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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Wild Strawberry
By Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)
 
From ‘Fisherman’s Luck’

THE SWIFTWATER brook was laughing softly to itself as it ran through a strip of hemlock forest on the edge of the Woodlings’ farm. Among the evergreen branches overhead the gayly-dressed warblers,—little friends of the forest,—were flitting to and fro, lisping their June songs of contented love: milder, slower, lazier notes than those in which they voiced the amorous raptures of May. Prince’s pine and golden loose-strife and pink laurel and blue harebells and purple-fringed orchids, and a score of lovely flowers were all abloom. The late spring had hindered some; the sudden heats of early summer had hastened others; and now they seemed to come out all together, as if Nature had suddenly tilted up her cornucopia and poured forth her treasures in spendthrift joy.  1
  I lay on a mossy bank at the foot of a tree, filling my pipe after a frugal lunch, and thinking how hard it would be to find in any quarter of the globe a place more fair and fragrant than this hidden vale among the Alleghany Mountains. The perfume of the flowers of the forest is more sweet and subtle than the heavy scent of tropical blossoms. No lily-field in Bermuda could give a fragrance half so magical as the fairy-like odor of these woodland slopes, soft carpeted with the green of glossy vines above whose tiny leaves, in delicate profusion,
  “The slight Linnæa hangs its twin-born heads.”
Nor are there any birds in Africa, or among the Indian Isles, more exquisite in color than these miniature warblers, showing their gold and green, their orange and black, their blue and white, against the dark background of the rhododendron thicket.
  2
  But how seldom we put a cup of pleasure to our lips without a dash of bitters, a touch of fault finding. My drop of discontent, that day, was the thought that the northern woodland, at least in June, yielded no fruit to match its beauty and its fragrance.  3
  There is good browsing among the leaves of the wood and the grasses of the meadows, as every well-instructed angler knows. The bright emerald tips that break from the hemlock and the balsam-like verdant flames have a pleasant savor to the tongue. The leaves of the sassafras are full of spice, and the bark of the black-birch twigs holds a fine cordial. Crinkleroot is spicy, but you must partake of it delicately, or it will bite your tongue. Spearmint and peppermint never lose their charm for the palate that still remembers the delights of youth. Wild sorrel has an agreeable, sour, shivery flavor. Even the tender stalk of a young blade of grass is a thing that can be chewed by a person of childlike mind with much contentment.  4
  But, after all, these are only relishes. They whet the appetite more than they appease it. There should be something to eat, in the June woods, as perfect in its kind, as satisfying to the sense of taste, as the birds and flowers are to the senses of sight and hearing and smell. Blueberries are good, but they are far away in July. Blackberries are luscious when they are fully ripe, but that will not be until August. Then the fishing will be over, and the angler’s hour of need will be past. The one thing that is lacking now beside this mountain stream is some fruit more luscious and dainty than grows in the tropics, to melt upon the lips and fill the mouth with pleasure.  5
  But that is what these cold northern woods will not offer. They are too reserved, too lofty, too puritanical to make provision for the grosser wants of humanity. They are not friendly to luxury.  6
  Just then, as I shifted my head to find a softer pillow of moss after this philosophic and immoral reflection, Nature gave me her silent answer. Three wild strawberries, nodding on their long stems, hung over my face. It was an invitation to taste and see that they were good.  7
  The berries were not the round and rosy ones of the meadow, but the long, slender, dark crimson ones of the forest. One, two, three; no more on that vine; but each one as it touched my lips was a drop of nectar and a crumb of ambrosia, a concentrated essence of all the pungent sweetness of the wildwood, sapid, penetrating, and delicious. I tasted the odor of a hundred blossoms and the green shimmering of innumerable leaves and the sparkle of sifted sunbeams and the breath of highland breezes and the song of many birds and the murmur of flowing streams,—all in a wild strawberry.  8
 
  Do you remember, in ‘The Compleat Angler,’ a remark which Isaak Walton quotes from a certain “Doctor Boteler” about strawberries? “Doubtless,” said that wise old man, “God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”  9
  Well, the wild strawberry is the one that God made.  10
  I think it would have been pleasant to know a man who could sum up his reflections upon the important question of berries in such a pithy saying as that which Walton repeats. His tongue must have been in close communication with his heart. He must have had a fair sense of that sprightly humor without which piety itself is often insipid.  11
  I have often tried to find out more about him, and some day I hope I shall. But up to the present all that the books have told me of this obscure sage is that his name was William Butler, and that he was an eminent physician, sometimes called “the Æsculapius of his age.” He was born at Ipswich, in 1535, and educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge; in the neighborhood of which town he appears to have spent most of his life, in high repute as a practitioner of physic. He had the honor of doctoring King James the First after an accident on the hunting field, and must have proved himself a pleasant old fellow, for the King looked him up at Cambridge the next year, and spent an hour in his lodgings. This wise physician also invented a medicinal beverage called “Doctor Butler’s Ale.” I do not quite like the sound of it, but perhaps it was better than its name. This much is sure, at all events: either it was really a harmless drink, or else the doctor must have confined its use entirely to his patients; for he lived to the ripe age of eighty-three years.  12
  Between the time when William Butler first needed the services of a physician, in 1535, and the time when he last prescribed for a patient, in 1618, there was plenty of trouble in England. Bloody Queen Mary sat on the throne; and there were all kinds of quarrels about religion and politics; and Catholics and Protestants were killing one another in the name of God. After that, the red-haired Elizabeth, called the Virgin Queen, wore the crown, and waged triumphant war and tempestuous love. Then fat James of Scotland was made king of Great Britain; and Guy Fawkes tried to blow him up with gunpowder, and failed; and the king tried to blow out all the pipes in England with his ‘Counterblast Against Tobacco’; but he failed too. Somewhere about that time, early in the seventeenth century, a very small event happened. A new berry was brought over from Virginia,—Fragraria Virginiana,—and then, amid wars and rumors of wars, Doctor Butler’s happiness was secure. That new berry was so much richer and sweeter and more generous than the familiar Fragraria vesca of Europe, that it attracted the sincere interest of all persons of good taste. It inaugurated a new era in the history of the strawberry. The long-lost masterpiece of Paradise was restored to its true place in the affections of man.  13
  Is there not a touch of merry contempt for all the vain controversies and conflicts of humanity in the grateful ejaculation with which the old doctor greeted that peaceful, comforting gift of Providence?  14
  “From this time forward,” he seems to say, “the fates cannot beggar me, for I have eaten strawberries. With every Maytime that visits this distracted island, the white blossoms with hearts of gold will arrive. In every June the red drops of pleasant savor will hang among the scalloped leaves. The children of this world may wrangle and give one another wounds that even my good ale cannot cure. Nevertheless, the earth as God created it is a fair dwelling and full of comfort for all who have a quiet mind and a thankful heart. Doubtless God might have made a better world, but doubtless this is the world He made for us; and in it He planted the strawberry.”  15
 
 
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