Being with berries
LESSONS FROM THE GARDEN
ALANDA GREENE is picking blackcurrants in her garden. Reflecting on the nature of these tiny fruit helps her see the importance of valuing everyone and everything, of being in tune with Nature, of interconnectedness, and of Mitakuye Oyasin.
The cycle of seasons has circled again to the blackcurrant bushes where berries have turned from green to bronze to glossy blue-black. And again, in this steady and rhythmic process of picking, these berries offer understandings. My mind quiets enough to be receptive to insights. My tendency is to move along quickly with tasks. The garden cares little for my inclinations about efficiency and speed. It requires that I adjust to its rhythm. It is much wiser than me.
This morning, with a twig broom, I swept the stone patio and was reminded of Zen monks tending the gardens around temples in Japan. I used to think the slow care with which they swept was about their practice, like the walking meditation where each moment is attended to in awareness. The sweeping probably is about this, but today I understand that they also sweep slowly because this kind of sweeping just doesn’t work if done quickly. When I try, which I did repeatedly today, feeling time pressure and wanting to get this patio cleaned and get on with other things that need doing; when I try this way, the pine needles, the dried catkins, the cones, the papery leaves just get stuck in the cracks and in the broom. The debris that covers the gravelly parts gets mixed with bits of gravel itself, which is not what I want. Sweeping slowly and lightly allows the ends of the twigs to nudge the bits of litter along without carrying a lot of what needs to remain.
Like the currants cycling to ripeness, my thoughts turn again around seeking the balance between an impulse to be efficient, to use time effectively, and the recognition that going slower can sometimes mean a job is done in an effective way. When I try to move faster in picking berries, I end up dropping them, or getting stems and leaves mixed with them, or squashing them. Yet the nature of my life – of other things in the garden needing attention than just this bunch of berries or this patio full of twigs and dust and leaves – means that time is a factor to consider. I have a meeting later in the day. I don’t feel comfortable about arriving late, keeping others waiting just because I want to explore the Zen-monk method of sweeping the patio.
The garden cares little for my inclinations
about efficiency and speed.
It requires that I adjust to its rhythm.
It is much wiser than me.
Now, in the case of the currants, it isn’t effective to rush the picking either. When I hurry, it takes longer to correct the add-ons from rushing than if I slow down and pick carefully. Voices from the past rise up, unbidden, sometimes unwanted, but still good advice, then and now. “If you don’t have time to do the job properly the first time, how are you going to have time to correct your errors or do it again?” I think this is my mother’s voice. She also liked the humor of the well-known, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” She has become much wiser as I age, even though she died over 25 years ago.
Certainly picking the berries carefully is a more pleasant way. A rhythm develops, I forget about time, and the shiny bead-like black spheres fill my container, a small bunch at a time, giving a pleasing soft thump as they land on top of the other berries.
A poem I recall from childhood likened a spilled bucket of blueberries to the sound of tiny rabbit feet running. It’s the same sound I hear now when the blackcurrants are dropped into my pail. When I hurry, I don’t even notice that sound.
One by one, I drop them in. They are small in comparison to plump blueberries or to the blackberries that fill a container in just a few minutes. The currants require careful picking that is pretty much a one-at-a-time process. Yet the container is filled. And another. In a few days more will be ripe, and eventually the freezer has a stack of containers labeled “Blackcurrant.” In fall and winter, these will transform to incredibly tasteful jam or concentrated juice.
As I pick one berry, it seems so small compared with how many are needed to fill the tub. It isn’t like this one berry is the make or break berry of the collection. There isn’t a berry that is more important than the others, or acts like a kingpin around which the berry collective organizes itself. None of the berries seem exceptional, not famous or accomplished or more worthy or valuable than any other. Yet I can’t identify any berry that isn’t part of it all, that doesn’t matter.
One by one, I bring these berries together, and together they will be part of something else. It’s a one-berry-at-a-time process, yet it isn’t the one berry that matters. Yet it also is. I have a niggling, unformed idea at the edge of my mind that this contains wisdom about humans and our actions, our concepts and ideas.
A Zen teacher, when asked what enlightenment is, replied, “Small moments, many times.” Like one berry at a time, many times?
I think of communities where people intentionally work together for a common purpose with shared ideals. In such collectives, there’s something that emerges that is more than any particular individual. Every berry matters. Every person matters. But not in the sense of being more important than any other one.
A rhythm develops, I forget about time,
and the shiny bead-like black spheres fill my container,
a small bunch at a time, giving a pleasing soft thump
as they land on top of the other berries.
Many examples in modern cultures reveal pervasive ideas that some people are more important, more worthy, than others. It is at the core of a class system, whether the class is defined by ancestry and lineage or by acquisition of money and things, or by education, or by power. With berries, they are visibly alike, small differences but nothing exaggerated. They all have a similar role – feed something and maybe let the seed find a place to grow. Humans have diverse roles and easily observed variations. Somehow this has become linked to worth and value. Those not perceived as having high value, or worth, or importance, do not receive an equal share of goods and services, of opportunity, of access to resources. Of respect.
If I sorted out the currants, picking them one by one and deciding to keep only the ones of a certain size or shape, tossing out the rest, what I would be doing is depleting the potential of what is collected. It would be less, limited. All the berries contribute. All people matter. The opportunity to contribute just needs to be included in the container.
Indigenous teachings throughout the world focus on relationship; it is the network of connectivity that is the important thing, the thing to be served and cherished and supported. Not just the network of human beings, but the network of all parts of creation. Mitakuye Oyasin, in the Lakota or Ojibway language, means “We are all related,” and refers to the interconnectedness of all things. The phrase appears in most languages of indigenous peoples of North America. It is spoken to close, sometimes to open, an address. It is an acknowledgement regularly repeated, to encourage remembrance that we are all part of the same life. We all matter.
Life is not just networked;
it is network.
In his exquisitely written book, titled The Songs of Trees, author David George Haskell writes about his observations and studies in the boreal forest of Ontario (as well as about many other trees and forests in the world). He explores the fossil record and the trail of emerging life, an evolution that reveals the role of this network of connection. “The fir tree’s life is relationship,” he says. “Life is not just networked; it is network.”
In the complex connectivity of life, with so much we humans do not yet understand, how is the network, the relationship, impacted by the loss of so many species, so many habitats? There is a continued process of change in the life on the planet, but most of the current changes, losses, are the result of human activity. That activity seems driven by self-interest and lack of understanding about this fundamental relationship of all things. My carelessness with picking quickly, or an arbitrarily selected standard that would determine which berry to pick and which to leave out, becomes today a potent metaphor.
I pick the currants more slowly. What isn’t completed today will be waiting tomorrow. My impulse to move quickly and get it done so I can get on to the next thing is colored with an attitude that doesn’t honor Mitakuye Oyasin. This is my chance to be the change I want to see in the world.
Article by ALANDA GREENE
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