Harvesting the Exuberant

ONE of those marvelously radiant October mornings that makes one shout with joy just to be alive, I went with friends to the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens to watch a farmer harvest his cranberry crop.

After leaving the main highway the road roamed through sycamores, oaks, beeches heady with color, through lovely grasses and wildflowers touched with a palette by Andrew Wyeth.

We meandered down a dirt road for a few miles and at last came to a large pond half full of rubies - or so it seemed in the winking sunlight.

We got out of the car and walked to the pond's edge. Fiery red cranberries bobbed, each like a little smile, in water surprisingly clear. Gems indeed, as anyone would agree who savors the tart delights in recipes.

Men in hip-high thick waders held long wooden boards horizontally against the berries, pushing them toward the fruit conveyor. It lifted them up, then tossed them gently into a waiting truck that would take them to be washed, sorted, and shipped.

The men who were harvesting had beautiful faces: young, with classic cheekbones, behind which lay an ancient, often tragic history. They were Cambodians, day laborers from Philadelphia. They worked hard, their faces and bodies intense, athletic, supple.

I walked down a narrow strip of land between two bogs and peered into the waters. Cranberry plants swayed, swept back in one direction by the whirling wheel that knocked the berries from the plants, after which the berries bobbed to the surface for workers to harvest.

A few berries lingered on the underwater vines. A few clung to the pond's edge, missed by the board.

I looked at the little orbs, thinking about how worlds can meet in the essential elements of earth, air, water, and fiery light. Cambodia. The United States. Hands touching in the rare and remarkable Pine Barrens of New Jersey, hands working for life's essential: food.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the occasions when we usually enjoy the tasty jewels that bobbed before us that day.

This year I will taste more thoughtfully, will think how good it is that the cranberry has a tart tang - a reminder that harvesting is not easy, that strenuous work goes into making a good crop, in the cranberry bog, in life.

I will ponder the wisdom that cultures may mesh in peace, in the rigors and joys of creating our table's sustenance.

And I will think of other people, as far back as 1789, when ``An Act for the Preservation of Cranberries'' was passed, which recognized the worth of the exuberant little ball.

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