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Sticky City Abundance

I am writing this with purple fingers and palms. The staining is actually fading faster than I expected it to last night when anything I touched with damp hands turned purple too—and I’m actually kind of sad to see it go.

I spent my evening last night picking mulberries. There’s a tree around the corner from my house, near the sidewalk, growing over a fence and hanging down into three different properties. Despite the problems the cool spring and dry early summer have been making for farm and orchard harvests, the mulberries don’t seem to be troubled at all. At least it seems to be hard to tell how there could be any more fruit on this one tree.

Shortly after I set up my stepladder, a man approached me from the porch of the building over whose driveway most of the tree in question hangs. It is a sad commentary on the state of things that my first thought was that he was going to ask me to get off his property. (My second, as I balanced above him on the next-to-top rung of my paint-encrusted ladder, was that I was glad I had bothered to change from a skirt to shorts.)

In any case, he was very friendly, and just curious what I was going to use the berries for because he’d never seen anyone collecting them before. I said probably cakes or pies, and he said it was good that they wouldn’t go to waste.

Nearly everyone has heard of mulberries from “Here we go ’round the mulberry bush” (black mulberries, an Asian version common in Europe, usually grow more bushlike than treelike). But mulberries are a very fragile fruit—just the force of two gentle fingers plucking a single ripe berry off a tree bruises the fruit and gets juice everywhere, hence my purple hands (and my wish that I had also thought to change out of one of my favorite shirts before I started.).

So despite canning and freezing well, mulberries haven’t commercialized well, and they’ve largely been forgotten about. Most urban dwellers wouldn’t recognize them even if there was a monkey chasing a weasel around the base of each tree. (There are pockets of devotion certainly, as you can find if you search for mulberry wine recipes online.)

The irony is that while the fruit is fragile, the trees, especially the white mulberry (that’s the color of the unripe fruit, not the ripe fruit) that’s common in these parts, are awfully hardy—resistant to cold, pollution, and drought. So the fruit doesn’t ship well, but it is usually growing somewhere nearby. The California Rare Fruit Growers Association actually notes that mulberries are considered a “weed tree” in many urban areas.

And come to think of it, there have been mulberries every place that I’ve lived. And I have partaken of all of them. When I was growing up, the tree was at the end of the block, on my way to my bus stop. I didn’t collect those to cook with, just ate them as a rare and sort of magical treat. It was one thing to have an apple tree in the backyard that every other year produced small green wormy apples that could be used for applesauce or pie. But a random tree hanging over the sidewalk producing ready-to-eat snacks if you happened to go by in late June? That was cool.

Recalling the inner-ring suburb where I moved after college, I have fond memories of standing completely hidden from the traffic on a busy, ugly strip, under the long drooping limbs of the only tree planted at the train station, picking furiously as an escape from a frustrating day of work.

As a New York City resident I spent a fun but bittersweet afternoon harvesting mulberries in a community garden named Project Harmony—really a community grove, as it was entirely filled with mature trees, mostly mulberry—in Harlem. The quiet, bird-filled oasis was being threatened with bulldozers for the crime of having helped to improve the neighborhood enough that the land it was sitting on was now worth something (a fate facing hundreds of other gardens in the city at the time). I was there as part of a show of support for the garden—and also to harvest as many berries as possible before anything happened. I spent a meditative afternoon climbing around on tall ladders shaking branches onto to waiting sheets below. Two days later half the site was bulldozed. (The rest was saved.)

What it really comes down to is I find it very hard to walk away from a tree laden with those sweet, fragile berries—it feels like refusing a gift. And so I probably picked far more than I needed. It was only when the encroaching darkness began to give rise to mosquitoes that I quit and took my pounds and pounds of berries inside.

It was hard, too, not to wince as the force of picking one berry (or the impact of a landing squirrel on a branch above) sent several gorgeous perfect and very ripe fruits headed for the ground. It felt like a waste.

This is what some folks would call the “scarcity mentality.” It’s taught in Economics 101—the assumption that there will never be enough of anything that’s worth anything—and we carry it over to the rest of our lives—time, love, patience . . . (It kicked in again as I thought about writing this column and revealing the “secret” of this foraging treasure.)

In reality, all the birds on my block, myself, and several of my neighbors couldn’t make use of all the berries that tree is going to produce. And there more trees down the block. (Remember that “weed” thing? It’s because people don’t like the fermented fruit piling up on their sidewalks and driveway.)

This was true, honest-to-God abundance, and I realized faced with it how unused I am to the experience. Even stumbling upon blackberry bushes on a hike usually involves seeking out the few berries amid the prickers that haven’t been gotten by the other wildlife. But this was a whole different thing, a special-occasion blessing in which I didn’t feel like some taking-up-too-many-resources human oaf. When I was able to settle into the feeling, I worried less about screwing up by dropping berries, and enjoyed myself and the outdoors much more.

So I’m crossing my fingers for the heat to break so I can make some mulberry cake. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn to make mulberry wine. And I’ll probably be out there with my ladder a few more times in the next few weeks, gathering in the abundance of the city, and stocking up on the feeling of abundance in general.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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