July 26, 2012 —
This year, the birds alerted me to the wild blueberries. We arrived home from a vacation at the beach to find the front steps littered with the blue splotches of cast-off berries. It was as good an announcement as any of the ripening bushes in our old fields.
Each year it is a race with the birds (and other wildlife) to gather the delicious berries.Last year we missed them entirely. This year the birds were having a regular free-for-all until my husband John weed-whacked a trail to the bushes in the over- grown field. The maze winds through a tangle of barberry and waist-high goldenrod. Thorn apple trees stand ready to catch you with their sharp spikes.
It is a tired old field on a defunct farm with acidic soil, but still quick and beautiful in its wildness. The new trail switches back, and you half expect a sphinx to appear—on patrol and heckling would be berry pickers with riddles.
Mythical beasts aside, I like to imagine the many people who have picked berries on this old farm—maybe from these same tall bushes. My cousin Helena, who also grew up on this land, likes to tell me that her siblings were sent to pick blueberries on the day she was born 93 years ago this month.
This year, as she picks, my daughter sings parts of Adele songs that are stuck in her head. There is still old-fashioned berry picking etiquette, though, I tell her. Don’t pick berries that are right in front of your neighbors’ fingertips even if they are nice and in your reach. And don’t forget to pick “clean,” or in other words, try not to get sticks and leaves or still-green berries in with your ripe berries.
The wild berries we have on our property are high-bush species as opposed to low-bush species common to pine and oak habitats. There is also some question as to whether the berries are correctly called blueberries or huckleberries. A huckleberry contains ten hard seeds, while a blueberry has numerous soft seeds. The two plants are said to also vary in stem texture. Huckleberry stems are smooth, while blueberry stems are “warty.” According to Marc B. Fried’s book “The Huckleberry Pickers,” (subtitled “A Raucous History of the Shawangunk Mountains”), which is an account of the huckleberry-picking communities that sprang up for nearly 100 years each summer in the Shawangunks, the name “huckleberry” is a corruption of the European name whortleberry. The name was evidently transferred to the similar American bushes.
I have enjoyed the ease of picking berries from our weed-whacked paths this summer, and most of our berries have been used for muffins, as I am loath to have the oven on for long in this summer’s heat.
And so, my huckleberry friends, may you find plenty of sweet berries to pick and may you have the discipline to put them in the pail—but if you don’t, just eat them straight from the bush.