Knee Deep in Strawberries

“Knee Deep in June,” by James Witcomb Riley, these his opening lines: “tell you what I like the best, ‘long about knee-deep in June. ‘Bout the time the strawberries melt, on the vine, some afternoon, like to jes git out and rest. And not work at nothing else!”
There was a moment in June, about belly deep by my reconnoiter, when strawberries came on like a continental glacier. Our farmhouse, like every other, provisioned by a garden that was less garden than a field. No trivial pastime this garden, for its destiny was the supper table and beyond, the threshing board, the haying, the silo filling, the potato lifting. Our lives and joy were lifted upright by that garden’s providence. It was Mama’s garden, woman’s work, as proof there hung in the tool shed a rude arsenal of hoes, two for cement that were broad-faced and robust, one for chopping thistle out of the cow pasture, a cucumber hoe, a snake hoe, deadly weapons weighing equal to a good anvil so to cut well and cruel the emperor thistle’s tap root. Down on the end of the rack were the lady hoes. Mama’s hoes, limber of handle, a delicate face, sharp as a knife. For some reason they reminded me of derringers. Hoes not to slay bull thistle, but the daily chore of weeding. Like prayer exactly is weeding, done regular and thorough. The hoe shaved off the weeds in a most elegant fashion, no sweaty slavering, the only requirement, that it be done daily.
The garden was quartered, like is the hold of a Man-of-War, on the fore-deck were the cucumbers, the dill was close by. Along the gunwales a long colonnade of tomatoes, my mama was fierce at tomatoes. Then there were lines and rows and capstans of radishes, you can only stomach so many radishes, same for lettuce as went leafy soon, soon astringent as oak. A big patch as if set for long voyage was voluminous with onions, a lesser cargo of peppers, spinach, kale, squashes – though the real place of squashes was sown to the end rows of the corn field. Rhubarb wasn’t in the garden at all but alongside the old horse barn to better collect the early spring sun. It was the mark of good farm character to have new pie at potato planting, but it took the long flank of the horse shed to intervene on behalf of the pie.
Around the corner, east of the lilacs was the worshipful shrine of strawberries. A tennis court in size, devoted to strawberries. They were different strawberries then, more humble in size than the hand grenades shipped from California. An intense little volume was this strawberry patch, well fenced to avert cows, we were instructed to never run there. Mama was it seems jealous of her strawberry patch.
About belly-deep in June that patch erupted, surely it erupted that it might as well have been a volcano, berries by the bushel, berries by the wheel barrow and berries by the long ton. I am the child of strawberry shortcake, and as a result a connoisseur, difficult as that is to believe. About the same for spud guns. Proper done strawberry shortcake is not cake at all, cake was for townies. Real shortcake was biscuits, plain hand-thrown beetle-shelled biscuits. Nothing but your rudimentary hard-nail biscuit as bullet-proof as Kevlar, over this an out-pour of strawberries. Not the nice strawberries but the ones that ought have been picked yesterday or the day previous. Molten berries. Bleeding berries. Homicidal berries that hue your hands when you pick them, leaving you as sticky as a pick-pocket at the county fair. Not even red in color but more a coagulate old hue of blood allowed to cool.
Before new potatoes came on to feed us regular and ample, Mama fed the hay-men chicken and biscuit, a bit of chicken, a bit of onion and lots of biscuits, followed in due and equal measure by strawberry shortcake. We ate off the summer plates as were different from smaller diameter plates of winter, this of mashed potatoes and roast pork. The summer plate was half again as wide with a high rim, a wading pool nearly with biscuits and gravy in mind, and hay-men. The same intervened to contain the red sea of strawberries, we the Moses of that expanse.
In the wild of June I remember strawberries morning noon and night, then with a little ice cream on the porch in the long evening. We did tire some of strawberries but thought it our patriotic duty, lest they go to waste. We were scolded a time or two to remind us there were children starving in Africa. What that had to do with strawberries three times a day, if not four, I did not comprehend.
Our flaw was we were of the Methodist kind who could not make the wine as might have saved us, strawberry wine instead of strawberry jam. Mama bought paraffin by the board foot to put-by her strawberry surplus. Jam you can give away at Christmas. Later in college, a time period coincident when I had no known taste buds, I thrived well on strawberry jam, white bread at 25 cents a loaf and strawberry jam. An Englishman once proved during the Blitz a person could survive on potatoes alone, he has since been canonized, despite not being Catholic. I don’t suppose surviving on strawberry jam is that noteworthy by comparison.