Sunday, August 9, 2009

Blueberry picking: a cultural oddity?

Random thoughts this week, the week my hubby and I picked blueberries at Indian Ladders.

In the book Danse Macabre, author Stephen King comes as close as he probably ever will to explaining where his dark obsessive thoughts come from When he was a small child, he went blueberry picking with another young boy. He was later found wandeirng around in a catatonic state, babbling, with no memory of what happened. Later it was learned his friend had been struck by a train and killed. This real event found its way into his novella The Body which was made into the film Stand by Me.

On a program showing the most outrageous moments from previous "roasts" on Comedy Central, someone complained Norm Macdonald's joke was like "watching Henry Fonda pick blueberries." Macdonald good-naturedly responded, "I think there are many people here who would love to watch Henry Fonda pick blueberries!"

Todd and I picked berries in the gorgeous, peaceful fields and meadows on a Tuesday. A few people were there, most of them mothers with children. We separated and picked on our own, me with two quart baskets to fill, him with one. Near me, one woman with a daughter around age ten was telling her daughter how to recognize and pick ripe berries. Her daughter understood but also said she liked the "pink ones" insisting she liked the way they tasted. It made me think of the same conversation I had with my own mother when I was that age, when we went picking blueberries every summer on Armenian Mountain. The berry picking was free to the public, people would drive up on the mountain and park and sometimes camp along the rutted muddy roads, full of high tufts of grass. It was invariably hot, muggy and horrible and my siblings and I would always escape to the shady woods as soon as we could. But I also recall picking a lot of blueberries, dropping them into my plastic pail, swatting away mosquitoes, blackflies and gnats, sweating like crazy. We'd also bring a picnic lunch, usually baloney sandwiches, potato chips, Kool-Aid for the kids, and iced tea for my Mom, my grandmother and whatever friends or neighbors had come along. One year my younger brother stepped on a hornets' nest and got stung all over; my grandfather was with us and smeared mud on the stings which made my brother feel better. We'd bring home many quarts of berries, some of which got frozen. Mom made blueberry pies. I don't recall ever eating them (not a big pie fan as a kid) but they looked delicious.

I told the woman near me her conversation with her daughter reminded me of the exact same conversation I had with my own mother 35 years earlier, we laughed and I told her about the place we went to. A few minutes later, another woman and her young daughter happened by, and the mother explained how to find ripe berries, and we both laughed.

I'm aware that this kind of activity, of gathering fruit outdoors and bringing it home to make delicious desserts, is a dying tradition in this country. How long will it be before the experience of going berry picking with one's mother will simply fall away from the lexicon of childhood experiences? And yet how can it? Berries will still grow, and need to be picked. Families will still want to feed their kids healthy foods and share the outdoors with them. I can't even imagine what my life would be without having had these experiences throughout my childhood: berry-picking, apple-picking, gathering mushrooms and nuts, hunting, fishing, baking, relationship to food, and more importantly, to nature itself, would be completely different. It's unthinkable. Thank goodness there has been a renaissance of interest in such things. We may yet be able to raise some generations of Americans with an intimate knowledge and inherent respect for the natural world and the food it provides.

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