Take Heart: Think Summer Berries!

CAN'T we think of something cheerful to cheat the chill of these cheek-chapping winter days? How about Henry David Thoreau, the transcendental philosopher of Walden Pond, who once wrote that he preferred the surliness of the woodchopper with his axe to the mealy-mouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature? You can look it up. Thoreau came up from Massachusetts to Maine a few times, but never in wild raspberry season, which is what brought him to mind. He got to know our wilderness well, and as a trail buddy he knew there's a lot more to venerating nature than lighting a Catherine wheel in the town park on the 4th of July that spells ``SUCCESS TO THE ENVIRONMENT.'' If Thoreau had been here when raspberries are ripe, he'd have written spectacularly about Rubus idaeus. Think about raspberry shortcake and forget the winter doldrums!

When William and I, three decades ago, first retired into the Maine woods to find if we were congenial (we were), we planned a sumptuous and gala banquet for our first supper in camp. This special menu has been repeated every year with one exception - the summer of the raspberries.

We went in July, and July was fine for Maine native strawberries, so we'd top off our steaks and with-its by eating a buttermilk-biscuit strawberry shortcake - long on strawberries. But a few years later something interfered, and we postponed our woodland retreat into August. That's late for strawberries, so we drove along the logging roads feeling sorry for ourselves that our supplies included no strawberries. We had everything else.

Then William asked, ``What are these bushes that thrive along the side of the road?'' I took notice, and said, ``Think raspberry shortcake!'' Wild raspberries are the first new growth to appear when a Maine forest is harvested and the area is brown and desolate from the chopper's desolate axe (Thoreau always put an ``e'' on his axe). I've wondered where the seeds come from, and foresters have told me the birds bring 'em. Bill and I were now driving between two wild raspberry beds that ran for 35 consecutive miles each, and every bush was drooping with clusters of ripe berries. When a good place to stop appeared, we got out a couple of 16-quart plastic pails, and in mere minutes picked about five inches of raspberries in each pail - many more than we ever had of July strawberries. At one moment, Bill called to me from his patch over the road to mine: ``What's been in here to roll down all these canes?''

``Bears,'' I made reply. After a bear has filled his happy little tummy with sweet raspberries, he simply frolics. Bill seemed apprehensive after that, but he didn't see a bear that day. We now had many more raspberries than we would need for just the two of us, and if we should need more later in our week we could come back. What the bears didn't take we could have.

When we got to our camp - a tight building belonging to the timberland owner and used for company purposes except when we came - it didn't take long to unpack and make camp. Food was stored, perishables in the gas refrigerator, and we made our beds.

It was good to be back, and already we could see the seasonal differences 'twixt July and August. The lake was lower. The loons were now chased by chicks. The redwings were gone from the swamp, and the gorbies must have been deeper in the woods - none came for a cracker. That is, everything was a month later. Bill unwrapped our ceremonial sirloin steaks and admired them. I fixed potatoes for French fries and put fat in the pot. We started the shortcake batter in the big bowl. Bill made a tossed salad and fixed a dish of pickled onions, celery hearts, olives, and cheesy snacks. In these exercises,we take a vote if there is any possibility of disagreement and abide by a majority decision. Now and then we paused to step out on the porch and inspect the scenery, but never tarried enough to delay our Fanny-Farmer duties. I took down the baker sheet and greased it, and Bill set the gas oven to preheat. We are meticulous about having everything ready when it should be.

Raspberries, unlike strawberries, need no hulling, so they waited under a sprinkling of sugar for their doom. Instead of separate little cakes, Bill and I like our shortcake very short and all in one big, round piece. We split it, butter it, anoint it, divide it, and eat it. Cheer up! Think raspberry shortcake!

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