The sun, which hadn’t felt hot when we’d arrived, seared into my back.  Sweat pooled under the edges of my hat.  My knees and ankles ached under the pressure of holding a squat for far longer than I should ever hold a squat.  I moved aside a few green leaves and saw some flashes of red.  I gently lifted the berries and checked for green spots or holes left by birds or slugs.  Then I pulled them off, one by one, and reached back to put them in the box behind me.  I was stretching for more when I heard a shuffle, shuffle, shuffle behind me, then a quick scrabbling noise, and, finally, a mushy gulp.

“Sam,” I said as I lifted the leaves of the next plant.  “Get out of the strawberries.”

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Blueberries for Sal  is one of those children’s books that I assume everyone knows.  But I’ve met many people who haven’t read it, so isn’t universal, much to my dismay.  If you haven’t read, and you are partial to books about cute little kids and cute little bears heading up to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries with their mothers, or, rather, eat all the blueberries being picked by their mothers, then you certainly should read it.  It’s a nice flashback to the time when property rights were a bit more laid back and whoever owned Blueberry Hill was happy to let the local folks come gather a couple of quarts, as long they didn’t mind occasionally getting entangled with bears or having their children eat all their hard work out from under them.

I don’t know if you can pick berries like that anymore.  These days, I don’t live in an area with a lot of wild blueberry fields.  At least, none that I know of.  There are a few patches here and there.  We have a small one in the utility easement on our property, but it only produces a few cups each season. That’s enough if you’d like a few days worth for your yogurt but isn’t so helpful if you want to make jam or pies or feed my particular children.

I grew up in an area with more extensive blueberry barrens. They were commercial fields owned by large blueberry operations, yes, but still they were still pickable.  All you had to do was wait until the rakers went through and were done with the field, and you could then take your bucket and go pick the areas they missed. Those were usually tricky areas around rocks or in hollows, places that someone looking for the fastest harvest would skip.  It was possible to pick quarts of berries that way, if you had the time and inclination to pick quarts of an item that was an average of 1/3 of an inch in diameter.  But I did, because I’m a forager by nature and once I start gathering I must gather until there is nothing gatherable left.

I don’t think things operate that way any more.  One of the fields near my old house now has giant boulders, the ones that litter every blueberry barrens, piled up around the edges of the field.  It must have taken a monstrous effort and some heavy duty machinery to pull all of those chunks of granite out of the ground, chunks of granite that have been there since the glaciers dropped them off on their way through.  But I suppose it was worth it because now they can harvest the blueberries in straight shots, up and down, possibly even with machinery.  There probably isn’t anything left for foragers like me and Sal after that.

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Annabel and I went to pick wild strawberries a few weeks ago.  I’d noticed a patch while I was on a walk and after she woke up from her nap I brought her back out with me.  They weren’t in a picturesque little field or conveniently located beside a babbling brook.  Instead, they sprawled out of the ditch by the side of a busy road.  I’m not surprised no one else picked them.  It wasn’t a very inviting location.  But she and I turned our butts to the passing traffic and gathered up several cups of the little buggers.  I tried not to dwell on the fact that these berries were basically raised on car exhaust.  I just wanted to see if she would like picking them.  She did.

We gathered just shy of two cups. It was enough for Sam and her to have them as a snack when we got back home and some on top of their cereal the next morning, besides.

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Back at the pick-your-own-strawberries place, red juice ran down Sam’s chin and onto his shirt.  He smiled at me, reached into my box, and took another one.  After he ate all of the berries in my container, he scooted over to the row and began pulling berries directly off the plants and cramming them into his mouth.  I tried to run interference at first, as his technique definitely ran less toward foraging and more towards fruit-napping, but I finally realized it was more effective to just let him go while the rest of us picked as fast as we could.  In the end, we picked four quarts, leaving one a bit shy to try to compensate for Sam’s strawberry bacchanalia.

It wasn’t true foraging.  It was a farm and we did have to pay.  But I guess that’s how things work these days if you want berries free of carbon monoxide.

And, of course, there were no bears.

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