This a special guest post written by Bob LeRoy, RD, Nutrition Advisor since 1990 for the North American Vegetarian Society. He sent me the following letter in response to my recent post on raspberries (Raspberries, city streets, and fingertips). I was so touched by his beautiful story, that, with his permission, I want to share it with you as well. Thanks again, Bob, and Namaste! Laura
Greetings Again, Laura–
I hope you & yours are having a restful evening. I ended up with an excellent reason to write back to you via more than just a few sentences.
I had seen a website name “healthiveg” when I looked at your LinkedIn profile, and the label had seemed to conjure some positive potentiality within very few letters. I went to look at what would emerge via a click-excursion from that reference. You’ve created an exceptionally beautiful and poetically-flowing mosaic there. What a celebration of natural foods and plants, and of their contributions to well-being and wonder! I believe the person who is frazzled or anxious may find some calming merely through a healthiveg.com visit.
When I arrived there, I was very much surprised to find myself immediately plunged into raspberry-land. In my whole life, I don’t think I had ever seen an entire web page or article or poster or doctoral dissertation or owner’s manual or photo portfolio devoted exclusively to raspberries. That took me wandering on a journey of reflection….
I had what may be described as a “dreary” and seemingly uninspiring childhood under materially meager-to-impoverished conditions, just my parents and I, in an unremarkable city adjoining a super-metropolis-city. They passed away from typical-American-lifestyle-diseases when I was 16, and my most vivid memories of life with them before that seem to involve certain breaking-of-the-humdrum-routine activities of the warmer season. For many children who were my contemporaries, birthdays or Christmas or Chanukah holidays or such may have represented the signature events-of-anticipation year-round. For me, no way. I yearned for the small number of occasions when my folks and I would depart the bland apartment-scape and city sidewalks for greener surroundings.
The annual headliner would be a 10-day summer road-trip through New England to see all the cousins in New Brunswick. In the years closer to the end of my parents’ lives, we’d also take an annual long-weekend trip to southern Maine beaches. En route and at destination on all these voyages, we’d stay not in motels but in tree-encircled tiny one-room cabins in country settings, rented thankfully inexpensively by families as literally their “cottage industry.”
These trips were calendar-scheduled largely based upon … what? … when raspberries would be in season at the more northern Canadian-maritime latitudes. (Well, that was the crucial fine-tuning. It goes without saying that the trips would launch well after the year’s mega-pileup of snow in the far north would have melted and been forgotten.)
But, snow-thaw and all the other seasonal shifts unfolded earlier in downstate New York than in the far-northeastern inland Maritimes. So, before the annual road trip(s), there would be several weeks of stalking the precious raspberry throughout the thorny wilds of … the Bronx.
The Henry Hudson Parkway was built eons ago, cutting through greenish zones of the Bronx, gently curving its way southwestward toward the conflux of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. Midway along on its western fringe, on a small parallel street, sat an old stone church flanked by nothing but acres of what I called “briar patches.” These were dense thickets of thorn-bushes and vines—thistle and ivy and poison ivy and poison oak and chokeberry and anything else that may tend to grow tall and/or thick and green, and that may enjoy curling over and under and into and out of its neighboring plant-species. Included in that mix would be blackberry, black raspberry, and (sound of salivation) red raspberry bushes.
On days when it wasn’t raining, and when my father had used up any money-work opportunity he may have found, my parents and I would likely as not pile into the old but reliable blue-and-white Buick and zoom Bronxward, ending up as the only humans in sight on the west side of the parkway. We’d load ourselves down with a rag-tag collection of cans, jars, and buckets (no two alike) and would wade off into the brush. No one could possibly predict just how much the intricately woven factors of sun exposure and rainfall and day/night temperature flux would’ve nudged the countless fledgling berries along their mysterious and convoluted path toward ripening, since last we had paid them a visit. But, eagerly anticipating, we would find out soon enough, minute by minute, poking our noses and fingers high and low, disregarding occasional scratches from inhospitable thorns and even possibly a bit of wet ooze inside the shoes. The urge to gobble up some spectacularly ripe berries (especially the red raspberries) would be irresistible, but our main mission was to fill the buckets and haul treasure victoriously back to the kitchen.
We would roam here, there and everywhere, and ferret out the tiny dots of color, and pick … ’til that point within the waning chronology of daylight, when mosquitos would start biting with such frequency that my mother’s eyebrows would tilt sadly and her brow would furrow and she might whimper, “Ohhh, Harry…,” or my father might growl, “$#% &@ * #@%*#!” We’d then retreat to the car, booty in hand, windows tightly cranked against the onslaught of those which are evolutionarily programmed to crave our droplets of blood. With our minds so marvelously emptied by communing for hours with the world of plants, we might try to prolong the emptiness by relaxing in the car and playing a game, like counting southbound Volkswagens versus northbound Volkswagens on the parkway.
Upon arrival home, we’d take turns washing our hands up to the elbows with the big, ugly stinky-smelly bar of special soap reputed (but who knows?) to bear the magical powers of dissipating the essential oils of poison ivy or oak. Whether from mosquitos or noxious leaves, we might be itching for days, but we always deemed it all worthwhile. Whatever berries survived the on-site grazing/munching and made it into our fridge, would likely get baked into pies by my mother. These involved unthinkable-to-me-today ingredients like butter, white flour, and refined sweeteners, but they were indisputably baked with love. Equally unthinkable would be a typical spontaneous-snacking format for berries at home, in a bowl, with dairy cream and white sugar (blech). But, I can honestly say that these at-home indulgences did not, even at my tender age, compare with the thrilling experience of finding in my hand a tender exquisitely-ripe red raspberry and savouring it right out in its own briar-patch backyard.
During the long-awaited annual New Brunswick odyssey, my parents and I would, of course, spend lots of time with our diverse assortment of cousins, but there would be plenty of daylight hours beckoning us on the non-showery days to go wandering frivolously in the countryside. We would peer out the car windows, scanning every bit of passing landscape to try to identify lurking abundant-wild-berry zones, and would stop when the coast may seem clear for itinerant gatherers. Would certain birds in flight feel as we did, as they might strain to detect stray specks of red and black within a tapestry of green a hundred feet below, while foraging for their very sustenance?
The vine-lands were often kind to us, and we in turn were often kind to the mosquitos. In the larger scheme of things, the pursuit of berries, and of the red raspberry in particular, brought some gifts to my young life in quite subtle ways. I came to regard this tiny and unfamiliar-looking and not industrially-standardized object as something of beauty. It is actually striking visually, as impressive to me today as it was during my childhood. Via its diffuse color-textures, multi-faceted structure, its appearance contrasts utterly with the smooth homogenous glossy sheen on the continuous wraparound surface of (for example) a red bell pepper, not that I ever saw a red bell pepper as a kid! My parents’ household was tragically estranged from fresh fruits and vegetables, so the red raspberry offered my most convincing childhood revelation that a food could be beautiful.
The red raspberry was a stellar teacher of patience on many levels. One waits all year round for a few weeks within one season when one might ever hope to find that it’s ready to pick. During travel, one may search far and wide to find a location blessed by berry bushes (and my childhood reality was, stumbling upon red raspberry patches only one-third or fourth as often as blackberry patches). When berry bushes are actually found, one may discover at that moment in time zillions of still-unripe berries, with green foliage camouflaging precious few ripe ones (and what could be worse than eating an unripe raspberry?). And each success, each distinct act of picking will transfer only a truly miniature-sized object into mouth or can or jar or bucket, thus, no matter what, a picking-project will most surely take a very, very long time. Acceptance of all this waiting, with equanimity, would at the least place one’s mind, however briefly, into consciousness-territory quite distinct from the rushed and overbooked/over-scheduled and productivity-crazed dynamic that seeks more and more to preoccupy society.
Another dimension of the lessons in patience, the riper and thus more tender and fragile that a red raspberry might be, the more that one would need to pick slowly/carefully/skillfully, else all those gorgeous cancer-risk-reducing antioxidant phytochemical pigments are simply squashed into a sticky stain on your fingers. So, trial-and-error builds patience accompanied by increased dexterity for delicate tasks, and an appreciation for quality-control.
Perhaps I may have started learning from the red raspberry: Don’t shy away from attributing great meaning and value, when deserved, to the tiny and inconspicuous.
Without lessons in patience gleaned from the search for the ripe red raspberry, I might not have achieved enduring tolerance and affection (starting early on in New Brunswick) for a “next level” of noble-quest—extended searches for four-leaf clovers. My uncle Fred convinced whippersnapper me that if I just combed the greenery long enough, while being sure to enjoy myself, I WOULD indeed always be able to find a quadra-blooper. How did he know? Textbooks and classes about meditation might not be so sorely needed, when a field or patch of clover is yawning skyward just outside one’s door or else down the road a piece.
But, the story continues….
After my parents passed away, I went penniless off to college. Walking and bicycling got me around the college town just fine, but getting out of town posed its own set of problems. I became a habitual hitchhiker, and this precarious temporary travel-lifestyle came to its peak of intensity via three transcontinental trips after my 21st birthday. For one of the meandering round-trips, I made a log showing about 8300 miles covered via 38 or 39 rides. White light and Lady Luck accompanied me, keeping me out of jails and hospitals and graveyards, and I even ended up with multi-year friendships with a few of the kind ride-givers.
On one trip, in California, I was picked up by a freshly-retired couple, and over a period of 6 or 7 hours we traveled only perhaps 50 or 75 miles. As soon as I got into their car, they asked if I was “in a hurry,” because they were taking a leisurely spin and hoping to make a number of pleasant stops along the way. I said that was fine with me, and I soon realized that they were continuously peering out the car windows, scanning every bit of passing landscape to try to identify lurking abundant-wild-berry zones, and would stop when the coast may seem clear for itinerant gatherers! Truly that took me back to an evocative and reminiscent echo of deja vu all over again. : )
Then, as in earlier years in the Bronx and New Brunswick, the ultimate prize was … the red raspberry.
We foraged lightheartedly in many locales for hours and hours and hours. Reliving poignant scenes of my childhood with my two benefactors was truly meaningful, and stimulated some new thought-processes. I said to myself, “These folks really know how to live”! They had worked hard every year of their adult lives, and now at the dawn of retirement years, they were not weary or jaded or burned out, but rather totally fresh in their sense of spontaneity, and thirst for exploration, and ability to appreciate beauty, and openness to small and subtle pleasures. At that crossroads in time, we had something in common, pursuing a daily-renewed vision of quality-of-life outside of regimentation and routine, and not dependent merely upon acquiring experiences and material possessions via money. In their case, they were in the birthing-days of expanded-leisure-years after long paying their dues in the workforce. I was in the waning days of my cast-your-fate-to-the-wind hitchhiking marathons before getting more deeply entrenched in the workforce. I hoped then to keep alive the concept that personal contentment is not to be measured in terms of equations involving dollars and hours.
Quality of life is always enhanced by safeguarding enough time here and here to seek out the ripe berry or the four-leaf-clover or the other unexpected hidden jewel or opportunity within humble surroundings. How about stopping to swing on the set of swings that you’re passing by?
After quite a few years now as a nutritionist and Registered Dietitian, I’ve been able to cite accumulated mainstream scientific research endorsing the red raspberry (along with its close relatives) as one of the various extraordinary sources of cancer-risk-reducing antioxidant phytochemical pigments. And now you’ve reminded me of how this little gem ties in so sublimely with my meaningful experiences of childhood, when ironically I was utterly clueless about any notion that consuming it might be “good for me” in some way.
Thank you once again for your inspiration and for your masterful sense of aesthetics. Namaste & cheers,
BobBob LeRoy, firstname.lastname@example.org Nutrition Advisor since 1990, North American Vegetarian Society M.S. in Nutrition and Public Health; Ed.M. in Community Nutrition Education; Registered Dietitian