BERRY PICKIN’

Yesterday, I picked our blueberry bushes using my usual method—one for the mouth, one for the bowl, one for the mouth, one for …well, you understand. Also, as usual when out in nature, I fell into a contemplative mood.

I thought about how the birds had eaten their fair share of this summer’s blueberry production, even though Neal had erected blueberry cages. I knew the greedy birds had had their fill because I got one of the bandits, a teensy goldfinch, who upon seeing me, tried his darndest to escape the net. It was clear he’d forgotten the way and he was having a panic attack. He had gotten inside the cage because there was a fraction of an opening at the bottom but surprised by my arrival, he couldn’t find it directly. Since he was so absolutely cute, I did the only thing I could do. I unzipped the cage and he located open sky and flew.

I imagined the birds, already devouring what they wished, telling each other, “Now, leave something for the humans. Don’t eat ALL the berries!”

Or maybe they’d left some because they, like small planes, had to consider weight distribution before taking off.

As I picked, I thought about the Eastern Oregon equivalent of blueberries, the mighty and supreme huckleberry. Huckleberries are so coveted that families have their own maps of patches known only to them and them pass them down from parents to children. While cleaning out my files recently, I came across the one my father had drawn for me in order to reach a Mt. Adams patch.

Legends have been written about the huckleberry and its scarcity makes it even more special to those of us who tracked patches of it every summer, stripping the bushes for our jams, syrups, ice creams, and eating it right from the hand. I can taste that sweet tartness even now.

When we lived in Rockaway, we were blessed with Western Oregon huckleberry bushes which I protected from deer, bear, and humans. One patch grew near the mailboxes we shared with our neighbor, right along our property lines. I waited and waited for the berries to turn from red to plum-colored, checking every day as I picked up our bills, catalogs, and correspondence. One day I saw they would be ready the next day, and got my bowl prepared to pick right after the mail came. When the little white van had turned around and gone back down the hill, I went to the mailbox, only to find our neighbor, transplanted from urban life to coastal dwelling, had sheared the bushes he found lumpy and misshapen into a long, square hedge. I cried.

Then I thought about the greatest huckleberry picker of all, the grand poobah wizard, my grandma. Dad would hear via the huckleberry vine the patches were ready and tell us to be ready bright and early. Grandma would arrive in her Fiat, jump into our Chevy stationwagon, and off we’d go, armed with the picnic lunch Mom had prepared, and our buckets fashioned from old MJB coffee cans or gallon shortening cans. I liked the shortening cans best because the handles were crafted and there were no sharp edges, unlike the MJB cans with their rusty wire handles and sharp tops. We’d start at the top of a hill and bush by bush, slide down. We’d get sticky and sweaty and were plagued by crawling and flying bugs. Still we picked and when we grew tired of picking our grandmother first shamed us by showing us how full her bucket was, reminding us she was an old lady we surely could beat, and then she told us stories of her youth, or sang songs she’d grown up with. The latter always encouraged us to pick faster as she did not carry a tune as well as her bucket. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, our mouths were purple and our buckets full.

Picking my own blueberries now, I thought of those huckleberry picking days, quietly sang a few lines from her songs, and before I knew it, I had my bowl full of berries ready to be processed.

Lots of us grew up in gardens or the outdoors and that’s why we are there now as adults; that’s why we encourage our kids and grandchildren, and heck, everyone we know, to get out in the garden, out in Nature herself, with others. That’s where the best learning, bonding, and wonderful fond memories occur.