Wineberries and Dragonflies
Early July is a special time in the woods of Eastern Pennsylvania. During the winter and into the spring, should you go scampering along most any trail, you’ll notice an abundance of thorns – fun little guys whose heads I imagine to be filled with dreams of being transplanted along the route of Hyner or Black Forest and making a runner cry some time after the marathon mark. They are brick-colored with points so fine, they almost look cute and fuzzy until you get up close and try to pet one. But as summer saunters in, in all its swampy glory, these thorns gradually reveal a secret. Little bulbs appear in clusters, shooting off from the main branch, nestled in green teardrop leaves. A paler white skin is barely perceptible beneath the bulbs, and they grow more and more plump, until one day they open up and wineberry season has arrived.
These berries are delicious. They are sweet with a nice zip of tartness to provide contrast in each bite, and they are pretty small, too, so the only way to get the full experience is to jam a bunch into your mouth at once like popcorn. However, they don’t start off like that. There is a period after their bulbs have pulled back where the berries are very tart, almost sour, and they haven’t developed any of their characteristic flavor. With wineberries, patience is a virtue. Having anticipated their arrival for months, I always struggle to give them just that extra little bit of time they need to become the wineberries that I love – the best version of themselves. It is easy to feel that I have to pick them just because they are there, and, more than that, to feel the pressure that if I don’t pick them while I can, someone – or, more likely, some fluttering bird that doesn’t give a tweet about flavor profile and complexity – will get to them first. But as difficult as it is to exercise that restraint, I know that it pays off. They will grow darker and juicier as I wait.
Good things take time. This adage applies to many things in life, not just the ripening of food. Yet providing that essential ingredient of time can feel almost impossible. Not because it is expensive or exclusive – quite the opposite, in fact. It is free and universal. It feels impossible because it contradicts our intuition that control, that doing, is the best way to get what we want. Prior to an exam, if you have not studied as much as you would have liked, you are tempted to pull an all-nighter and cram information into your brain like you are pushing down trash in a garbage bag that’s already full. It feels like the right thing to do to perform at your best. If you just had a date with someone that went perfectly, then your impulse is to text them right away and profess your love from the rooftops. Or if that job offer comes with a benefits package that is so luxurious you have to pick your jaw back up off the floor after reading it, then of course you won’t hesitate to accept, because how could it be a bad fit with such a whopper of a 401k plan? In all these instances, grabbing at what’s in front of you while it’s there is instinctive, and it seems like the smart thing to do.
But often, it isn’t. You fail the exam because of a lack of sleep (and have to pee three times in the middle of it because of the energy drinks you chugged all night); you scare your date away by coming across as creepy and obsessive; the company culture at your new job turns out to be toxic. Instantly grabbing for something is understandable; excitement breeds impulsivity, and not every opportunity lasts. Still, many times, these ideas or opportunities which we think are dragonflies – fluttering in front of our face one second and gone the next – are actually wineberries. Plucking them too early generates three effects, none of them good. First, the taste is unpleasant and disappointing. Second, we never get to experience how it might have tasted had we waited. Third, we are discouraged from trying wineberries in the future because, right or wrong, we’ve established a negative association due to our bad experience.
This metaphor may be running out of juice (heh heh) so here’s how you can think of the concept as applied to trail running. Imagine that you are just coming up in the sport or are returning after a long hiatus induced by injury or some personal reasons. There is stoke and joy to be found at every turn and you feel ready to take on the world, so you sign up for a punishing race. Yet in the leadup to the race, your body keeps giving you signs that you are undertrained and that you are not ready for such a challenge. But you have to run the race now – what if the stoke isn’t there next year? What if you’re injured again, or life stuff gets in the way? You see the opportunity as a dragonfly, hovering there in front of your face, and you have to capture it before it buzzes off. What you didn’t realize, or perhaps allow for, was that it was a wineberry. You have a miserable experience at the race and drop out halfway through. In retrospect, you see how it would have been better to stick with a more gradual build and run the race the following year, but now it’s just a wishing game. The berry has been picked.
This imaginary anecdote is not meant to act as a deterrent. Capturing and channeling that energy and excitement is a key part of trail running and of life. However, it is easy to be blinded by the shininess. It feels good to allow that excitement to take over and lead your decision making process in the moment, but the consequence is that you may misidentify your own level of preparedness, or drown out some subconscious whisper telling you to back off, to wait, that it’s not quite time yet.
So how can you make that discernment? Experience. Failure. Awareness. You can only learn what not to do by doing a lot. And that is the hidden value of the runner who races too soon, or the farmer who harvests too early, or the writer who tries to stretch out an underdeveloped idea. It’s painful to play the what-if game, to realize the potential that you killed with your impetuousness. But the end result is that, as time passes and you accrue experience, cycling through failures and learning from them, that subconscious whisper comes through more clearly. Your intuition develops, and you know which opportunities in your life are dragonflies – things that have to be seized immediately – and which are wineberries – things that need time to be their best. And the next time wineberry season comes around, you’ll be ready.