpectantly.
    A question. Can light look “amniotic” like the fluid that protects a foetus? Or is the use of the word, placed there to conjure thoughts of babies and set the tone for the piece, as a reflection of your younger self?

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