The first official day of fall is still more than a month away, but up here in the mountains the earth’s axial tilt out of the direct gaze of the sun is already perceptible.
I feel it in our living room, where a chill greets us in the morning since we’re still stubbornly leaving windows open to invite the gentle babble of Prospect Creek in for coffee. It’s in the shadows shifting over the roof earlier in the evening, compelling me to put dinner on the table before it gets dark. It’s in my garden, where the once robust Cosmos and Nasturtiums are draped in more muted shades and my delicate newborn peppers, once so promising, have frozen on the stem.
And last but not least it’s written on the calendar, with the ski area opening 100 days from Tuesday.
The slow shifting of summer into fall is like a gentle nudge, coercing me to take my daughter out into the woods more frequently these days so we can wring the last luscious drops of summer out of the slowly fading fabric of the season. Elle orchestrates our outdoor jaunts – on the Cross Mountain Trail, around Woods Lake, in Waterfall Canyon, and just a stone’s throw from our house on the Jurassic Trail – from her jaunty spot in a backpack on my shoulders. From there, she keeps reins on the dog who, she seems to believe, must be called back anytime he wanders ahead (“Eddy! Eddy! Ed-dy!”) and occasionally tugs my ponytail, but mostly she keeps a lookout for her favorite thing, “straw-bees.”
I’m still not sure how she can know when we’re passing by a patch of wild alpine strawberries – although I suppose it’s just a good guess, since these creeping plants are in no short supply along the trails we walk together.
“Strawbee!” she screams, pointing to the ground.
“Well, let’s see…” I’m always skeptical that we’ll actually find one of these little gem-like fruits among all the leaves, but Elle seems to have some kind of baby radar for wild strawberries hiding alongside the trail. Or perhaps it’s simply that if you really take the time to find them, stooping in the grass rather than just giving a cursory glance before hustling on your way, wild strawberries have an uncanny way of getting into the mouth of an expectant toddler.
Elle loves wild strawberries, but she’s not picky. Raspberries, gooseberries, currants, and serviceberries have all found their way into Elle’s mouth this month, picked straight from the stem and delivered directly to her belly. She loves them all, even the not-quite-yet ripe, cause-you-to-pucker green-turning-purple globes of the prolific gooseberry bush we found on the shore of Woods Lake. Even the raspberries near our house, the thorny stems of which have a pesky way of poking her eager fingers. A sharp stab or two from a wild raspberry bush won’t slow this berry-picker down. Nor will wind, rain, thunder or mosquitoes.
“Strawbee! More. Strawbee.” (Elle hasn’t yet been able to verbally differentiate between the five or so different kinds of berries we can find around here, so for now they are all called strawberries.)
I remember as a child feeling elation at finding a wild strawberry under a leaf, or a ripe raspberry hidden on a bush. The berries themselves were spectacular, no doubt more delicious than anything you could buy in a plastic-wrapped package in a store, but they also held some kind of wild-born magic. They were like little nature presents, gift-wrapped in red and dark purple. Finding them was as exciting as finding Easter eggs – better, in fact, because I knew my mother hadn’t placed them there specifically for me to find.
At some point, during the shift from childhood into adulthood, I lost that jolt of exhilaration at finding a red-ripe berry to pluck from the vine. I’ve always been a berry-picker, there’s no question; but the fervent urgency to find one, followed by the thrill of locating the perfect specimen to pop into my mouth, waned as I grew older. Especially when there were more sophisticated things to forage around the woods for – like mushrooms.
Kids bring the old thrills of childhood back to their parents, through the purest and simplest of things. Like picking berries. I know my daughter is a berry-picker because I was one, and I would be lying to say that she is alone in being willing to put up with raindrops and mosquito bites while in the hunt for wild berries. The only difference now is that all of my hard-fought spoils go to one pint-sized victor, who doesn’t like to share her strawbees. (I sneak one or two at every picking, nevertheless.)
So while our mountain summer wanes, Elle and I pick berries, plucking the juiciest pearls from their hiding places; making sure, always, to save some for the mice and bears. They taste of sun and heat, rain and earth, but also of summers that have already passed, and of those still to come.