Picking BlueberriesCree women picking blueberries, 1926.  Photograph by Edward S. Curtis.

It’s a good year for mulberries.  The regular rainfall of last month prompted a frenzy of blooms, and now this small dry spell has concentrated the sugars in the fruit to a delectable sweetness.  I’ve been coursing the neighborhood lately, scanning the sidewalk for tell-tale purple stains and keeping a lone eye peeled for hidden pawpaws, honeysuckle pan pipes at my lips.  As aquifers in the Midwest continue to dry out, economies the world over chase their tails, and climatic shenanigans rake the continent’s thin skin, the specter of food security stalks the Maryland suburbs in a floppy hat.  It’s eleven o’clock in the Western world; do you know where your fruit trees are?

Practical matters aside (but seriously: if your local supermarket stopped selling food, what would you eat?) these recent adventures in foraging have spurred me to think about our (we computer users, we book-readers, etc.) role in the landscape in yet another light.  Many words have been spent describing Westernized human activities like mining and agriculture as parasitic, in the vampires and tapeworms sense of the word.  While those of us reliant on supermarkets for food, municipal pipes for water, foreign mines for the metal in our cars and cell ‘phones, and so on, are indeed sucking the life out of lands, peoples, and other species- usually far enough away from our attention that we can pretend otherwise- I’m much more interested in how we relate to the places in which we perform our day-to-day living.

Parasite, if you remember from your high-school biology class, comes to us from the Greek parasitos, ‘eating beside another’ as in one’s neighbor at a banquet.  The parasitikoi were hangers-on at the wild parties the wealthier classes used to throw in old-time Athens; they came, they saw, they mumbled quietly: wallflowers.  I’m sure you’ve encountered someone like this at a party before, the earnest and glum sort who despite never seeming to open his or her mouth nevertheless manages to eat all of the cucumber sandwiches.  Hell, we’ve all been there on one off-night or another, so maybe you’ve felt sympathetic enough to go over to one of these frail creatures and strike up a conversation.  Five minutes into an airless exchange and perhaps you have gained some insight into how that blandly innocent term, ‘the eater beside another’ came to take on such grim and lurid connotations.

As the half-empty drink and vague smile are to the reluctant party-goer, the hiking boot and factory-made “trail mix” are to the would-be outdoorsperson.  While we’ve managed to get up the gumption to go out and see what the scene’s all about, we’re so stuck in our heads that we brandish our defenses lest we let the world slip in, our selves slip out, and, heaven forfend, actually have a good time.  The same applies to the gourmet who turns time into money into food without cutting out the middle man, and to the gardener who loves plants, yet grows only European annuals.  The architecture of suburbia is the structural equivalent of a conversation about the weather; it keeps out what everyone, deep down inside, wants to let in.

We of the city and the road are parasites on the land, in the boring dinner guest sense.  We’re rude, not by intent but simply because we’re too wrapped up in our own concerns to take an interest in anyone else; we’re not nearly intoxicated enough, and we repeat the same dull stories to anyone who’ll listen.  You see, the coyotes in the den need someone to sing tenor to make up the harmony, and the trees in the kitchen have been waiting for ages for someone with thumbs to show up, and that pretty Io moth has been making eyes at you all night, and, well, it’s an awful quiet solar system, and this really is the only happening place around.  You might as well shuck your overcoat and mingle for a spell, see what comes up.

Wherever you are, somebody is ripe enough to eat.  Our landscapes have changed radically since the last time human being people hit the ecological dance-floor.  The old dances still work, even with new partners, and there are nascent moves and beats so fresh they have yet to be performed.  Get to know your fellow revelers this summer: make a flower crown, follow a raccoon, go fishing with a bent paper clip and a pokeweed-cord line, eat too many wild plums.  Me, I’m off to the creek in my dancing shoes; it’s a crap year for crawdads, but you never know who you’re going to run into along the way.

Bonus Box!:

Check out this fantastic essay on mulberries, social guilt, and delicious shortcakes by fellow Mid-Atlantician Brynn Slate.


2 Responses to “Parasitism”

  1. What an appropriate way to celebrate the peak of summer! I feel like this is the kind of year when anyone paying the slightest attention will notice these signs–in addition to the tornadoes and floods and droughts, we are also graced with small beauties that we can never earn. I recently blogged about mulberries, too–there is something so mundanely exotic about scrounging up these treasures.

    • Right on! It’s easy to forget that, even in a mass extinction event, the collapse of civilization runs hand in hand with the resurgence of the wild. Feral kids have more fun.

      I sincerely dig that term from your own essay, ‘the shoulds’. I really should start using it in common conversation…

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