The season's sweetest gems

The stains on my pant legs are steadily growing in both number and size. Spreading and overlapping, they now form an archipelago of dark, rounded islands on the tan nylon sea that covers my legs. These bluish-purple blotches come from the juices of squashed blueberries, which I've been hunting in the mountains east of my Anchorage home. The stains are most abundant around my right knee, reflecting my habit of kneeling as I pick, at times.

Pants stains are a crude measure of my success at finding local berry crops. Lots of stains, lots of ripe blueberries. Of course I have other, more dependable ways of documenting success: most obviously, the number of quarts I collect or the number of pies and pancake breakfasts that my picking yields.

Yet there are more subtle measures, too: the joy of discovering a rich "new" patch that other berry pickers have ignored or overlooked; the invigorating pleasure of inhaling crisp mountain air while caressed by warm late-summer sunlight and serenaded by redpolls or sparrows.

I am new to berry harvesting. Certainly I've picked and gobbled these tiny wild fruits for as long as I can remember, whenever walks have taken me through berry patches. But only in recent years has such casual picking become a more formal seasonal ritual.

Now, in late summer and early fall, I sometimes head into the backcountry expressly to collect wild berries. Even in this northern climate, the variety of edible types is remarkable: salmonberries, watermelon berries, high- and low-bush cranberries, nagoonberries, gooseberries, cloudberries, crowberries, huckleberries, strawberries, raspberries, ligonberries.

Blueberries have become my favorite target, both because of their taste and widespread abundance; they're everywhere, it seems, from Alaska's lush coastal rain forests to high alpine meadows and expansive arctic tundra.

I try to recall what caused the shift to serious collecting. Gradually, the memory takes shape. In the mid-1990s, while exploring Alaska's wild coast, I'd stumbled across an incredible profusion of juicily delicious blueberries.

The last day of the trip, I filled two quart-sized water bottles with purple-blue fruits larger than peas and brought them home to share with Dulcy, my wife.

We gobbled fresh blueberries, then blueberries with milk, and, finally, I tossed blueberries in pancake batter.

Forever hooked by those experimental berry pancakes, I asked Mom (a most excellent baker) for pie recipes. Her easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions deepened our berry delight, and so I became a berry gatherer.

In just a few years, this harvesting has evolved into a valued ritual. In Alaska, where summers seem too short and autumns are even shorter, berry picking is one way to celebrate the changing seasons, instead of fighting the downhill slide into winter's cold and darkness.

It's also a way of becoming better acquainted - and more physically connected - with my home landscape.

As a berry picker, I pay more attention to the places where I walk. I learn about plant associations and the conditions that produce blueberry bushes; I notice changes in the timing and quantity of ripened berries from one year to the next.

One place I inevitably check is aptly named Blueberry Hill, a gently rounded knob in the Chugach Mountains a few miles from home. A short walk from the trailhead, the hill is an invigorating place of high winds, alpine meadows, and grand views that take in much of southcentral Alaska.

Kneeling on Blueberry Hill's pale-brown soil, crawling among yellow, orange, and reddish-purple bushes, and grabbing berries one by one or in small bunches, I can't help but become more grounded in the local landscape. And by collecting and consuming the berries that grow in my wild "backyard," I more fully participate in the seasonal cycles of my homeland.

Last year, my best harvest ever, I picked three gallons of blueberries. This year, surprised by an early ripening and faced with smaller "crops" in my favorite picking spots, I will likely only gather two gallons, maybe less, by autumn's end.

It's a tiny haul by most harvesting standards. And hardly worth mentioning, when compared with the bulk fruits and vegetables and meats (and junk food) that Dulcy and I will purchase at the grocery store this year.

So in one sense, I suppose, my picking is a token effort. In another sense - and the way I choose to see it -my harvest is a symbolic act, a personal reminder that all my food comes from the earth, not from supermarkets and food-packaging producers. Just as these wildly delicious berries from nearby mountains feed my body, so the act of picking them feeds my spirit.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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