Berry Picking

July is berry picking time. Red and black rasberries, thimbleberries, and currants ripen under the midsummer sun. It is time to fill the empty jam jars again.

The children and I went berrying every summer. We'd pack a lunch of thin-sliced ham between thick slices of homemade bread, hard-boiled eggs, wedges of store-cheese, cookies and lemonade and set off as soon as chores were done. We each had a basket or bucket to pick into and I carried the shoulder-yoke with two milk pails to be filled.

It wasn't far to the berry patch, just through the south pasture, past the woodlot, and along the creek to the edge of the swamp. We'd leave our lunch by the big locust tree and each take his favorite path into the brambles.

At first the children would call to each other in excitement over the size of the berries and probably ate more than went into the buckets. Ellen always got her long curls caught at least once before she'd tie them up in a kerchief. Soon the picker's got down to business and the only sounds, other than bird songs, would be the rustle of berry canes and the dull plopping of berries in one's own pail.

The sun makes flecks of light where it trickles through a straw hat and warms bare arms to a rosy tingle. The briars cling to cloth and skin, leaving painful streaks of red in their wake.

Berry picking is an art. You must take only the ripe fruit, that whch comes willingly as your fingers stroke it gently, leaving the rest to ripen for another day. Some pickers move quickly from place to place, lured on by single fat berries dancing in the breeze. Others pick methodically, working from the ground up, peering under leaves and parting branches to the bloody grief of their fingers and arms. There should be no leaves, bugs, or crushed fruit and no green or half-ripe berries in a good picker's pail.

When the sun rose high overhead I'd call "lunch" and we'd meet back at the tree. Some would have been there once or twice before to empty their buckets. Usually we'd have one pail full and perhaps a layer or two in the second if it was a good crop.

Each person had his own lunch wrapped in a red-checkered napkin. The lemonade in mason jars had bobbed in the creek all morning and tasted like ambrosia to thirsty "berriers". Bread crumbs (we ate the crusts) were gathered to spread on a fallen log for the birds and bugs to enjoy. As we ate, we basked in the cool shade of the thorny locust whose spreading branches tempted not one of my intrepid climbers to their leafy sanctuary. The honey-sweet flowerlets of the locust are effectively offset by the wicked daggers that stud its sides.

Berry patches are frequented by other than human creatures as Frank and Julia once discovered. They had gone early one evening to pick enough berries for pies for the threashers the next day. Because it was late, they had decided to pick close together near the edge of the patch. Frank had moved out of Julia's sight down a by-path and both were picking hurriedly in rapt silence.

Julia noticed the far side of the bushes quivering and thought Frank had made his way around by the other path until she caught sight of black, beady eyes peering at her through the leaves. She almost dropped her pail and ran but she knew how much I was counting on having berry pie for the threashers, so she kept one eye on the bushes and the other on the berries and picked rapidly in the direction Frank had gone.

Moments later they met and without a word, made their way to the edge of the creek and ran for home. Julia had seen a bear cub but Frank had met it's mother. The old shebear came up beside him as he was picking and calmly began stripping berries into her mouth. Evidently she thought there was plenty for everyone for she made no objection to Frank's picking. He pretended not to notice her and moved quietly away as Julia had done.
We did our berry picking at midday from then on.

Red rasberries have always been my favorites. Sun-warmed from the canes, chilled with sweetened cream, in a pie, over ice cream, or made into jam and spread on crisp toast, I like the fuzzy red berries best. I make roll-jell cake with red rasberry jam, too, and it is delicious.