I have tried several times to write about berry picking, never with especially great success. Maybe the visceral nature of berry picking makes it difficult to form firm, full thoughts about the joy I find in feeling my berry picking container grow heavier with each plunk of berries. After all, any outdoor summer activity that causes me to completely ignore the mosquitoes and black flies buzzing around my head and the bitey flies taking big bites of my calves has to be pretty profound indeed.
But then, I come from a long line of berry pickers. Years ago, the backyard of the house I grew up in was a tangle of raspberry bushes that my great-grandfather tended with some help from my parents. The berries were Great-Grandpa’s retirement project, something he did partly for hobby, partly for supplemental income. He was set in his ways for tending the berry bushes and he could be a difficult employer. One of his best tricks was taking phone orders for berries from Mrs. Johnson, but not bothering to take down a first name and or address. Grand Marais has always been a small town, but it’s always had its fair share of Mrs. Johnsons. This little lack of foresight on Great-Grandpa’s part made delivery of the berries such a tricky thing.
By the time I came around, the raspberry patch behind our house had been significantly downgraded, but berry picking was still firmly entrenched in my family’s psyche. For as many amusing berry picking incidents as have popped up in my family’s history – like the time a garter snake crawled beneath my mother’s car seat after one blueberry picking trip off the Lima Grade – in the end, berry picking feels less about activity and industry and more about a state of mind. There is unmanufactured contentment and happiness that infuses my memories of driving to Canada to pick strawberries or of having a fox creep quietly into the blueberry patch I was crouched in off the Magnetic Rock Trail.
At its heart, berry picking isn’t terribly glamorous. During evening pickings, I often have biting insects chomp down on my skin through a layer of clothing. I’ve picked berries in downpours. Most often though, I’m out picking in the heat of the day, sunburning odd little red strips on to the top of my legs while sweat beads on my face.
Despite the perceived unpleasantness of the task, something deep runs beneath the gentle monotony of gathering of berries for jam and pies and muffins and for freezing or the winter months. While most of my thoughts while out berry picking center around what I’m going to do with all these berries and wondering if there’s a better spot just over there, I’ve also found that time alone spent berry picking brings a confidence in the quietest of your thoughts. Some of my most productive thoughts have been accompanied by the sound of a blueberry plunking into a plastic container.
Whenever I pick berries, the words of a woman I never met ring through my mind. When I first began helping my mom pick in our small raspberry patch, my mother passed down my great-grandmother’s advice for berry picking. Great-Grandma said to pull gently on each berry as you pick. To let the ripe berries fall into your palm. To not tug on the under-ripe berries which resist your pull. That gentle advice of great-grandma’s has served me well through years, both in berries and in life. It always fills up my bucket with only the ripest and plumpest of berries and lets the not-quite-ready berries have just a little more time in the sun.
Airdate: July 23, 2010