We drove 50 miles Saturday morning to stand in the Texas sun and pick blueberries. Rather, I picked blueberries, our 3-year-old ate blueberries, our 5-year-old complained about our 3-year-old eating blueberries, and my wife swatted mosquitoes. This is all part of our effort to preserve the embattled family unit, and we do it several times each summer. We picked 9.5 pounds of berries in about 90 minutes. I’m not a hunter or fisherman and will never know the taste of game I’ve killed myself, but self-picked berries taste more flavorful than store-bought, in part because you remember the hard work and sweat that went into the harvest.
Thoreau mentions blueberries three times, only once to any significant account, in Walden. In “Reading,” he describes the setting where his cabin stood near the pond: “In my front yard grew the strawberry, blackberry, and life-everlasting, johnswort and golden-rod, shrub-oaks and sand-cherry, blueberry and ground-nut.” Next, in the opening paragraph of “The Ponds,” he juggles several of the book’s themes:
“Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward than I habitually dwell, into yet more unfrequented parts of tow, `to fresh woods and pastures new,’ or, while the sun was setting, made my supper of huckleberries and blueberries on Fair Haven Hill, and laid up a store for several days. The fruits do not yield their true flavor to the purchaser of them, nor to him who raises them for the market. There is but one way to obtain it, yet few take that way. If you would know the flavor of huckleberries, ask the cow-boy or the partridge. It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who have never plucked them. A huckleberry never reaches Boston; they have not been known there since they grew on her three hills. The ambrosial and essential part of the fruit is lost with the bloom which is rubbed off in the market cart, and they become mere provender.”
This reminds me of the opening sentences of A.J. Liebling’s classic account of Earl Long, the younger brother of Huey “Kingfish” Long, The Earl of Louisiana: “Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch.” I wonder how the taste of wild blueberries in Thoreau’s day compares to the hybridized species we picked on Saturday, which to my palate perfectly balance the tart and the sweet (like Thoreau himself).
The third mention of blueberries comes later in “The Ponds”:
“When the water is at its height, the alders, willows, and maples send forth a mass of fibrous red roots several feet long from all sides of their stems in the water, and to the height of three or four feet from the ground, in the effort to maintain themselves; and I have known the high-blueberry bushes about the shore, which commonly produce no fruit, bear an abundant crop under these circumstance.”
In Walden, Thoreau’s interest in blueberries is more botanical than gustatory. The same is true in the recently published Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript. Thoreau was a largely self-taught field naturalist of the first order, so his strict accounting of the ecology of the woods and fields around Concord should not surprise us. In this July 23, 1860 excerpt from his journal, Thoreau demonstrates the acuity and all-encompassing nature of his vision:
“I see a snake crossing at Hubbard’s Bridge as swiftly as a muskrat could, which, indeed, I at first took it for,—faster than a muskrat would.
"I find the ripest blueberries (Vaccinium vacillans) not on the very top nor on the lower slope, but on the brow, or what is called the `pitch’ of the hill (Conantum) toward the light. The ripest are of course the largest, and this year very large and hard and bead-like.
"Slender early spiranthes noticed.
"I read of the Amazon that its current, indeed, is strong, but the wind always blows up the stream. This sounds too good to be true.”
Thoreau’s mind was too holistic to single out blueberries for special attention in a passage like this, despite their flavor. Blueberries merit the same attention as the Amazon.