Friday, August 8, 2014

Picking Berries

"Can I eat them all?” my 5-year-old asked, staring at a large bowl of wild blueberries we’d plucked from low bushes along the side of a local road. When it comes to berries, this little girl is insatiable, and I
can’t blame her. After all, wild berries picked fresh from the vine or the bush are one of the great joys of summer.

Over the past few years, my family has a built a respectable list of secret and not-so-secret berry stashes: a thick patch of blueberries hidden amid the tangled brush of the southeast field, swaths of thorny blackberry bushes growing through the old apple orchard, and clusters of wild raspberries woven along the tumbledown, fern-ensconced stone wall at the far edge of the front yard.

If one berry spot is lacking, we move on hopefully to the next – the roadside pick where we found the blueberries my youngest was ready to devour last week, or the patch of raspberry bushes at the corner of our road, or the blackberry brambles at the edge of the woods in the front field. So far, our best crop this summer has been the raspberries growing through the thick hedge of rosa rugosa along the curve of our driveway.

“Berries!” called the littlest one (again) as we drove out one morning. I brushed off her claim at first, figuring she must have seen the rusty swell of rosehips within the prickly foliage. But she was persistent (as she often is), so I threw the minivan into reverse to check it out. Sure enough, the first pinky-red raspberries of the summer hung there amid the thorny rosebushes like tiny treasures. I picked the few I could reach and divvied them up between us.

That was weeks ago, and my daughter continues to visit that spot several times each day, reaching through the double thorns of  rose bushes and raspberry canes for each sweet prize, and beseeching the taller members of the family to pluck the berries that hang tantalizingly just beyond her reach.

I spent many a girlhood afternoon myself, once upon a time, scrambling through brambles to reach the berries that grew along the road near home. The scratches along bare arms and legs were a small price for the simple pleasure of wild berries eaten on the spot or saved for breakfast the next morning.

During college, I spent a summer in Ireland, studying history and literature and traveling around. While musing and wandering one day along a quiet lane just outside the village that had been home to my great-grandparents, I made the happy discovery of big, juicy blackberries growing in the roadside hedge. Their sun-warmed sweetness and the casual waves of passing strangers reminded me of home.

This summer, too, we have managed to find wild berries in our travels. During a visit with friends in Maine, we picked our way through some of that state’s famous wild blueberry bushes, located conveniently off the back porch. What the littlest one did not eat by the handful, we saved for breakfast the next morning. On our annual trek to Cape Cod, we discovered a small patch of blackberries just down the road from where we were staying. My children exclaimed at the find and spent 10 happy minutes plucking a colander full of plump berries, enough to last the week.

Closer to home, my children and husband and I keep watch on the berries each summer, looking first for the blossoms, then the bumpy green of unripe berries, and finally the succulence of the tiny, tasty treasures we’ve waited for. Then we set to picking.

While the kids prefer to grab blackberries and raspberries on the fly, before moving on to one of summer’s other distractions, my favorite to pick are the blueberries, tiny and low to the ground – and thornless. It is something like meditative therapy to crouch down in a quiet field and mindlessly plop small berries into a pail until it is full.

Each summer we bake our cache of wild berries into crumbles and muffins, blend them into smoothies, condense them into jam, pour them over pancakes, and package the leftovers neatly into the freezer for later. By far the best way to eat a wild berry, though, is fresh off the bush or the vine, juicy with sunshine, brimming with the sweetness of summer and good memories of past berry picking adventures.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears in the August 8, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

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