Blackberry picking is like living. The plumpest, most ostentatiously ripe blackberry is the one an inch away from my grasping hand stretched at the end of my stretched body on tiptoes at the edge of a mass of brambles on which I don’t want to fall.
As a child, during my summer blackberry-picking expeditions, I was reminded of my diminutive size every time the object of desire seemed within reach to my greedy eyes, but escaped my greedy hands.
I have sometimes accepted my inability to reach that object. I have landed back on my full feet, lowered the stretched arm, and continued filling my basket with less plump, but perfectly ripe blackberries that my hand could pick with minor discomfort — maybe a scratch here and there to show off later as evidence of the battle fought.
Sometimes, however, I have refused to accept the situation, and made my way to the hard-to-get blackberry and picked it and verified that it was all I expected it to be — and more. (There were also a few disappointments, but how would I have known, had I not been able to taste the blackberry?)
Yet other times, when on the surface I had to accept defeat, a third way opened up. Instead of hunting high, I have looked for treasures low, where adults and taller kids did not stoop to look. And I have found precious berries there.
This does not mean I don’t strive to reach new heights, only that sometimes it pays to pay attention to what is closer to me, within reach. A small treasure may be waiting under the leaf that’s scratching my elbow.
Life sometimes makes us stop in the moment and reminds us that the only time we have is that moment.
At the Maku’u Farmers’ Market, along the Kea’au/Pahoa Highway bypass road (Big Island), a mainlander like me had only the present to taste the phantasmagoria of fruits on display, like papayas, soft-spiked rambutans, fluorescent fuchsia dragon fruit. There was no hoarding for further than the near future: most fruit was perfectly ripe and would barely stand the trip back to our lodging. And there was no stashing the luggage with abiu or citrus fruit or rambutan for a delayed enjoyment back home in California, because that fruit could not leave the island in my backpack.
A ross sapote (the shape and size of a deep yellow tomato), a yellow sapote (called egg fruit because the consistency of its pulp is reminiscent of hard-boiled egg yolk), a mamey sapote (its scratchy brown skin enveloping salmon-colored flesh), a bagful of brilliant rambutans, a persimmon so ripe it almost fell apart when I touched it, all found space in my shopping bag. A papaya, several avocados and abius, a bunch of mini bananas and an assortment of citrus fruits were already in the kitchen of our lodging.
A few hours after the expedition to the market, we set out to reach the viewing spot we had visited four years earlier to look from a safe distance at lava emerging from an underground channel and diving into the ocean: After sunset, as the light dimmed, the glow from the lava had set the darkening sky ablaze.1
We parked the car where lava flow had put an end to Highway 130 and started walking over the black expanse of natural asphalt sparkling under the afternoon sun. The brilliant blue sky was marbled with light gray clouds ready to congregate into 15-minute showers.
We soon developed a feeling that things were different from our prior visit. When we arrived at a sign that prevented us from proceeding, we found ourselves totally confused. The houses built on the lava field were closer to us than we remembered and the bright yellow stripes on the lava that in the past had guided our steps were nowhere to be seen.
A county security guard arrived and cleared our confusion: a portion of the road we had driven on four years ago, the parking lot where we had left the car, the lava upon which we walked to reach the viewing area were all gone, covered by the flow from a recent eruption. There, earth is still being born, every day, and the landscape changes at human-scale speed, in fact, at visitor-scale speed.
Under a boundless sky, caressed by a sweet breeze, in a moment of timeless perfection, impermanence was the only certainty and the present was the only time we had to take in the landscape around us. Small clouds of vapor along the ridge towards the main crater were the telltale sign of lava flowing below the surface there. Any day, a crack might open where we were standing and lava start flowing from there into the Pacific Ocean nearby, pushing everything along its path to plunge it into the blue waves.
But even the stark surface of lava hardened by cool air is not permanent. In time, in the cracks, ‘Ama’u ferns unfold their brilliant green fronds and ‘Ōhi’a Lehua trees grow, their brush-like red blossoms sparkling against jet black lava.2
Later in the afternoon, on the road from Kapoho3 to Pahoa, among handwritten signs posted on trees that ask drivers to slow down for kids at play or invite them to join a yoga class, we read one saying: “It’s only a matter of time.” Indeed it is.
“Do you know that I love you?” I told my husband.
And once we arrived at our lodging, I took an abiu from the fruit basket, cut it into half and plunged a small spoon into its sweet, translucent pulp, which has a custard consistency and a flavor reminiscent of a lightly sweetened caramel flan.
The only time I had was that moment and it tasted superb.
2 Hawaiian lava comes in two types, which differ in appearance, but are chemically alike. Pahoehoe has a smoother and ropey surface where ‘a’a is jagged and clinkery. The ‘Ōhi’a Lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) is a pioneer plant on new lava and a dominant tree in most mature Hawaiian forests.
P.S. On June 27th, less than six months after the visit that inspired the piece above, a new eruption started and is still ongoing (though the leading front has stopped a few days ago, about 500 meters from the town of Pahoa).
Brilliant blueberry or reddish purple, bright orange, pale yellow or an ivory that, the first time I saw it, made me wonder whether I was looking at a parsnip that had smuggled itself into carrot-land: When I am in the mood for technicolor carrots, I know to which stall to direct my steps at the farmers’ market. On a recent Saturday, in the early morning sunlight cooled by wisps of coastal California fog, I picked up by the stems a bunch of carrots with their tops still intact. I held it up for a few seconds — the uncombed ponytail of greens brushing my hands — trying to decide whether to photograph it while still in the company of its siblings, or to wait until we reached my vegetables’ portrait studio (i.e., my kitchen).
As my brain was quickly weighing pros and cons of the options, the word “weird” hit my right ear. By stressing the “ei” and slouching on the “r,” the word “weird” can be easily turned into a verbal weapon. It is easy for me, a non-native English speaker, to tune out of background conversations at the market (and elsewhere), but that “weird” bullet burst my defensive soundproof bubble.
I kept my eyes fixed on the carrots for fear they would spear the person who had shot the word, a young woman, by the sound of the voice. “What an unpleasant word,” I thought. And then I saw it, the abyss that opens between the judge and the judged the moment that word is out.
I now know that I should have said something, I should have kindly but firmly disabused the young woman of her perception by explaining to her that what she was seeing were in fact historical carrots. Our ancestors ate purple, yellow and white carrots. Orange carrots were neither the first cultivated carrots nor the only existing variety, and their predominance is an accident of relative recent history.
“This diverse bunch of carrots is beautiful and I hope you recognize it as such,” I should have said. “Embrace diversity, bring these colorful carrots home and make a salad with them. You’ll realize that, although of different colors, they are crunchy, juicy, sweet carrots like the ‘normal’ orange ones. There is nothing weird about rainbow carrots — nothing at all.”
I didn’t say anything and, like so many times in life, the moment flew by, and I lost a chance to move a pebble to make the world a better place. The neat speech I delivered in the previous paragraph came to me a few days after the carrots’ episode as a result not only of it, but also of some reading that made me think about ways in which evil manifests itself.
So much evil in the world is caused by regarding another person as “less” or inferior, because of a physical or cultural trait. The first judgment, which seems to be almost inconsequential, can easily pave the way to discrimination, oppression, persecution and, ultimately, in too many cases, physical elimination — with each step justified by the previous one.
Placing humans and the vegetable world on the same level seems preposterous, but the seed that made my thoughts sprout started that morning at the farmers’ market, amid piles of neatly displayed vegetables. My meditation on evil brought into relief my personal responsibility in stopping any form of negative judgment before it has time to start rolling down the mountain and cause an avalanche of persecution — including judgment passed upon carrots other than orange.
Now that I have clarified my thoughts, I’ll be better equipped to defend the next vegetable that gets mistreated in my presence, and hopefully, and more importantly, the next person or group of people.
The caption of the photo is the title of a song from Finian’s Rainbow, one of my favorite musicals. Here’s the refrain:
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow it over the hill and the stream.
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow the fellow who follows a dream.