Wednesday, July 18, 2007



Blueberrying: trudging through woods and pasture, bitten and scratched by the fauna and flora; watching one's bucket fill slowly and then empty suddenly after a false step into a juniper bush that looked like solid ground to a kid; whining at Mother and getting scant sympathy ("I told you to wear long pants!); all under a blazing July sun mitigated only by the haze of 80-odd-percent humidity. Who needs that? You can buy blueberries, right?

Maybe. Maybe those big things in the supermarket, or even from the organic fruit farm, really are as good as the little wild ones of my childhood and my mother's youth. Maybe, as with so many scientifically engineered designer fruits and vegetables, we have bigger ones and/or more of them per plant or acre, but the amount of essential oils and nutrients per berry or plant or acre hasn't necessarily increased in proportion. I buy and use the big berries but I'm prejudiced against them.

Anyway, when the earth offers blueberries, it makes sense to accept. So Saturday morning found me at the back of the field behind the house, sitting on a milk crate under a big straw hat, plastic lidded container in hand, batting ineffectively at mosquitoes and waiting for daylight to advance enough that I could distinguish color and thus find the berries. Lady, make a note of this: quarter to five is too early.

These were low- or ground-bushes, eight or nine inches high; hence the milk crate. As kids we squatted or sat on the ground and quickly got hot and bored. The high bushes in the pasture, on the edge of the woods, or under the high-tension electric wires enjoyed plenty of blazing sun, but crouching down in the open field in mid-afternoon was particularly cruel and unusual.

We also picked and ate what we called dewberries, tiny things of the blackberry kind, spare and sour and seedy; and checkerberries, bright red skin over a white interior with a texture like water chestnuts and a mild wintergreen flavor, and the characteristic X at one end. We ate dewberries and checker-berries a few at a time on the spot. It was only the blueberries that we made any attempt to bring home and do something with --probably put on cereal -- but most of those got eaten on-site as well.

Ground-bush berries are conspicuous in small clusters at the top of the bush, two or three ripe ones and a few more green. I discovered that there are more berries down the side of the plant, one or two together, smaller than the ones up there in the sun. I found that there are more berries within arm's reach than it looks as though there would be. The cup and a half of berries I returned with doesn't seem like a lot for an hour's work; but have you checked out the price of organic wild blueberries lately?

For my mother, blueberrying may have been a communing-with-nature experience, although I doubt that she'd have thought of it that way. I can't report any Emersonian epiphany from this weekend's blueberrying experience. I observed, as I fished for dropped berries, the dense mat of moss, checkerberries and other field underbrush, and the tall grass pushing through here and there, the seed-heads brushing my face like bugs. I heard birds chirping and rustling in the trees, and mosquitoes shrilling in my ear. In the heavy, soggy air of a day that promised, and in due course delivered, the kind of weather I associate with blueberrying, I smelled the hay from the part of the field that was cut and drying; the checkerberries disturbed by the mower; the pines in the woods nearby; and, faint and far away, organic gasses released by the dump in the next town.

On balance, I was satisfied enough with my venture into hunting-and-gathering that I went out again on Sunday morning. It's rather like planting, tending and harvesting tomatoes and beans: Beans picked half an hour before dinner really do taste better even than beans from the local vegetable stand, and the tomatoes are cheaper. And they are unquestionably organic: I'll spring for $5 worth of fertilizer from the owners of the organic cows up the hill, but not for the pesticides, weed-killers and fertilizer the garden stores want you to buy. Even though seed and tomato plants and organic manure cost something and the self-watering planters rather a lot, and in spite of the labor-intensiveness of blueberrying, harvesting them gives me a heartwarming illusion of getting something for nothing.