I wrote this many years ago. Last week, wandering around the edge of the family berry patch got me remembering it.
Beth waited while I looked around the new room, hunting for the Shedd’s peanut butter pail. The room and the pail are both nearly fifty years old, but names, like memories don’t fade easily. When we reached the blueberry field, I paused. “Expect to see a deer.” After dropping the first few berries from a height sufficient to create the time honored ‘plink—plank—plunk,’ we smiled at each other, sharing separate, but still entwined memories of Robert McClosky’s Blueberries For Sal.
Ten minutes later I looked up from picking and saw a golden shape ambling along the back edge of the field. We watched the doe for nearly half an hour. She was enjoying the harvest as much as we were until something we couldn’t see made her uneasy and she bounded off towards the swamp.
Driving back to Hartland I reflected on how many of my early summers involved blueberries. My mother used to lead the three of us across the road, past the big hen house and into the front blueberry field. We were all younger than ten and Mom could count on the bright blue berries to hold our interest while she picked enough for a pie and perhaps a batch of jam. We kids usually ate far more than we contributed to this family harvest and hands and faces took on a blue pallor. It may well have been here in the field where I performed my famous surprise guest appearance; grinning while sticking out my tongue and freeing the cricket I had been hiding in my mouth.
A couple years later, I was helping Dad burn the back berry field when a sudden windstorm took the placid flames and whipped them into the nearby pines, creating a crown fire that is as vivid today as it was almost half a century ago. It taught me more effectively than any TV lecture by Smoky the Bear, to respect fire in the open. Oddly enough, we never did get around to getting that field into production.
When I was eleven, I hired on as a blueberry raker for Gushie Farms in Appleton. The first field we raked was at the head of Sennebec Pond and the cool breeze off the water filled us with a false sense of optimism. By the end of the first day, I was convinced I might never stand upright again. While I didn’t get rich that summer, it was the first time people treated me as something other than a child; not quite an adult, but still, it made me feel valued. By the time we finished the last field and school was about to start again, I had gone well beyond blisters and backaches, having learned the technique of resting one elbow on my knee while running the tines lightly under the berries and lifting them loose. I was also about as dark as a white kid can get.
That fall, I made a bit more spending money by helping prepare blueberry fields for their biennial burning after school and on weekends. This was well before the roaring monsters that can be heard several miles away came into use. We broke open bale after bale of musty hay and spread it over the stripped vines. The following spring, we went back on cool damp evenings and under the weight of Indian Pumps, watched as the crew leader walked around the perimeter, dragging a length of kerosene-filled galvanized pipe with a wick in one end. As soon as the fire line started into the field, we would pump vigorously and extinguish the unwanted line of flames.
Those were surprisingly peaceful evenings, leaving us plenty of time to chat or think quietly as the fire crept towards the center of the field and died. I always came home sooty and reeking of smoke, but these were small prices to pay for this ritual of passage.
I raked blueberries for several years, never getting particularly skillful at it, but earning enough to buy my school clothes and supplies every fall. Along the way, I discovered the itchy and painful bite of brown field spiders and that not all hornets nest in trees. I even watched, bemused as a dozen teenagers ran whooping and hollering after a curious bear that had followed our truck down a woods road from a remote blueberry field.
I even tried to spark a summer romance, but was cut dead by a girl who was in my high school class. She preferred a guy from Erskine Academy who was also on the crew. That relationship still flourishes more than 40 years later. When I wrote Hither we Go, the second book about the Wizard of Simonton Pond, I used a lot of the experiences during those raking seasons as plot and setting for the beginning of the book, even to including a fairly unpleasant older gentleman now deceased. He made a practice of cutting into my raking path whenever the berries were particularly plentiful. Back then, all I could do was grit my teeth. I got my revenge as a writer.
I wasn’t the only family member who was intimately involved with blueberries. Mom experimented with hundreds of different blueberry recipes and wrote about many of them for magazines like Farm Journal. Her fame was such that she was asked to set up the first Maine Blueberry Festival at the Union Fair. Sister Kate ran for Blueberry Queen one year and my late sister Sara was still proudly raking berries in her early forties. I even designed one of the t-shirts for the blueberry festival, a trumpet spraying berries over the caption “It was a great year for the blues.”
Halfway through high school, I switched from raking to working in the processing plant a mile north of the family farm. The work was no less strenuous. Instead of bending in the burning sun all day, I unloaded box after box of winnowed berries and wheeled them on pallets to a huge device that blew even more stems and leaves from the fruit before plunging the berries in a chlorinated water bath. From there, a series of conveyer belts carried them past eagle-eyed women who snatched the remaining stems and green berries from the belts before the blueberries fell into yet another box.
Since we were classed as agricultural workers, overtime wasn’t an option and when the harvest was in full swing, we often started at seven am and found ourselves wiping down the equipment with a strong bleach solution at 1 am the following morning. For the three or so weeks the plant was in operation, life revolved around berries and more berries. My world shrunk to include the plant, my co-workers and the ride to and from the plant. When Sunday rolled around, I barely had energy enough to do more than read and eat.
Because the work environment was so intense for such a short period of time, my memories from those summers nearly 40 years ago are still vivid. There were two girls from Montville who worked on the berry line. Both were attractive, but the younger was more outgoing and we would joke as I passed with laden pallets. Somehow, she gave me the nickname ‘green berry’ and in a moment of teen bravado, I took out the box of magic markers and drew a large green circle on a t-shirt and wrote “The Green Berry Rides Again” underneath. The following morning, I nearly chickened out, but donned it at the last minute before going to work.
Her grandfather, a foxy old Mainer, also worked at the plant. He once put in for 25 hours in the same day. When the owner asked him how this was possible, he said with a perfectly straight face. “Well, I never took my lunch hour.”
There were other intangible blueberry moments that helped define my growing up. I was allowed to drive a dump truck to Cherryfield one Saturday. It was my first experience with anything bigger than my Oldsmobile and I can remember the fun of learning how to shift the dual-speed rear axle as I crested and then descended the hills between Bucksport and Ellsworth. On several other occasions I rode shotgun with a taciturn fellow as we took clean berries to the blast freezer in Portland. We shared his thermos of coffee and while he said little, the comfortable silence said that I was accepted as an equal.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I helped clear a thick area of swampy scrub on Appleton Ridge to create an irrigation pond for the berry fields. There were days that July when no sane person would have run power equipment, but we bulled along and the following year, you could drive by and admire our handiwork.
I went off to school in Arizona that fall and my career as a blueberry person ended, but the memories remained. Even now, as soon as I pick up the family blueberry rake, I automatically assume the position; back bent, elbow on the knee as I guide the tines under the blue clusters. The mind pictures return as well and I smile.