The mystery of Maine's blueberries

And now about blueberries, but we may stray somewhat. The Maine wild blueberry is the one you find with the blueberry muffin mix and the boxed pancake batter. It grows in Maine on wild land called a blueberry barren. As I write in late August, the harvest is peaking and the barrens swarm with activity as bushes are gathered clean.

In Maine, wild blueberries are big business. They do grow wild, and reproduce abundantly without cultivation, but as a commercial crop, they get some assistance. Honeybees are provided, fertilizer may be added, and pruning is done.

Blueberries are gathered with a rake that has been described as a "dustpan with fingers." The berries are "field cleaned" by portable winnowing machines that blow out leaves and twigs, and later at a processing plant are hand-cleaned. All ages work together, and in Washington and Hancock Counties a child's first job is "rakin' berries." Next time you have blueberry muffins from a store box, notice the down-Maine flavor.

Now, Maine also has a wild high-bush blueberry that occurs in smaller clumps. The berries are about the same, but not numerous enough to be handled commercially. They are easier to pick, and if anybody knows a secret patch, he doesn't blab it about.

Kennebago Lake is well up in the Maine wilderness, between Rangeley Lakes and the Canadian boundary, and not at all in the blueberry regions closer to the Atlantic Ocean. Kennebago is in timberland country, and the township of Davis, where the lake lies, has been logged off many times. It is a region for hunting and fishing, and people don't go there to pick blueberries.

But above Kennebago Lake is a small pond gained by an uphill mile on a woods trail. Its name is Flatiron Pond (it is shaped that way), and it is a nursery for Eastern brook trout who grow up and descend into Kennebago to make the big lake the best fly-fishing for brookies you'll care to find.

I had walked up to Flatiron alone on a propitious late-August day to find me a couple of trout that I might invite to lunch. The trout in Flatiron Pond are usually cooperative. The two I selected were about 10 inches long, apiece. They may have been 11.

As I was lavishing my attention on the preparation of my lonely banquet, I chanced to look about, and to my delight, I spied a highbush blueberry plant at my very elbow (left), which hung to the ground with clusters of ripe fruit that nobody had yet seen but me! And behold, the entire pond was encircled by similar bushes equally adorned.

Before I set my frypan to heat, I filled my green felt Isaac Walton hat with ripe berries, laid it on a rock, and said, "There!" Soon afterward, I dined sumptuously, secure in my presumption that anglers who hike to Flatiron would not be after blueberries and I could come each August and carry back all the berries I could carry back.

A year later I was back, and there wasn't a blueberry bush to be seen. They had disappeared. It bewildered me. Somebody told me, "Oh, they do that." The bushes I'd seen were tall and rugged, indicating they'd been growing for many years. How to explain it? Where had my blueberries gone?

The wilderness has its own ways. Where do raspberries come from, anyway? There won't be a wild raspberry bush in 50 miles, for example, but cut an acre of spruce pulpwood, and the next summer that acre will be a hairbrush of raspberry bushes. How come? Some say birds spread the seeds, but there aren't many birds in the deep woods. So how does a clearing grow up to raspberries?

This summer, our son and his wife were at Kennebago Lake, and they hiked the old trail to Flatiron and the one to Blanchard Pond. Blanchard is maybe two miles from Flatiron, in the other direction. They told me Blanchard Pond was rimmed by highbush blueberries, drooping heavily to the ground. Nobody could remember ever seeing blueberries before at Blanchard! They picked their hats full, they said, and returned to camp to make the deacon's blueberry cake and balance it off with a pan of Blanchard brookies.

Our son asked, "Where did the blueberry bushes come from?" and I said, "Flatiron Pond." Where else? It took them two generations, but what's time to a wilderness?

The deacon may really have been a deacon in the old days of parishes, and some of his accomplishments are best forgotten. But he did leave us his recipe for blueberry cake, and you will be glad I pass it along. It is not a dessert, but a hot bread to be slathered with butter and eaten piping from the oven with the meat and potatoes. If you can't walk to Blanchard Pond, look for frozen you-know-whats in the super.

The Deacon's Blueberry Cake

3 tablespoons of sugar

Shortening the size of an egg (3 tablespoons), melted

1 egg

1 cup of milk

1 teaspoon of baking soda

1 teaspoon of cream of tartar

1 teaspoon of baking powder

3 cups of flour

2 cups of wild Maine blueberries

Mix well, to make a thick batter. Fold in blueberries. Pour into a greased, 8-inch square pan. Bake at 375 degrees F. for about 35 minutes, or until golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Serve with butter. My pleasure; enjoy!

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