Summer at my fingertips

Rain or drought, the thimbleberries arrive.

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    Thimbleberries on the photographer’s fingers.
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It's been the kind of dry where yellow grass crackles beneath your feet, where the only green in the yard comes from noxious thistle. Smoke from early forest fires masquerades as cloud cover and grays an otherwise blue morning sky. In the evening, a blood-red sun sinks past parched hills.

So this summer, I thought the thimbleberries wouldn't appear.

In northeastern Wyoming, every plant is precious. The short growing season means you start corn in May and pray it doesn't freeze, coddle peppers indoors for a month, and buy watermelons at the store.

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But last year, extra rainfall fooled the forest, made us think we lived in damp northwestern climes. For the first time, we hiked into the hills and picked thimbleberries. I hadn't known what they were. My husband had looked them up online and found the following: Thimbleberries are an edible, delicate, many-segmented fruit, with velvety leaves as large as a man's palm, also called "woodsman's toilet paper."

Here's what I found: You must sweep the berry from its stem into your bucket gently, like a maid dusting fine china. You must wade into the sea of bushes like a swimmer, arms raised, nudging green fronds aside as you navigate unseen roots and brambles as carefully as a beachgoer wary of coral.

Cream-colored moths exploded at my incursive touch. Long-legged spiders scuttled away. During my search for the perfect bush, I quickly lost my husband and my Labrador. A splash of scarlet and I was off, veering farther and farther from the road into white-barked aspen. Dappled shade splashed across undulating green. Somewhere above me a squirrel scolded. My bucket filled. Red juices stained my fingers. A shaft of late-afternoon sunshine found me like a spotlight.

Suddenly, the bushes shook. I thought of bears, and my heartbeat quickened – but it was only the dog circling to check on me. I called for my husband. Far away, like an echo, came his faint reply. Satisfied, I kept picking.

That was last year.

This year we suffer. My chickens pant in their coop. They'd sweat if they could. My dog droops behind me on our walk. Dust rises from our road and doesn't settle, but hangs in the air like white chalk beaten from an eraser.

The memory of rain is bittersweet. A single thundercloud brings on a desperate nostalgia. Yet somehow our cherry bush sends out new growth. The buffalo grass grows. Baby wild turkeys waddle across our meadow, and new fawns rise from the prairie as though conjured.

And the thimbleberries flower. Soon red fruit will punctuate their starlike borders. Online, you can buy a jar of thimbleberry jam for $9.55, but I'll pick and can my own, taking a little piece of summer with me into winter.

Even a summer like this one.

It's been an odd year. Seventy degrees F. in March. Over 100 by June. The ranchers despair of their hay crop. Fires turn thousands of acres to smoking ash. And I wonder if the rules are changing, if our climate is slipping into unpredictable severity. But then I see flowering thimbleberry bushes and recall that I can't control nature.

So I watch for the next cloud that might signal rain. Tend my garden. Move the chickens into deeper shade.

And wait for thimbleberries.

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