Strawberry Fields

This week, Donald writes about running through the agricultural heartland of California.

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Occasionally, when my work schedule allows it, I can take some time in the middle of the day and go for a run through the fertile fields of the Salinas Valley.

The campos are generally laid out in a large grid pattern, with major thoroughfares paved, and the others simple dirt roads. It’s a convenient place to run, because there are many opportunities to shorten or lengthen the distance as necessary, depending on how much time I have available.

The aromas of the fields vary with the seasons, and I’ve learned to avoid particular grids simply because of the smells I anticipate there. Certain crops have a powerfully unpleasant odor when baking in the sun all day. And needless to say, when it’s time for fertilizing any of the fields, I make a beeline upwind.

Summer is the best time of year for running in the fields, as the overwhelming smell is the sweet fragrance of strawberries. One of my favorite sensory experiences is to go running through the campos and smell the berries with every breath I inhale.

The visual effect is also pretty cool. The tops of the bushes are covered with leaves, and as I cruise between adjacent fields, I feel like I’m sailing through a lush green ocean, with a strawberry-scented sea breeze in my face.

In the campos, I also witness the labor that harvests the strawberries I’m so fond of.

I see the teams of migrants who walk through the bushes bent over at the waist, gathering countless boxes that are placed in cartons alongside each row. I watch a separate group carry the cartons across the field and into a nearby truck, where another team awaits to sort and stack the berries for delivery to the produce company.

Sometimes there are as many as 100 people working the same grid, but I frequently drift past them almost unnoticed, as the entire crew remains focused on the task at hand.

Since I’m usually in the fields at midday, I run past some workers on their lunch breaks. They sit in the roads on the fringes of the fields, leaning against their cars to utilize whatever shade they can find in the summer heat. Their clothes and bodies are filthy, and they sit quietly to save their energy to get through the remainder of the day.

I know their bodies probably ache from the strain of hard labor. By comparison, the fatigue of a strenuous run is trivial.

I know that most of them will go home and share a house with many other workers, living in conditions we normally associate with third-world poverty. I know that many of them left wives and children behind to work in these conditions. I know that they sleep restlessly, worried about their health or their security or their ability to provide for their families. I know that the next morning, they’ll wake up and do the same routine all over again.

In those moments, there’s definitely a guilty feeling when I glide past them in expensive running shoes, dressed in colorfully clean workout clothes, peering at them from behind darkened glasses, taking a midday break from a job that pays me more than in a month than they may see in a year. I sometimes wonder what they think when they see me. I’m sure it’s some mixture of resentment and envy and disregard, but you would never tell by their expressions. When I pass in front of them and our eyes meet, I’ll lift my hand and say a quick hello, and occasionally I’ll get a head nod or a short greeting in reply. Then we go on with our respective tasks.

But when I finish my run and see the layers of dirt stuck to my legs from the windblown soil, I realize how much dust must be in their lungs. When I notice the tan lines from my running shorts, I remember how harmful spending day after day in the sun can be. When I feel the soreness in my legs, I consider the damage their bodies endure just to make it to the next day.

And sometimes when I smell the beautiful fragrance of strawberry fields, I think that for many people, perhaps that smell is not particularly sweet.

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