The Venus Flytrap: Strawberries In The Salt Sea

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So the meerkats at the El Paso Zoo love crunching on cockroaches, and the zoo’s Valentine’s Day fundraiser has them snacking on lots of them. So many, in fact, that it seems like the zookeepers feared the meerkats were going to have a roach overdose and decided several more species could enjoy the treat. Now, cotton top tamarins, golden tamarins, white-headed marmosets, rhinoceros hornbills and northern tree shrews also get to partake of the pests. The reason? The zoo’s donation drive, called “Quit Bugging Me!!!” (all exclamation points deliberate – and probably appropriate), lets people name a cockroach after an ex, before it’s fed to another creature. And since there’s a webcam livestream for the meerkats, participants can even watch the devouring. Catharsis via cockroach proxy. Other zoos, including the Hemsley Conservation Center, UK, and the Bronx and Boise Zoos, USA, are doing the same. Meanwhile, the Sydney Zoo is offering to name a snake after an ex for just $1. But those snakes are staying alive.

Petty? Valentine’s Day is an occasion that inspires a range of reactions in the unpartnered: from a melancholic twinge to righteous rage. Indifference is the ideal, but it isn’t possible every year. As much depends on what you see around you as how your heartscape feels. Of course, the truth is this: every day is Valentine’s Day for those deeply in love and those who are deeply lonely.

If you’re in the latter category, but aren’t feeling bloodlust this year, there’s a better sight worth pondering on. A striking photograph was shared online from Ventura Beach, California, in which strawberries lay scattered on the coast at low tide, with hills on the horizon and a blue afterglow in the atmosphere. Strawberries, heart-shaped and show-stoppingly crimson, are widely regarded as an aphrodisiac. Still on the twig, in this photograph they appear at first glance to be red roses on long stems, the green calyxes seeming like plant sepals, the fruit like blossoms.

But as beautiful as they are, these shore-strewn strawberries are not edible. Neither is their presence miraculous, for all that happened is that storm water washed the fruits out of the farms they were being cultivated in, close to the beach. They mingled with effluents in the drainage before being flushed out to sea. Then, the tide brought them in, salted. They are not meant for our mouths, but they are pretty on the eye.

There’s a Scottish folksong, recorded by Sandy Denny as “The False Bride” and by other singers under different titles, that describes this scene almost eerily. In the song, the lover has wed another and the abandoned one must somehow perform joy at the ceremony. The lyrics contain this mysterious verse: “All men in yon forest they asked of me, / ‘How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?’/ And I answered them with a tear in my e’e, / ‘How many ships sail in the forest?’” Those toxic strawberries that seem out of a dream remind me, to quote another line from this song, to bid “Adieu to false loves forever”. And keep my eyes open for other, truer, fish in the sea.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 14th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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