A dry summer means undersized blueberries. Most were smaller than chickpeas, some in the barley range. That translated into more time spent picking and more whining from the kids, but also more opportunities to eavesdrop on fellow-pickers, most of whom were women with large broods. A variation on a conversation overheard several times: “They got lots of antioxidants. They’re good for you.” Even the innocent pleasure of berry-picking is turned grimly utilitarian. I heard much anxious talk of diet and nutrition, and nothing about the flavor of the berries. Back home I turned to Thoreau as an antidote:
“These berries have a very innocent ambrosial taste, as if made of the ether itself, as they plainly are colored with it…I can easily see still in my mind’s-eye the beautiful clusters of these berries as they appeared to me twenty or thirty years ago, when I came upon an undiscovered bed of them behind some higher bushes in a sproutland – the rich clusters drooping in the shade there and bluing all the ground, without a grain of their bloom disturbed. It was a thrilling discovery to find such ethereal fruits under the still, fresh green of oaks and hickory sprouts.”
This is from Wild Fruits, a late work not published until 138 years after his death. Thoreau is writing of the early low blueberry, which he notes is also called dwarf blueberry, Pennsylvania blueberry and Vaccinium pennsylvanicum. Thoreau christens it the “bluet” (also a wildflower, and meaning something like “small blue”). This blueberry grows naturally in the woods and fields around Concord, and I’ve eaten from it in the Adirondacks. Thoreau observed how it flourishes after a woodlot is cut down – “during the few years between one forest’s fall and another’s rise.”
Imagine, in mid-19th-century America, the anticipation people felt as they awaited the ripening of berries and other fruit. I remember my maternal grandmother, born in 1888 in upstate New York, describing the thrill of getting an orange as a Christmas present when she was a girl. It seemed like a fragrant, colorful miracle. So much prosperity – refrigeration, high-speed transportation – has blunted taste buds and clouded memories.
The bushes on the farm we visited Friday were planted in long, tight, parallel lines like hedgerows. Orb weavers and swallows harvested insects as we harvested berries. The swallows performed their customary acrobatics, and one dipped so low over my head I felt the wind of his passing. Here’s Thoreau again, from Wild Fruits:
“…some child of the woods is at your door with ripe blueberries, for didn’t you know that Mr. Blood cut off his woodlot on Pomciticut Hill winter before last? This act has more results than he wots [knows] of. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good; and thus it happens that when the owner lays bare and deforms a hillside, and he alone appears to reap any advantage from it by a crop of wood, all the villagers and inhabitants of distant cities obtain some compensation in the crop of berries that it yields…Let alone your garden, cease your cultivation – and in how short a time will blueberries and huckleberries grow there!”