Berry Picking

I am a fan of blueberries and blackberries. I only have a handful of bushes here at the tree farm, but I’m not looking to make money off them. They are here for pure enjoyment. And for the pies, too.

If I was serious about these things I would have followed in my Dad’s footsteps. Peaches. Plums. Figs. Muscadines. These were the staples of my growing up years. My Mama canned enough jellies and preserves to last for decades at our house. I took for granted the sweet pickles and the pickled peaches and the jellies. I didn’t realize that one day it would all come to an end.

When we were kids, Mama would send us out to pick wild blackberries. We watched the flowers light up in the spring. It was like waiting on Christmas. Come June, the endless berry patches around the fields and road sides were free for the taking.

“Take this bucket and walk up behind that old house up toward your Uncle Clem’s. Fill it up and we’ll make a cobbler, and I want enough to make us some jelly.”

I protested. “But we still have jelly from last year.”

“You never mind about that. Those vines are full and we’re not about to let it go to waste. You pay attention and look out for snakes.”

Mama always worried about snakes. It didn’t matter what we were doing, there was always a possibility in her mind that a snake would come out, wrap its coils around us and swallow us whole. We were told to beat the bushes with a stick to chase the snakes away before we started picking.

It wasn’t the snakes that got us. It was the chiggers. In case you’ve never encountered an honest to goodness chigger attack, let me tell you that you should pray you never do.

Chiggers are evil. Little red monsters that crawl into the dark sweaty places of the human body and dig into the skin with a vengeance. The itch makes you wish the Apocalypse would come and put you out of your misery right then and there. The first time I ever saw a professional baseball player scratch himself right there on public TV, it looked to me as if he might have chiggers.

The other hazard of berry picking is the thorns. I have the thornless varieties now, but the wild ones are nothing more than a glorified briar patch. Pick for a couple hours and you come out looking like you had lost a fight with a cat. God bless the Ouachita and the Navaho and the guy who was smart enough to get rid of the thorns.

I almost forgot. Red wasp love to build their nests in the thicket of a blackberry patch. You can pick around the edge for a while, but eventually you have to push in toward the middle if Mama wants a full bucket. One eye on the berry you’re reaching for. One eye circling in search of incoming wasp.

Berry picking is kinda like knowing you could die at any minute. If the snake bite doesn’t get you, the chiggers will. You could bleed to death from all the scratches, or break your neck running from a swarm of red wasp. Mothers who would never think of sending their sons off to war never hesitated to send small boys off to the blackberry patch.

I have picked a few blackberries and blueberries here in the last week or so. Still there is plenty to share. So I got ahold of a friend of ours and offered up an invitation to come pick.

She showed up yesterday morning with daughter and grandkids in tow. It was a family field trip. She said the kids loved blueberries and that it would be good for them to see where they come from. Mostly they come out of little clear plastic containers these days. The bush idea was new to the kids.

Ryan is about 8 years old. He was sure he would be bored to death picking blueberries. But he had his Star Wars bucket with him. It didn’t take long.

“Mr. Paul, come over here. Look at the size of that one. I love the big juicy ones.” He was hooked.

Adison is the quiet busy one. She got right in there. I didn’t mention anything about snakes or chiggers. She caught on pretty fast on the difference between the green ones, the red ones and the purple ones. And she was discerning, inspecting each one carefully. If the degree of purpleness did not pass her quality control it got tossed aside.

Her mother got involved. “Now honey. If you’re going to toss them on the ground don’t pick them. Pick only the ones you’re going to keep.” A good life lesson for all of us.

It was little Callie that stole my heart. She’s maybe 4 or 5. Blonde curly hair, almost like a little Shirley Temple. When they got out of the car, Max came to inspect the visitors. I was told that Callie was afraid of dogs. So, we spent our first moments introducing Max to everyone.

You have to realize that Max is an older dog. All the high energy stuff only shows up once in a blue moon. Kinda like me. He doesn’t bark at people. He doesn’t jump up and get your clothes all muddy. But when Callie saw Max, she pulled her little bucket up to her chin and stepped back.

I held him by the collar and coaxed her to scratch his shoulder. His tale wagged and in his way, he slid over and nudged up against her. She was warming up.

Callie and I picked berries together for a while. The low hanging ones. I knelt down and held the branches still for her. She reached in to pull off the nice ones.

“You know, when I was your age, I ate more than I put in my bucket. You should try one.”

She was having none of that. “No. I want to save some for my Dad. I like to share. I’m glad I’m not like you.” Nothing more revealing or honest was ever spoken that day.

When we got ready to go, Max was in the middle of it all. Callie was cautious, but more brave than when she first got there.

She scratched his back. “He’s not wagging his tale” she noted.

“Well, you have to scratch his ear for that” I told her. It wasn’t necessarily true, but it sounded like something a 5 year old would believe. “Here let me show you.” I scratched his ear, and like magic the tail motor started up on que.

She got closer. A bucket of blueberries in one hand and tail wagging dog in the other.

“I used to be afraid of dogs” she said. “But now I wuv dogs.” And she gave Max about half a hug. Chalk one up for Max.

I’d say it was a pretty good day of berry picking all in all. No chiggers. No snakes. Max made new friends. And maybe there’s a blueberry muffin out there somewhere calling my name. Just saying.

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