Answer to a question

Readers ask me questions. Most recently, “I am curious about the constant reference to berries – growing, picking, crushing, oozing etc. at various key points in Alone in the Classroom. If I had had the time, I would have charted their appearance and looked for patterns. How significant is the symbolism?”

I wrote back: A simple answer is that I love wild berries, finding them, picking them, eating them. It’s a practice that takes us out into the landscape and unites generations, especially mothers and children, though in Alone in the Classroom Anne’s mother’s first memory involves her father and blueberries. A precious memory. Children picking berries in the wild are as alone and exposed as the berries themselves, vulnerable to being picked in turn, as happens to young Ethel.

I continued, since once I get going I find it hard to stop: I’m not sure I understand all the reasons why a cluster of berries on a bush has such an effect on me. It’s aesthetic, but also spiritual in some way. The fruit on the bough as our fingers reach out and connect with the physical world sets off a deep response in me. I’m not working with symbols, so much as connecting visual images, very concrete, like threads in a weave that will remind the reader of earlier moments and build an atmosphere of tension and release.

And I would add: in a world where tiny, precise things open into vastness.

What moves me most are berries in winter, what I call berries, which could be red crabapples on a bare branch or haws on a rosebush or fruiting bodies on a spindle tree. The words themselves set off a big clang in my body.

It happened the other day when I read Sarah Milroy’s wonderful tribute to Kenojuak, the Inuit artist who died last month at 85. Milroy spoke of the artist’s “rapturous grasp of the natural world … her passionate affirmation of the land we are honoured to share, where a cluster of berries, a scrap of lichen or a breathing hole discovered in the ice would once have meant the difference between sustenance and starvation.”

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