Singing in the bog

Bear Meadows blueberriesPicking highbush blueberries with the Amish, we discover that, unlike the other pickers scattered around the bog, they don’t like to shout back and forth to each other. My brother tells me they prefer to whistle. Steve loves to pick, and takes Amish with him every time he goes — it’s too far to drive in a horse and buggy.

This is a bog where occasional holes in the sphagnum can pull you in up to your waist. Some people wear hip-waders like trout fishermen; others, like me, wear old shoes and long pants and plan on getting wet. The Amish women pull on short rubber boots for better traction and wade out into the bog in the same dresses they wear for everything else. I guess they’re able to find areas free of sawgrass to do their picking in. On their return from the bog, they pour the water out of their boots, wash their legs in the creek, and change back into their shoes.

The Amish men and boys pick a little apart from their female relatives, I think. The day I went out with them, I twice heard the teenaged boy roaring like a bear, and each time his sister obligingly shrieked.

I was picking out toward the middle of the bog. It was on one of the last days of July, and I counted myself fortunate to hear the distant songs of both a veery and a hermit thrush from the fringe of old-growth spruce and hemlock that encircles the bog. Flocks of cedar waxwings coursed back and forth as always, catbirds and red squirrels scolded from nearby hummocks of blueberry bushes, and dozens of tree swallows swooped and circled over the sea of sawgrass at the center of the bog. Now and then I heard the croaking cry of a raven high overhead. Surrounded by ridges on three sides and protected as a network of State Forest Natural Areas and Wild Areas, this is as close to true wilderness as one can get in the valley-and-ridge province of central Pennsylvania.

Our Amish friends were too far away for me to pick up more than an occasional murmur — not that I understand a word of Pennsylvania German in any case. But I heard them clearly enough when the singing started: the 50-something maiden aunt’s voice raised in what I took to be a hymn, the only form of music their brand of fundamentalism permits. It was a haunting melody in a minor key, and I was disappointed when she stopped after a single verse. I suppose she might’ve been singing to illustrate some point she was making to her neice, because I heard two more, all-too-brief snatches of song in the next ten minutes.

By that time it had turned into a very hot day, and I was glad to see that my bucket was almost full. The slog back to the car was exhausting. My mother was already there, panting in the shade, and our car was the last vehicle left in the small parking area. We blew the horn in the agreed-upon signal — three series of three short blasts — and waited for the Amish to return. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the older woman — the one who’d been singing — had picked about three gallons to my two and a half, while the boy had picked close to five and was disappointed to have to leave so soon.

On the way down out of the mountains, as we passed the ski lodge, we saw some people out on the go-cart course despite the heat. I tried to explain the attraction of driving in circles in tiny little cars as best I could. “Why would anyone come all the way here and not want to go for a hike in the woods?” said S. in her slightly clipped English, and I had to smile — it was exactly the sort of thing my mother would say. On the long drive back, she asked us to be sure and tell them as soon as the mountain that looms over their farms came into view.

16 Comments


  1. Your essay warms my soul. I’ve taken the liberty of linking to you.

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  2. What a wonderful feeling to notice something you admire in your mother in another person.

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  3. Sounds like it was a wonderful way to spend a day.

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  4. Heart-warming and human! Made me remember many blueberry picking trips in the Manitoba woods, except these were very close to the ground and not in bogs. We’d be groaning to stop after a while, but my mother could keep at it forever. Here it’s easy picking at the blueberry farms, just hold your bucket at waist height and the berries almost fall in.

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  5. Very nice post, and a good picture too!

    Do any of the Amish you know use those long pickers with wide tines, to go faster? They’re like big fingers, sort of a hand-sized rake. Picking lowbush blueberries is exhausting, I think, but they are so delicious…

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  6. Thanks for the comments. Marja-Leena and Beth – No, no tined pickers, and no bending over. Highbush blueberries are exactly like commercial blueberries, except that the berries are smaller and taste better. At the peak of ripeness, the average picker can harvest two quarts an hour. If you tie the buket around your neck, and don’t stop to pick out twigs and over- or under-ripe berries, you can pick even faster. We have lowbush blueberries here in PA as well, but they’re not really worth the time and trouble with an almost unlimited supply of highbush berries there in the bog, free for the picking.

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  7. Thanks for sharing….I love living in south central PA among the Amish and Mennonites…though I don’t think I could live their lifestyle, there is something refreshing about living in the midst of those who intentionally shun the rampant materialism of our culture.
    Vern

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  8. You bet. And I think we can learn from them without necessarily adopting their total world-view, as Wendell Berry has also suggested in some of his recent books: for example, their aversion to displays of pride/ego; their pacifism; and their wariness about adopting new technologies without long, slow, communal deliberation about their effects.

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  9. No, it’s simply on hiatus until September. And we’re in the process of moving it to a new bloghost.

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  10. Lovely to be there with you.
    My dad was the best and most patient fruit picker.

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