By Ellie Levin, a member of Get Your WordsWorth
When I was a child at Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, low blueberry bushes grew close to the shore. Once we picked berries bursting with purple juice from a canoe, but, perhaps, that was on another lake many years later. At Sunapee, when the berries were ripe, we went to farmer Smith’s field, we learned how to select a good bush with large, ripe berries, pick by the handful, avoiding the green unripe ones—a technique of manipulating your hand like a magician. It takes practice and experience. Then we bought fresh ice cream made in farmer Smith’s dairy and talked to the cows.
We changed our summer place to the foothills of the Catskills when I was seven. To our delight the tall bushes were heavy with blueberries in mid July. They did not seem quite as large as the Sunapee berries. We picked in an old orchard where the brush had been cleaned out by fire some ten years past, where plenitude made up for their size. Over the years the bushes grew higher and higher. We brought a ladder to reach the best berries near the top. We picked with a coffee can tied to our waist with a ribbon through a hole that was pounded out at the top of the can. In two hours a party of four could pick several gallons.
A picker had to learn to disregard discomforts in order to be the best picker. There was always an unstated contest. As you reached in and under a branch, a small protruding sprout might scratch your arm. The heat of the sun that ripened the berries caused perspiration to run down from the inside of your hat. Occasionally a guest picker or a new relative by marriage needed immediate first aid. There were chipmunk holes and rabbit holes where heavy walkers could twist an ankle. Testing before placing your foot is a habit that it takes awhile for an adult to acquire. Then, there were bees in the early season seeking the pollen from the few remaining flowers. A sting for an allergic person could and did on one occasion require a shot of adrenalin. Fortunately, in our extended family there were several licensed medical doctors.
When we had enough blueberries for a day of canning, we were rewarded with a plunge into the icy lake fed by the pure icy streams coming down from the mountains. In the evening, after supper, we sat on the porch steps and sorted the berries, removing green one, leaves, stems, and small pieces of bark. When they were picked clean, the berries were poured into a colander and rinsed with fresh water. From there they were weighed and placed in a huge cylinder. The berries had to boil up twice. We removed the pink scum and ladled hot berries into sterilized glass jars. Quickly we placed rubbers and lids on the tops of jars and screwed them down a few minutes later. Then we placed the jars upside down in a water bath brought to a boil. Turned right side up on a counter, their lids tightened once more, they were now ready to last throughout the coming months in a storage closet. We also made blueberry jam with twice the weight of the berries in added sugar. In a good year we could look forward to blueberry jam every morning and blueberry pie every Sunday. During the summer we ate bowls and bowls of unwashed blueberries fresh from the bushes.
In the waning years of my girlhood, we acquired a freezer in which we put freshly picked unwashed berries in freezer boxes. We never relied on this for a year’s supply, however, because summer storms often knocked down the rural power lines, and the power was often out for more than 24 hours.
The supply of berries on the land once owned by my family has diminished. Many bushes are now sterile. Much of the land is a state park, opened to the public where we are free to pick, but it is a two-hour bus ride from New York. Going there on summer weekends to pick just whets my appetite. On one recent day in early fall when the leaves of the blueberry bushes were turning a deep lipstick red, we met a black bear. Perhaps, like us, she had ventured forth to see if there were a few more berries before the long winter.
Elinor Levin is a retired teacher and mother of two sons. These days she enjoys swimming, walking, yoga, and Writing from Life Experience.