Proust in Hopewell Borough Park by Lois Marie Harrod
I sometimes think of Marcel Proust’s warning, “Habit is the enemy of perception,” when my husband Lee and I walk in Hopewell Borough Park. Since we walk it almost daily, the park is certainly a “habit,” and often we are so addicted to talking or to thinking our own thoughts that we don’t notice the daily changes in our park, a part of our daily 4-mile trek through Hopewell Borough.
Fifteen or more years ago, we used to come upon a rather famous local writer doing her slow jog on the trails with her husband lagging behind. Neither looked up when we or anyone else passed. They were in their own worlds, not the natural world they were walking through. We understand that kind of concentration or perhaps I should call it oblivion; we are academic types.
But habit or not, Lee and I keep walking the park. Walking is more environmentally friendly than driving off to a stinky gym where there is little chance we will surprise a fox or send a catbird mewing, and most of July, once we crossed the southern bridge over Bedens Brook and entered the Great Field, we paid close attention to the wild black raspberries slowly ripening. Since their June blooming, we watched our tiny berries grow a little larger, turn white, a bit pinker, definitely pink, red and finally—after weeks—black. Of course, they are not “ours”—but most people don’t want to pick them—even for jam. The usual nasty suspects: thorns, ticks, poison ivy, time.
I took on the nasties last year, July 2019, while my husband conveniently had volunteer work to do. Armored in blue jeans and denim shirt I spent a prickly morning picking black raspberries for his jam.
This year the same thorns, but Covid-19 cancelled my husband’s volunteer work, so he picked too. If he wanted jam, he was going to have to suffer.
And this year’s picking provided one of those Proustian perceptions my husband likes to talk about, especially now that he is revving up to teach A la Recherche du Temps Perdu again—those petite madelaines that trigger memories, that rouse us from habit, that allow us to see.
Picking those raspberries this year (and there were still a few ripening in early August) triggered the memory of picking those four quarts a year before when the temperature was in the comfortable 80’s instead of the noxious 90’s. It triggered the memory of listening to parts of Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte on my iPhone as I picked. In Rushdie’s novel, his Don Quixote is a traveling salesman of pharmaceutical products, and the novel satirizes, among many other things, Purdue Pharma that caused the opioid-overdose epidemic—which seems to have been both overshadowed and worsened by the present Covid-19 pandemic.
So while we were amassing our berries for this year’s jam, I was wondering how Rushdie would treat the Covid-19 Epidemic, which has been very much with us since March. I was thinking how the epidemic has changed everything including our habitual walk, which used to take a little over an hour, but now takes longer. Depending on when we set out, we see the 7-am or 8-am habituals, the motley crew that uses the park: the runners, fast or slow, slim and stocky; the dog walkers with Scout, Chester, Rusty, Pearl, Ruby, Romeo or George; the solitary walkers stretching their legs before Zooming.
And we often stop and socialize at a distance. We tell each other what or whom we have just seen in the park—the fawn, the rabbits, the bluebirds, the tree swallows, the tiger swallowtail on the scarlet bergamot, the rock sculptures children must have built yesterday in Bedens Stream. We talk about isolation and loneliness, our distant children and grandchildren, the books we are reading, the TV series we are watching, the birds we are missing. Where are the gangs of goldfinch we saw last summer? The thistle is just about to bloom for them. We are sad and worried for most of us walkers care deeply about the environment, and the pandemic seems to have obliterated public consciousness of, I suspect, a worse problem, climate change.
And, of course, by the time my essay gets in print, the black raspberries I photographed will be completely dried up, forgotten. The Queen Anne’s just opening will be drying into its little bird cages. The first golden rod opening today will be holding sway. We are 77. As we eat our raspberry jam, we are trying harder to pay attention to everything in spite of habit.