In Search Of Summer's Blue Treasures
WHEN we moved into our home on a lake development on the Pocono plateau in northeastern Pennsylvania, we were unaware of one of its greatest assets. It was more than enough that warm September to swim in the lake, to ride our bikes through the flaming foliage of myriad trails, and to settle into the house.
But just around the corner, down the old clinker-covered railroad bed that led to the remains of the turn-of-the-century ice-houses, lay the perfect culture for blueberries and blackberries - boggy, acidic, glacial soil with a history of brush fires.
Oh yes, we had picked wild blueberries before, in northern Minnesota, in Cape Cod, Mass., and in Maine, squatting down to gather the small, sweet, low-bush variety one berry at a time, a few cups here and there, intended for pancakes.
As the snow melted the following spring, we took our long walks along the old trails near our house and observed the development of the lush wild growth - tiny strawberries, grapevines, blackberry and raspberry bushes, ferns, mountain laurel, rhododendrons, wintergreen, and, unmistakably, blueberry bushes everywhere! There were low bushes and the high-bush huckleberries, all loaded with bell-shaped blossoms.
What wealth! We couldn't wait to harvest the bounty. I loved to bake pies, muffins, coffeecakes, and my family loved to eat them.
So did all our neighbors! As the berries ripened, I found competition for ''my'' crop. The trails that had been loaded with ripening berries were picked clean by the time I got there. Ladies who had lived there for years came to my doorstep with gifts of blueberry buckle and jam. They boasted of freezers full of blueberries, a ready supply for their winter homes and relatives in New Jersey. While they freely offered their recipes, the directions about where they had picked the berries were politely vague.
Undaunted, we crashed through the thickets and entered virgin territory deep in the woods, finding wonderful sun-dappled clearings where we could fill our basket by pulling down the overhead branches that were heavy with plump clusters of the ripe, white-misted, dark-blue berries.
We became choosy pickers, sampling the berries before selecting a bush. There we were - alone with the birds and insects - hearing only the breezy swaying of the trees and the gradual change from ''plink'' to ''thud'' in our pails.
Walking gingerly along the narrow lake-shore, we balanced on precarious rocks to reach the overhanging branches of neglected bushes that were more blue than green. And, having experienced how the occasional black bear went to great lengths to avoid us, we found them no threat.
At the peak of the season, two serious pickers could gather a gallon of fruit in an hour. We'd leave our favorite spots only when the plastic sand pails or cut-out gallon milk jugs hanging from our belts were heavy with berries.
The real work came afterward at home. We picked out the bugs, sticks, leaves, and unripe berries to prepare the batch for freezing.
The deeper we went in the woods, the more we began to comprehend the sheer vastness of this blueberry world in the Pocono Mountains. In the 17 years we lived there, more often than not there was a bumper crop, more than man or beast could eat in a season. There were years when late frosts sometimes killed the blossoms before fruit could develop.
But in late July and early August they were always there, waving their heavy branches at me, flashing their bright blue clumps, luring me deeper into the woods with their promise of bigger and sweeter berries, the plump blue-blacks we favored. I never took a bike ride or walk without at least a plastic bag in my pocket, ready to succumb to the urge to pick; one cup for muffins, two cups for coffeecake, four cups for pie. And, with a bandanna around my head, I could ignore the mosquitoes.
Since moving from the Poconos to the Southwest, we are no longer blueberry-spoiled: The huge cultivated variety available in my supermarket will never equal that sweet-tart summer taste of warm, just-picked blueberries on morning cereal.
But we are also blueberry-blessed - having gained the example that all it takes to find one's own fertile territory is just the willingness to turn around, look up, explore another trail, and move a little deeper into the woods - or to have the patience to wait another season.