8 07 2011

Without a doubt, I have taken more pictures of salmonberries than of any other plant on my property. As a result, I know what time of year salmonberries show up and can say with some authority that this year has been a particularly late one for these berries. That’s really too bad, because I’m pretty sure that their chief appeal to the birds is that they come so early in the year and it looks to me that even more of them than usual are going uneaten. The salmonberry flowers bloom as early as possible in the spring and the fruit is generally setting before we have any really warm days. I often walk down the driveway in late June and interrupt robins who are using the driveway as a table and picking off the individual fruitlets from the berries. What a clever design: the whole fruit is a nice size for humans and other large creatures to eat as one bite but still easily teased apart into nice pieces that are bite-sized for the birds.

Their chief appeal to me is their appearance. There seems to be two distinct varieties of these berries — one ripens to a rich yellow or orange, the other to the spectacularly shaded reds and oranges that shade from bright to dark and attract my eye. They are so beautiful — one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Although they are starting to develop sweetness now at the end of their season, they usually don’t have much besides freshness to offer in the way of taste; the seeds are, quite deliberately I’m sure, bitter. They seem adapted to suit our eye and sense of beauty just as blueberries, plums, and other fruits are adapted to please our tongue and sense of taste. Fruits are designed for consumption by us and other frugivores and frugiphiles (I made that second word up) who also love sugars and vitamin C and prefer soft ripeness to the fibrous cellulose of grass and leaves. Part of ripening is, quite properly, referred to as self-digestion as the plant prepares the fruit to be eaten. (Likewise, the seeds are laced with unpalatable or even toxic chemicals — cherries, apples, plums, almonds, apricots, peaches and many other fruits all generate cyanide when their seeds are digested.

But what to make of the beauty of the salmonberry? Although it always remains a wonder to me, it’s become a commonplace observation that our sense of beauty is somehow shared with the animals, as witnessed by the beauty of a peacock or a bird of paradise, along with so many other examples. Could it be that a robin is also entranced by the beauty of its food, and ends up eating a salmonberry, as I have, simply because it couldn’t resist examining it rather than because it thought it would be delicious? It’s just possible that salmonberries are adapted to please my eye specifically: humans, have been eating salmonberries for as long as they have lived in this area — they were an important part of native diets.

Gathering them today with James, keeping this in mind, I noticed that the most beautiful ones were also the ones that tasted the best — the best of the berries was also the shiniest and seemed to glow from within in the morning sunlight.



2 responses

9 07 2011

It’s fun (and romantic) to think about animals being attracted to natural beauty the way we are, but it seems more hard-wired than that. For example, you taught me that hummingbirds are attracted to red flowers, but they’re not naturally attracted to beautiful flowers in other colors. Similarly, Orioles are attracted to the color orange.

I guess it all comes down to your definition of beauty. We do seem to have this common with our furry and feathered and armor-plated brethren: Animals and insects, like humans, are attracted to the size or the intensity of a stimulus. My favorite example of this is the Australian Jewel Beetle, whose males began attempting to copulate with beer bottles because the bottles were bumpy and orange-brown. It turns out that the top of the female beetle is also orange-brown and bumpy, but the females were small and the beer bottles HUGE. The males were helpless in their presence– a kind of Dolly Parton effect. The males ignored the real females so frequently that their population began to decline!

11 07 2011
Euglossine Bee

I’m not sure that we are so different… Although I hope I’m not mistaking the beauty of wildflowers of salmonberries for that of a potential partner (I love that story – it’s new to me), I have no more reason to think my attraction to these things, my notion that they are beautiful or pleasant to look at, is any more or less hard-wired than for any other creature. I suppose I was romanticizing that attraction — I’d like to think that animals feel pleasure in their lives as I do – but, beyond my ability to introspect about the subject, how can I know that my attraction to natural beauty differs from any other creatures?

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