For the past five years, ever since my best friend Laura gave me a single strawberry plant for my backyard garden, I’ve had a running fight with the local squirrels over just whose strawberries they are. Strawberries are replicators, so every year the size of the patch grew. Every year, more plants produced more berries. And every year, the squirrels beat me to every single damned one of ‘em.
It got frustrating. More than frustrating. I love local strawberries in our too-short season, and there’s nothing more local than picking them out of your own backyard. Yet here were those greedy squirrels, depriving me and my family of that pleasure. Last year, when the patch covered nearly a fifth of the garden, there were so many berries—white and unripe when I first went to look—that I was sure we’d get some. There were plenty to share; surely the misbegotten little critters couldn’t get them all. I’d beat the squirrels to a handful or two, enough to scatter across my cereal or let my husband and sons snag a few from a communal strawberry bowl on a lazy Sunday morning.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. They’d wait, those sneaky bastards, until the first blush of pink on the berry deepened to an almost-perfectly-ripe red. They’d watch me kneel down and run my hands gently through the leaves, eying the berries that I knew would be ready to pick the next morning… and sure enough, when I got back out there, those particular berries would be gone. Eaten clean off their stems, or bitten in half with the remainder left in tatters just to torment me. We got two, which I dutifully shared with my boys (a mother never loses a chance to get her kids to eat fruit!). And I resigned myself to the painful reality that my strawberry patch belonged to the bushy-tailed creatures with whom we share our surroundings. I’d have felt a little better about it if the danged animals had just asked first…
So this year, with the strawberry patch so large that I considered ripping out some of it to make room for tomatoes and peppers and Chioggia beets, I didn’t have high hopes. Even when I saw a bumper crop of white berries waiting to ripen, I didn’t think I’d get more than half a dozen—and I’d count myself lucky at that. I waited a week, and then moseyed outside on a Saturday afternoon just to see how many ripe berries the squirrels had already gotten to.
I found two berries half-eaten. A third, miraculously whole. A fourth and a fifth, likewise untouched. Then more and more, until my cupped hands were too full to hold them all… let alone the others I could glimpse, their rounded sides deep red beneath the broad green leaves. Stunned and delighted, I dashed inside the house for a plastic container. By the time I was done picking, I had four whole cupfuls of ripe berries. The squirrels had eaten maybe six. I carried my harvest into the house and treated myself to a handful. Sweet and tangy and perfect. And an unexpected grace note to the start of summer.
Life abounds in unexpected graces, if we know how to look. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that. But the carpet of dark green, tooth-edged leaves left in my garden, the ones that sheltered my bumper strawberry crop, exist as a reminder. Today, tomorrow, for as long as I let them.