The Fruit of Our Labors

Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk." You know what I'm talking about. It's a windy, sunny day in Robert McCloskey country, and the berries are finally ripe. From atop our favorite blueberry picking hill, you can see across Eggemoggin Reach to little Deer Isle and the bridge across the reach all the way to Isle au Haut and beyond.

Like the bears, we have come to gather food for the winter, though our blueberries will end up in muffins, pies, scones, and buttermilk pancakes. Nonetheless, they are fuel for our hibernation. Once our picking starts, it will be weeks before we eat a meal that doesn't include blueberries in some fashion. And naturally, the berry density of muffins must not fall below 25 per cubic inch.

All winter long, we dream of just such a day on these barrens every time we go to the freezer for another half-quart of the dark fruit. These are not high-bush, cultivated blueberries that bear fruit as big as marbles and have little flavor. These berries are the essence of blueberry. And essence includes a sense of working hard for the payoff.

For even the energetic pickers in our family, it takes a long time to earn a mouthful, much less a full quart. It's not like picking strawberries - a couple of stoops, a few handfuls, and you've got several quarts and can head back to the car. Just one quart of wild blueberries should take you 30 minutes to pick by hand, but more likely an hour since the amount going into the box may pale in comparison with the amount going into your mouth. "One for me, one for you, two for me, one for you," I say to my quart pail. Kerplunk.

A connoisseur of the berry, my wife casts her sharp eye on the corner with the darkest, sweetest berries and makes a beeline for it. The red-leaved bushes draw her to them, and she plunks down amid several hundred berries within an arm's reach. It's no wonder her quart of fruit has such a luxurious hue - navy blue compared with our cobalt. She is discriminating, filling her quart berry by berry based on deep color and size. This is total quality management in the blueberry patch. The rest of us go for maximum yield: greatest number of berries per branch per reach. Get the job done.

Today is our first foray. We anticipate four more weeks of ripe blueberries. But our daughters are already asking about canning and how they will send berries to friends.

"Can I just wrap them really, really carefully and put them in an envelope to send to Alyssa?" asks Hilary.

"We'll need to seal them in jars or make jam," we explain. "Then you can send them. Otherwise, they'll squish. Alyssa will get blueberry paste, not jam."

They want to share the wealth and transmit the joy of this hand-to-mouth recreation to friends and relatives, and the lack of immediacy is frustrating. They want to package and send the experience they are having. It's a humble food - everyone has tasted blueberries; everyone can buy them at any supermarket - but the act of harvesting them at the source is exotic. Or perhaps it's the power of the child's connection to eating off the land, much as they delight when they visit a farm. And this is the primal farm: fruit that grows because it belongs here, and always has.

Our youngest daughter, Ariel, said, "I hope some momma bear doesn't mistake me for her cub." She has read "Blueberries for Sal" enough times to know that people and bears must share their blueberry patches on occasion, and if their paths overlap someone must take responsibility for courteously yielding to the creature with prior claim. Today, we are the only critters in the patch.

Boxes full, we top off our tummies with a few more handfuls of berries en route to the car. It's hard to stop picking when there are so many left to harvest. And hard to make it all the way home without consuming the profits of an afternoon's work. But there is a homemade ice-cream stand at the head of the bay that we must pass, and they make an awfully good chocolate chip cone. I must admit, man does not live by blueberries alone.

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