Whatever happened to Aunt Nell's blueberries?

A clump of alders or a young poplar will give up, and a year later the root system will decay to leave a labyrinth of chambers and corridors underground in which a colony of hornets can live happily unless disturbed by an uninformed casual citizen who treads close by.

It was such a nest of hornets that my Aunt Nell found one day as she gathered high-bush blueberries near the ice pond, in company with the family plus. Two aunts, husbands, cousins all, and relatives and friends were on a blueberry picnic, so misnamed because we couldn't go if we didn't pick and produce.

There was a fine stand of wild high-bush blueberries by the ice pond. Mostly the Maine wild blueberry is low bush, but a couple of generations ago an occasional area would have the tall kind. They have become scarce since then. They tasted about the same, but the high-bush kind had larger berries and were easier to pick. We children each had a small tin lard pail we were expected to fill at least once. Adults used milk pails and water buckets.

We went by trolley car to the pond and the conductor set us down in the woods. He would stop on his way back to pick us and our "get" up. Ours was never a big group, but such efforts were common in the old Maine days and were sometimes almost an organized expedition.

My friend and trail buddy Flint Johnson grew up in the town of Strong, and he used to tell how the entire town went camping out every year for blueberry week. Families would go in hayracks to the upper Carrabassett Valley to pick wild blueberries. He and a couple of other boys his age were official trout catchers for the week, and a couple of evenings each year trout chowder and then fried trout were enjoyed by the whole town in camp. Thus, Flint was not made to pick berries, but he did have to clean trout.

On the occasion now in focus: My mother's older sister, Nell, was using a 16-quart milk pail and had it better than nine-tenths full when, by pure chance, she unwittingly found a hornets' nest as described above.

A hornet is much like a honeybee, but can sting repeatedly, whereas a honeybee is limited to one attack and perishes forthwith. Not all humans know this, and if stung by any insect will cry out, "A bee stung me!" This gives bees a bad name and is an unkind imputation, but hornets chuckle about it and look smug.

So a smug hornet stung my Aunt Nell in a sensitive place behind her left ear, and when she returned to terra firma she put her pail to the ground, and came forth as Moses from the rushes shouting, "A bee stung me! A bee stung me!" etc., causing great echoes to fly about in all directions.

Perhaps you have been reading ahead and are already wondering about Aunt Nell's pail of blueberries, left - if you recall - on the ground beside a nest of irritated hornets.

Forsooth, I hasten to inform. I was 10 at the time and my sister was 7. I had a two-pound lard pail, and she had a tin cup known as a bumper, intended as a picnic item for drinking at springs and wells. We noticed there was no self-sacrificed bee stinger in Aunt Nell's neck, because our grampy and our daddy, both beekeepers, had taught us to look for a stinger and how to get it out. There was no stinger. No bee!

So we said it wasn't a bee, and Aunt Nell (who was famous for knowing a great many things that weren't so) said, "Don't try to tell me! It stung me, and a zillion others boiled up from a hole in the ground!" She also said, "How do I get my pail of berries?"

Our mother said, "Walk back and pick up your pail!"

"I wouldn't go there for all the tea in China!" Aunt Nell said. "There's millions of bees there! I saw them! One stung me!"

Anyway, Aunt Nell said she'd give half the berries to anybody who got her pail for her, and I went into the bushes and brought out her pail. There was no danger. The hornets had settled down after Aunt Nell's swift departure, and the pail was just as she left it. The hornets, not bees, paid me no heed.

My Aunt Nell was flabbergasted. "Why," she said, "That was altogether too easy. I'm not about to give you half my berries for that!"

Astonishment prevailed.

It was so blatant a reversal that the adults disbelieved what they'd heard. I saw that my mother was forming her response to her sister, and I expected her to remind of the precipitous retribution of the Pied Piper and that if we promise aught we should keep our promise. But the moment was tense, and nobody said a word - thinking, I suppose, of what to say. Before anybody could speak, I resolved everything.

I stepped over, picked up Aunt Nell's pail of berries, took it back into the bushes, set it down by the hornet labyrinth, and strode forth as unctuous as the bridegroom coming out of Scripture. Then we packed the picnic things, carried our plunder to the trolley tracks, and went home on the electric car. I have no notion of what happened to Aunt Nell's bucket of blueberries.

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