As soon as we hit the blueberry patch, the kids disperse: Filibuster stealthily cases the entire patch until she finds the best row from which she picks only the choicest berries. V disappears, watching people between branches, planning film scenes in her head, disdaining the people around her for their very humanity in the same way she so often distains herself. And Squints? When he finds a really good bush, he’ll shout out for the entire world to hear, “Mom! Dad! Come look at these berries! They’re amazing!” But I won’t respond to his summons, not immediately. Because I feel it’s my duty to pick a bush clean. Even if there are other berries down the row that are perhaps a bit plumper, I can’t move on until I’ve gotten all possible berries from the bush. My husband stays beside me. He claims it’s because I’m an expert, that he needs my guidance, but I think that he just wants to protect me from those dangerous blueberry-throwing men sometimes seen at this particular patch. He picks slowly (he calls it deliberately), enjoying the nature that surrounds him. We’ll pick in silence, listening to the birds and the conversations that float by as people head out to stake their own claims.
When she’s got a well-rounded quart, Filibuster will find us to show off her beautiful berries. V will follow shortly after, rolling her eyes at the family who’s videotaping their two year old as he picks. Squints will have a quart of mostly ripe berries and a bunch rolled up in his shirt, too, which he’ll try to add to Filibuster’s new quart. But she’ll turn aside, covering her basket with her hand. “Don’t contaminate my berries.”
* * *
The girls worked until late on Friday. They refused to get up at 7:30 to pick Saturday morning. So Squints, my husband, and I left the house at 8:30. By 9:30 the temperature was 85 degrees. By noon it was supposed to hit 90. We figured we’d get to the patch early before it got too hot and—more importantly—before the crowds showed up.
“It’s a holiday weekend anyway,” my husband commented as he turned in. “No one’s going to be here.”
The parking lot was the fullest I’d ever seen it. The front field where we normally pick was closed. Signs directed us past the cherry trees and the blackberries to the back patch.
“Why are all those people in one row? Buncha’ newbies.” I pushed aside the black netting enclosing the field and ducked in. I veered to the left, past the throng of people and was stopped by a sign: These rows closed. Just beyond the sign there were gorgeous berries ready for the taking.
I turned around. Another sign: This row best picking. We turned down the row and joined the mass of people. Men and women and children were everywhere. A man passed with a bucket tied around his waist. A woman with a baseball cap and a bucket slung around her neck stood six inches from me and began picking directly over my head. I felt territorial: for the twenty or so minutes it would take me to clean this bush, it was understood, more or less, to be mine. Who did this woman, with her bucket round her neck, think she was? From somewhere down the row, a baby screamed. A young couple had a five gallon dishpan full of berries. A woman approached. “Come to an impromptu picnic tonight. I have to hold it at my house to make amends for changing the berry picking venue at the last minute.”
“Can we bring anything?”
“Bring berries,” the woman said, laughing. “If you have enough.”
I glanced at my husband. There was desperation in his eyes. These annual berry picking trips are about more than the getting of fruit and putting it by. To him, they are his Thoreauvian moments. And these moments aren’t supposed to involve masses of people talking loudly and making lame jokes.
The salsa music began. People began dancing on the flat roof of the barn. My husband set his jaw and concentrated hard on ignoring everyone around him. Squints disappeared down the row. “Mom! Dad! You’ve got to see these berries!” People moved towards him. Even I, pressed by the woman picking two handed over my head, moved towards him, abandoning the half-picked bush.
Two girls dove inside a bush and began shouting loudly: “I feel like I’m in blueberry land! I feel like I’m in blueberry land!”
Squints moved further down the row. A woman saw him; said to her son. “Oh, I see we have some competition here.”
A man approached his wife. He leaned in close, whispered. “Honey, you have to come down here. The picking is really good.” And together, in silence, they crept away.
Within an hour we had picked 10 quarts. We headed for the barn. There was a large group milling around a folding table on the lawn. There was an immense sports jug on the table and people stood around it drinking from little paper cups. I recognized the couple with the dishpan full of berries.
We got in line, the longest line I’d ever seen at the farm. Another large group of people was at the checkout. They stood guarding their berries: stockpots full of berries; plastic containers full of berries; the dishpan full of berries. The man at the checkout gaped upon seeing the quantity of berries this party had picked. “I have never seen anyone walk out of here with this many berries.”
The family members looked at one another and laughed merrily, congratulating themselves on a good day’s work. They formed a bucket brigade: One heaved a mighty pot to the scale. Another, once its weight had been noted, heaved it off and handed it to the person behind him who handed it to the person blocking the entrance—the person who nearly knocked me over what with her swinging of the pot. This person handed the berries to the person standing outside the door who then carried it back to the folding table. These people were certainly not newbies. They were the Red Cross of blueberry picking. They were efficient. They had done well. But something, in my mind, was lacking.
We got into the car and headed home, my husband quieter than usual. “I didn’t even hear one bird,” he groused. Plus his daughters—the daughters who are ready to flee the nest—weren’t there to pick with the family. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
Saturday morning. “What do you want to do today?” I asked my husband.
“I want to pick more blueberries.”
The parking lot was empty. The bushes were picked over. The rows were still closed. But still, there were berries to be had. Filibuster ran surveillance and found her row. V frowned at a family taking a picture. Squints ventured into one of the closed rows, claiming he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to be there. And we listened to the birds and the chatter of families and as she was leaving, a woman said to me, “you really should go to the end of this row. The berries there are wonderful.”
Labels: Blueberries, Buying Locally, Community, Consumption, Country life, Daughters, Nature, Sons, Summer