My first trip to the States with my daughter is coming to an end soon. Although there's lots I could tell about it, such as how it feels to see her respond to family, how it feels to travel without my husband, what it feels like to go through reverse culture shock every year when I come back in contact with the U.S., I was most compelled to write about an experience I had yesterday morning. I think it's because it embodies a lot of what has meaning for me, being from Upstate New York, and what I've taken away from it even when I'm far—
I went to visit my grandmother's house next door. There is a small forest between hers and my parents' houses, where songbirds call every morning. I pushed the umbrella stroller up the driveway, across the front yard, and into her backyard, under the huge maple tree and bumping over its roots, to the raspberry patch in the backyard. When I was a kid I used to help pick quarts which we'd either eat as a family or they'd sell in a roadside stand or trade with the uncle across the street for tomatoes. Now, as I approached with the baby cooing, they were overgrown with grass and sprawling every which way. My grandfather, who was probably responsible for pruning the canes, has long since passed, and my grandma is frail at 89. In any case, I was delighted to see a few red ones peeking out, so I picked several and then went into the house. My cousin, who lives with my grandma, came out to hold the baby while I filled a quart basket quickly, stepping through the thorny branches and lifting them up and to the side to expose ripe fruits without a scratch as only one who's done it for years can do.
Soon, my grandma was dressed and had come out with her cane and another quart basket. Although she wanted to pick some herself, I worriedly observed her as she wobbled by the bushes. "Oh my God," she exclaimed when she saw how overgrown the patch had become. "There's still a lot of good ones in here," I said, and I worked quickly to fill another half quart after she passed me a few handfuls. But when I saw she'd crushed a red berry on her Keds and was having trouble backing up, I recommended we head back in for the heat and that my skin was getting itchy from the grass—I didn't want her to take a tumble in the brambles. So we headed back in, and I plotted my raspberry mousse pie while explaining to my grandma why I'd be holding off on letting the baby try berries until she was a year old. She couldn't quite understand the gist and I found myself wondering what the wisdom of following the recommendations to a T were anyways.
Before my grandmother had come out, I'd asked my cousin if he wasn't too agriculturally inclined. "Why do you ask," he said. "Oh, I don't know," I replied, "I guess it just strikes me as a little sad that his raspberry patch is going to pot." I was thinking of the days when the garden was well-tended, even to the times I've been told about when my grandmother's own mother had a flourshing production farm that brought the family close to self-sufficiency during Depression and war times. It seems as if with the passing of every generation, a little more of the old ways are lost. And so, in an effort to reverse this trend, like others who are interested in local agriculture and restoration, I'm trying to establish our own sustainable garden down in the semidesert where we live. It's a combination of organic gardening and native plant conservation. It means growing fruit and pine trees on recycled greywater lines alongside kale, carrots, and squash in raised beds, near the mesquites, nopales, and agaves that shore up the hillside and the chilitos and garambullos, cacti who give us our own wild southern summer fruits.
Even so, there's something unnerving about being the first in four or five generations of the maternal line to break ground in an unfamiliar land. I've been trying to put my finger on what's the essence of what I'll miss when I go, and the closest I can come to is the familiarity of the verdant tree cover around my parents' house, the black-capped chickadee and cardinal songs issuing from the leaves, the easy laughter of us hanging out on the family room floor watching the baby play with her new American toys. But I must "bloom where I'm planted," as my mom names the dictum that I'm trying to follow. As nurserymen know, it's not so easy for roots to overcome transplant shock, especially when the seedling is put in a climate entirely different than the one it's adapted to. But part of evolution is playing with the hand life deals you, leading to survival of the species over time.
And so I was comforted to hear my grandmother say something that surprised me when she observed the raspberry patch in 'ruins'. "Forever wild," she declared. My cousin said it was in reference to an Audubon campaign he'd told her about, one that promotes the reclaiming of native habitat in backyards. I had to admit, the thought of the raspberries going feral under the sumac and providing sustenance to the local wildlife, the whole of which would eventually give way to more maple forest—after all, the ferns and wild strawberries are already moving in—was just as sweet as the thought of human hands picking and enjoying the ruby red fruits. It helps me not think of the alternative, what's already happened in most of the neighborhood and what's happening again down where I live—the wholesale development of open space. It pains me that I don't have much control over the destiny of my old backyard haunts, that I care for so much, but must be so far from. But if my grandma, who's spent her entire life tending cultivated patches, could be OK with releasing the raspberry patch into the hands of nature and the unknown future, so can I.