North Woods Journal 8/28/2017
Blueberries, and Other Berries
Seeing few bees or wasps in early June, I worried that the blueberry flowers would not get pollinated this year. There is history related to this concern: 2 separate years, there were no blueberries, a phenomenon which was attributed to the collapse of the bee/wasp colonies. I shouldn’t have fretted – it has been a bumper crop this summer! I have picked more than 15 quarts, my previous record, and one bush alone produced 5 quarts in 3 weekly pickings. The blueberry picture is taken from that bush. After 4 pies, 4 batches of muffins, 4 jars of jam, a double cake, and blueberries just about every morning on cereal or yogurt, there are still 5-1/2 quarts in my refrigerator, and all must be consumed or used before we leave here in 4 weeks. That is a delightful task!
It’s nice that they don’t all ripen at once, extending the season and the pleasure of communing with nature in the process. Yes, blueberry picking is a very special experience, and has been ever since I was a young girl. It is so peaceful, therapeutically so. It’s a time to reflect and listen to the nature around me: the loons calling out on the lake behind me, a bullfrog croaking in the shallows under the bush I am picking from as early evening sets in, a squirrel on a nearby branch chittering at me, the splash of a jumping fish, a bald eagle soaring overhead, ravens cawing raucously in a tall spruce above, song birds chirping merrily, and even evidence of the black bear that also likes berries.
By the way, I saw my first black bear this year – gratefully, I have never seen the bear in our blueberries. I was on my motorbike on my way to our mailbox, which is a mile and a half down the road. I was about to turn from our road onto the double-wide, dirt Depot Road when a bear ran across that road, into the woods on our property. I questioned to myself whether I should proceed in that direction, and finally decided that the bear would not bother me as it would be afraid of the noise from the motorbike. When I returned, I intended to pick wild strawberries, but wondered if I would meet the bear there. Thankfully I did not, and made sure I made enough noise while picking that it would know I was there. Unlike grizzly bears, one of which at that time had just attacked a bicyclist out west, black bears are rather skittish as opposed to aggressive, unless one gets between the mother and her cubs.
Unlike the blueberry bushes that grow about a foot off the ground, ours are high-bush berries, sometimes towering a couple of feet above me, and growing along the lakefront or just inland on the bank. So I can walk through the water and pick anywhere from knee-high to the length of my overhead reach, (and take care on the rocks that can be treacherous underfoot, particularly with a full pail), or I can walk along the bank and gather these tasty morsels, generally much smaller than the store-bought, cultivated variety, and packed with healthful anti-oxidants. I have an Ann Page peanut can that has been my companion for at least 55 years; it holds 2 quarts, and I have attached a string so I can wear it around my neck, allowing me to pick with 2 hands or, as is the case much of the time, hold the branch with one hand while picking with the other. Often, the best berries are on the under side of the branch; I have wondered why that is – it may be that they benefit from the rain that drips down through the bush, even though they don’t get as much sun. Clearly, there is a balance between rain and sun that produces bigger, sweeter berries; actually, these wild, native berries always have a bit of tartness to them. They are flavorful!
Blueberrying is also about sharing, with others besides bears. I can be picking from a wonderful bush at the same time that half a dozen wasps are feeding there. We get along fine as long as I don’t touch them; then they’ll let me know! They do have an unfortunate habit, however, of partially eating a berry and leaving it squishy before moving on to the next; this seems like such a waste. But, they are entitled to eat; after all, they were the pollinators that made the blueberries possible! Other insects lurk in the berries too. Sometimes a berry will have a cottony plug in the top end; when I remove that plug, the tiniest spider scrambles out. It doesn’t hurt the berry, but I have made it temporarily homeless, until it settles into another. Little mites and tent caterpillars can be present in the bushes too.
So today, I wistfully picked the last blueberries for this year, just a few. Most now are small and shriveled or over-ripe and soft, although there is one bush that is always late and still has numerous white ones, totally unripe. It will not be worth going back for those, so I will put my old pail away, and turn to other pursuits until next year.
The cycles of nature here are generally predictable. In June, the white flowers of the bunchberries (that I wrote about and pictured previously) become red berries in July. Lore says that these berries are edible, but I have never tried them.
Prior to the blueberry season, we have a few wild raspberries whose bushes are the first things to grow in after a forest cutting. We also have wild strawberries, no bigger than the end of my little finger, but so, so sweet (picture). It was a good year for those, and I picked a container full from our “meadow,” cleared of trees 12 years ago when the power went through and re-cleared this month of trees that have grown up under the power lines since.
Nature and its bounty are a blessing, to be admired for its abundance and regeneration, and to be shared widely by all in the diverse ecosystem of our lake and forest environment. We are grateful!