Meditations on berries

By Kristen Lindquist | Aug 07, 2009

Summertime is berry time in the Maine woods and fields. My mother’s maiden name is Berry, and I’ve always imagined what a beautiful family crest we could design — blueberries rampant on a verdant field, Mt. Battie tower in the background like a little castle, strawberry vines twining around the border. I’ve also suspected that the surname conveys with it an inherent love for all edible berries. I have many childhood memories of berry picking with my family. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries — we love them all, and given the option, a berry is always my fruit of choice.

To the delight of foragers both human and otherwise, wild raspberries began reddening in their cane thickets in July. Who can resist the allure of a perfectly ripe raspberry peeking out from under a leaf? Despite the potential peril of biting down on a hard seed or a hidden bug, you can’t stop at just one. Even raspberries picked along the side of a dirt road, coated with a fine layer of dust, have their appeal. And there’s nothing like the unexpected pleasure of coming across a trailside patch of raspberry bushes laden with dewy red fruit while hiking. The woods seem to offer them up like a reward for your efforts. The impenetrability of the dense, thorny bushes usually leaves you wanting more, enhancing the raspberry’s attraction, as well as ensuring enough are left behind for the birds and beasts who depend on them.

With all this summer’s rain, to enjoy blackberries you’ll have to stake out your patch and work fast between the wet days. Blackberries represent the essence of the brief but sweet Maine summer for me: the plump fruits are luscious but spoil easily, lasting only a day or two. A few summers ago, while my husband fished for trout in his favorite lake in the middle of the North Woods, a friend and I spent several hours picking blackberries. The next morning for breakfast we ate a meal that would please even the most ardent “eat local” fanatic: fresh-caught brook trout and as many blackberries as we could cram into our mouths, knowing neither would last, that we couldn’t bring them with us when we left. But that breakfast has certainly lasted in my store of happy summer memories.

I am an inveterate collector of things, including such esoterica as poems about blackberries. This personal anthology currently contains 20 poems (not including two of my own), by such well-known poets as Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, Sylvia Plath, Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, and Mary Oliver. Who knew such a humble berry could provide such wide-ranging inspiration? And yet it makes a certain sense. The blackberry possesses natural attractions for a poet: hanging there in tantalizing abundance, dark, and ripe, each ephemeral fruit embodying a moment of sweetness tempered by scratches from the thorny stems — a sweetness that lingers with the tattoo of purple ink on fingers and tongue. The stuff of poetry, and a good breakfast.

But while the blackberry may serve as a juicy muse, the true crown jewel of Maine berries is, in my opinion, the blueberry. Like most Mainers, I spent many an August afternoon as a child roaming hillsides, scooping clumps of the dark berries into my bucket (and my mouth) so that my mother could later make a pie, muffins, blueberry crisp, or jam, or sprinkle them in our pancakes or cereal. I will eat or drink almost anything containing fresh, wild blueberries — smoothie, sorbet, salsa, mojito — it’s all good. The taste alone of a single ripe berry fresh off the bush has the power to send me back more than 30 years to similar sunny summer moments. Those huge cultivated blueberries offered up in the grocery store, from New Jersey or Florida or even Canada, don’t have this same magic hold on me. They don’t offer that same concentrated sweetness, can’t compare to a berry that has ripened on a low bush on a mountain ledge, watered by fog and brushed by the feet of native bees and praying mantises.

My work with Coastal Mountains Land Trust has engaged me with blueberries on a level beyond that of exuberant consumer. The land trust manages the open fields of its Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport as an organic blueberry farm, raking off most of the berries itself so as to pay for continued maintenance of the barrens. In this way, the berries have become a conservation tool, helping to pay for themselves. The forces of succession are strong. It takes a lot of (costly) human effort to keep the forest at bay to preserve the special open field habitat that blueberries, as well as many crucial grassland bird species like field sparrows, kestrels, and bluebirds, need to thrive. And in addition to these benefits to native wildlife, keeping the fields open means visitors to the preserve can continue to enjoy the spectacular views from this unique hill.

This summer’s free blueberry pick at Beech Hill is scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 8 and 9 from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in designated fields. This special weekend is the only time of year that any part of the fields are open for public access and picking. And what better place to pick berries than this beautiful nature preserve, surrounded by birdsong, wildflowers, and panoramic views of the bay and the Camden Hills? (Added bonus: Beech Nut, the historic, sod-roofed stone hut at the hill’s summit will also be open during the pick.) But before you head for the fields with your tin pail, be sure to re-read your worn copy of "Blueberries for Sal" as a reminder of the simple delight of days spent on a sunny hillside stuffing your mouth with blueberries.
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