The man in the wilderness said to me, “How many strawberries grow in the sea?” I answered him as I thought good — “As many red herrings as grow in the wood.”

“And the moral of that is –” began the Duchess of Wonderland.  But we bundled her out with her pepper-pots, because we do not especially want her here just now. I remember this rhyme before I knew that herrings were fish and that red herrings grow neither in woods nor seas, when all I knew was that Squirrel Nutkin sang it as his only gift to Mr. Brown the owl, when all the other little squirrels carried fat minnows in exchange for gathering nuts on Mr. Brown’s island. The moral of that story is that if you are rude to people who own your respect, you may do damage to your tail. But we do not especially want that moral just now, either.

The thing I wonder, understanding about herrings and such now, is whether the man in the wilderness is a person to be trusted. When I was small, I always imagined him a crazy old man, asking that absurd question about strawberries in the sea.  (I knew about strawberries.)  But now I can imagine him in different ways.  Perhaps the wilderness has something to hide, and so he asks the crazy question as a sort of red herring for the narrator, to send him on a wild berry count and throw him off the scent of the real question.  The narrator, in that instance, sees through the plan, however, signalling his knowledge by the very significant comment about red herrings. Or, to twist the tale further, perhaps the narrator thinks the man in the wilderness has something to hide, thinks the strawberry question is a bluff, when really the old man is quite out of his head and has nothing to hide.

I think of connotations of persons in the wilderness: on the one hand, John the Baptizer, madly preparing the way for the Lord; on the other hand, Satan, shrewdly trying to strike a bargain for the birthright of the Only Begotten. Dante met Virgil in a sort of wilderness scene and found himself touring hell and heaven. Bilbo Baggins set out on a wilderness expedition with a company of dwarves and, with a war of riddles, launched events which impacted the whole history of Middle Earth. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark struck out into the wilderness and found the Pacific Ocean, which, for all they knew might have been full of strawberries. Elizabeth Bennet walked with Lady Catherine Debourgh in “a prettyish kind of little wilderness” and found the courage to marry Fitzwilliam Darcy. Moses, alone in the wilderness, found a burning bush and mission to defy Pharaoh and his chariots.

It is not that entering the wilderness is necessarily foolish, but it does seem that one ought to consider potential consequences before plunging into uncharted lands, prepare answers for strange inquiries, learn to recognize red herrings growing in even so unlikely a spot as a wood.  Me? I prefer to stick to charted lands; I study charts, look for pictures of landmarks, pack impossibly heavy bags to provide against all contingencies, and panic when the well-rehearsed order goes awry.

Naturally, I do not like to feel that I stand at the edge of a wilderness: no path, no map, no signs, no retreat. But my eyes are peeled for the man in the wilderness, and when he asks about strawberries, I shall be ready with my good answer.

©2012 by Stacy Nott

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