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Charmed Life

Berry Good

Charles Cohen

By Charles Cohen | Posted 7/18/2001

I was warned about the changes--that the green fields of my youth had been plowed under, landscaped, developed, shaped neatly into a campus I would hardly recognize. But I had to go back to see for myself.

The urgency to revisit my past hit me unexpectedly, under the Jones Falls Expressway. There, at the Sunday farmers market, I came face to face with a fresh basket of raspberries. These weren't the all-too-genetically-perfect berries you see in the produce section practically year-round. These were the plump, misshapen, grown-in-the-wilds-of-Maryland, better-eat-'em-in-two-days-or-they'll-spoil raspberries. The real raspberries.

How could I have forgotten it was raspberry season? Have I gotten too caught up in the cog and tooth of the daily grind to remember my old rite?

Around Baltimore, wild-raspberry season lasts a speedy few weeks at best. I know this, because when I was growing up picking raspberries was the pinnacle of my summer. Each year the raspberries would burst into ripeness around the Fourth of July, and no matter where I was I would take time to pick some. Into my adolescence and adulthood, the annual ritual gave this city kid a tiny glimpse into the farming life, the reliance on nature's cycle of doing things.

The picking could be as structured as a planned bike ride to a park or as spontaneous as suddenly pulling over at the sight of some berries--and there I'd be, just me and some old couple by the side of a Howard County road, working the bushes. They'd be picking to fill a pie; I'd be partaking in a yearly feast.

But this year the holiday had come and gone and I'd forgotten about the raspberries. Buying the tiny basket at the farmers market was all the reminder I needed--scrumptious as these berries were, they weren't going to cut it. I had to go back to place where my obsession was born--St. Paul's School for Boys, out on Falls Road in Brooklandville.

When I was a little kid in the early '70s, this private school was turned over in the summer to a carefree day camp. The kind of camp where the biggest event was a rowdy game of capture the flag and the only formal activity was a daily swimming lesson. The pool was located in a screened-in wooden pavilion under huge locust and birch trees. Even in our youth my campmates and I knew we were trespassing in a long-gone era, although we had no idea we were traipsing on an 18th-century estate built by Charles Carroll of Carrollton for his daughter. Greek statues watched over the pool; the pavilion was on the lower of two greens set off by alabaster rails and guarded by a pair of sculpted lions.

All this shade made for some ice-cold swimming. We'd warm up in patches of sunlight, playing whiffle ball or badminton. But in early July, everything stopped for raspberry season. This aged private park was surrounded by huge hedges gone red and orange with berries. After foraging in the open, we'd grab sticks and bushwhack trails into the tangled woods, where we'd find even juicier fruit. We established a secret base camp along some mysteriously placed columns in the middle of the woods that we were sure came from a lost civilization. We learned that the best picking was low, close to the ground near the spiders, and that it was best to resist the temptation to eat as you go, instead filling paper cups until you had a mouthful-sized feast of uninterrupted fruit flavor. As the season wound down and the berries got scarcer, though, we'd lose patience and revert to picking and eating.

For years afterward, just the sight of raspberries would conjure up for me what Jonathan Richman wistfully calls "That Summer Feeling." So this year, I was going to go back to the source--despite the warnings from a St. Paul's PR person that that I might not like what I found.

The only thing that looked exactly as I remembered were the white walls and guard house at the entrance to the school. Where did all these new buildings come from? What happened to all the woods?

Getting out the car, I realized I was intruding on another day camp. I got my bearings by homing in on the old mansion that had been home to the Carroll family, then headed for the pool . . . which had been filled in and tiled over. The pavilion had been restored, but it was deserted. The lions and Greek statues were gone. The massive tree that held a gang of kids watching a horseshoes tournament had been replaced by a developer's evergreens.

More shocking still was the missing swath of woods. The old growth that had so efficiently sealed away the world for young Charles had been cut away on one side. The smaller preserve now overlooked a huge hill of progress, one school building gleaming after another in the July sun as earthmovers worked on still one more.

Standing on the old stone stairs between the two plateaus of lawn, I spotted a labyrinth the school recently built, and knew instinctively that what I was looking for lay out around the last bit of hedge. At first all I saw was green, then a patch of berries jumped out at me. Like a bad shoplifter I looked over my shoulder, then started picking. Pretty good crop this year, I thought. Rounding a corner, I saw what felt like a serendipitous favor someone had done just for me: a grassy trail through the last of the old woods, and on both sides enough raspberries to feed a camp full of kids.

Trudging back to the car across the built-up campus, the ritual once again fulfilled, I took solace in the knowledge that even if the statues and pool were only memories, the raspberry bushes of my youth were still there.

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