Monday, October 8, 2012

Rediscovering a friend on a bus; gooseberries

Photo of red currants by Liz West (Muffet), Flickr Creative Commons license.

Yesterday on a bus to Seattle’s Eastside suburbs, there was something familiar about the older woman sitting next to me, and the copy of the New Yorker that she was poring over.

Surreptiously, I checked out her eye-glasses. Had I seen them before? Had her hair been that exact shade?
I wasn’t sure, you see, whether she was the lady whose seat I'd shared a month and a half before, on the return trip from an Eastside park where I’d gathered a bag of golden plums so ripe that some fell off their pits en route. 

On that bus ride, my new buddy and I had talked avidly about politics, Harper’s magazine articles after 9/11, her war-protest activities downtown, and gathering edible plants. We had even exchanged email addresses, but I couldn’t recall whether I’d contacted her. It had slipped between the cracks of looking for possible roommates, considering whether to relocate to a sunnier city, and finishing out the field notebook I'd been using that week.
Yesterday, I decided I would lose out if I kept silent. When she had turned away from her New Yorker pages to look at me, her face changed and she smiled. “Well,” she said in her slight English accent, “Can we believe this?” We had indeed met on that previous bus trip, going the opposite direction.
It was great to see her again. This is what I like about talking with people about plants and gathering: Standing alongside a trail in any quiet park, I’ve met inquiring people who can either tell me more about the plants I see, or about the land where we stand, or who have questions for me. In every case, I have felt the sparkle of exchanging vital, life-giving information with another person -- and learning a bit about them.
Was I gathering plums again? my friend asked on the bus, then smiled to acknowledge that she had remembered: Right, plums were no longer around, weeks later.
Not this time, I said: Going hiking. As I flipped through a field guide I’d brought, Trees & Shrubs of Washington, by C.P. Lyons (Lone Pine Publishing, 1999), my friend said that she’d like to see gooseberries around, that she missed the days when they were considered standard pie material, especially in England.
I'd also like to see gooseberry pie early and often. Gooseberries and currants are about and they're being used, I said – although it’s true that they’re not the commonplace pastry material they once were. These days they aren’t standard; they’re pleasingly retro.
Still, I’d seen both berry types sold at mid-summer in the standard grocery store near my house. The farm name on the boxes, when Googled, turned out to be in Washington’s Yakima Valley.  It's an area known for its berry farms. The farms, it turns out, are supported by a network of irrigation systems that carry water from mountain snow-melt.
At a farmers’ market I’d talked with another farmer from the Yakima Valley, who said that his family grew blueberries in the soil, which was rich from age-old volcanic activity in the area. “The blueberries love it,” he assured me, shaking his head. I imagine that the gooseberries and currants do, too.
On the bus, my friend and I looked at photos of gooseberry and currant bushes in Trees & Shrubs of Washington. “That’s it!” she said happily.
In the same park where I’d picked the golden plums, I’d gathered a few currants and gooseberries that grew nearly pushed out by over-eager blueberies, I told her. I grew up in a warm climate, one with its warmer types of berries, like dewberries -- so I had been excited about picking blueberries, and especially marveled at the currants and gooseberries. 
It was a fine bus ride to have before a hike: Rediscovering gooseberries. My friend said, "Have a good hike," as I headed off. We decided we'd meet again.

Photo of black currants in a bowl (these are like the ones I found in the Eastside park, though mine were smaller) by Glen Fleishman, Flickr Creative Commons license.