Going for blueberries

mannequinsWatching a video shot in Manhattan after spending much of the day alone in a high mountain bog, I feel suddenly claustrophobic. People everywhere! The heat, the noise, the lack of escape — something close to panic sets my heart racing, and I start to itch all over.

Actually, it’s not quite true that I was alone. The young woman wandering through the city in the video looks alone, yes, but I spent the day in the company of ravens, crows, cedar waxwings, pileated woodpeckers, deerflies, crickets, goldfinches, catbirds, tree swallows, bluebirds, towhees and swamp sparrows. Once I heard a small group of humans pass by on foot about a quarter mile away. And somewhere off by herself my mother also picked blueberries in her own favorite spots.

This is our yearly ritual: pack a picnic lunch, drive to the blueberry bog on a beautiful, mid-week day, and pick several gallons of berries — enough for another year’s worth of blueberry muffins, pancakes, and fruit mixtures. For the first two or three hours, I am in explorer mode, striking out for the far end of the bog — which I have yet to reach — in search of the ultimate blueberry bonanza. Sometime in early to mid-afternoon, I turn around and start back — and almost invariably, find the most loaded bushes of the day.

I always tuck my pocket notebook and a camera into my pack, but rarely use either, in part because the mental space required to photograph or write is, for me, virtually incompatible with the hunting-gathering mind. I tend to pick in a dreamy, abstracted state, focusing mostly on the berries and on the bushes that need to be stripped. How they slowly straighten up after having been relieved of all that blue. The squelch of sphagnum under my feet. The few trees offering shade.

But there’s also no doubt that I write best here at home, seated in my familiar chair, staring at the monitor of my old desktop computer. This more than anything might be why I remain such a homebody, despite the fact that I enjoy seeing other places. Bear Meadows Natural Area, in Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest, is one of the most unique and poetic places you’ll ever see, home to rare species, fringed by old growth, and as free of anthropogenic noise as you can get in this part of the state. Bear Meadows blueberriesThe fact that I can spend half the day there and not feel inspired to jot down a single word makes me feel like a failure as a poet.

On the other hand, though, one handful of wild highbush blueberries seems about equal to one good line of verse, and today I ate many, many handfuls in addition to those that went into the bucket. As with writing, picking blueberries is as much about taking pleasure in the moment as collecting something to savor later on. And growing in such a tannin-rich tea, they are acid enough to cure almost anything, these blues.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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  1. This is lovely, Dave, and sending me back to many summers picking blueberries in the Canadian Shield forests in Manitoba, my mother leading the family and always lasting longest and picking the most. Sometimes the bears beat us to the best patches. I remember a more intense flavour in those wild berries than the cultivated high bush blueberries from the Valley farms here.

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    1. Despite the name of the bog, Bear Meadows, I’ve never seen a bear there. This time of year there are so many things for a bear to eat in Pennsylvania, any one blueberry patch isn’t too impacted. And there are so many berries at Bear Meadows, even the dozens of human pickers that descend on it each summer don’t come close to picking it out.

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  2. To see a bucket filled with my favorite berries, what a treat, even if only for the eyes. I envy your day today!

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    1. I took that photo back in 2006, but filled the same two-gallon bucket this year — maybe a little closer to the rim, but not much. (I ddon’t like to risk spills on the slog back out.)

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  3. Speaking as a like-minded spirit here… one who also feels a worthless failure of a painter if he doesn’t get into the studio to work at the easel every day… I can say that although I often deny myself the luxury of doing other things, I try to remember that’s it’s those ‘other things’ that ultimately fuel my work, though not always directly and certainly not in expected ways. It’ll be the same for you Dave. You’ll need the external stimuli of experiences away from your keyboard… even ones that don’t immediately feed into your writing. But it’s a tricky one, I acknowledge, this work/life balance. However you negotiate terms with yourself, I shall just say here that you are a a poet, and a damned fine one, even if you spend time blueberry picking and then fret that poetry doesn’t enter your mind while foraging. Poetry will spring, though it may be further down the line. Perhaps it’ll come from those blueberry muffins, or from the fruits preserved for use during the coming winter months. Yum! I can almost taste that poetry from here!

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    1. Thanks for the advice, Clive. I’m sure you’re right. And I wasn’t so much lamenting the time away from the keyboard as I was expressing my frustration that the poems don’t come directly from the sky and earth the way one might expect. Certainly this is part of the promise of many writers’ (and artists’) retreats, is it not? That new, often more wild environs will inspire new work?

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  4. Oh, I absolutely think you need to ‘be’ in mental silence in such places, this is part of being a poet and a necessary part. And surely I don’t need to say how evocative this writing and the photo of the blueberries are as pieces in themselves, as well as possible bases for more formal or elaborate work sometime in the future.

    To one for whom blueberries come only in small plastic punnets, the pail-full is a wonder, and the bog-full a quite mythical notion.

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    1. Feeling a strong affinity for Jean’s sentiments (views) and being unable to improve on her sentiments (expression), I adopt them as my own.

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    2. Thanks, Jean. The bog full of berries is still quite mythical to me, too, even though we have been going there every year since I was a kid.

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  5. Well, you came up with a great last line, Dave.

    In the Charlevoix, we came upon some bushes much higher than our heads loaded with blueberry-like berries – but when I tasted them, I wasn’t sure that’s what they were. Any ideas? They were small, a bit harder, more tart and lemony, but had exactly the same form.

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    1. I don’t know, but the Vaccinium (blueberry) and Gaylussacia (huckleberry) genuses are both very diverse. Most of the bushes at Bear Meadows are probably Vaccinium corymbosum, but I’m not even sure of that.

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  6. It’s been a long time since I’ve gathered any wild blueberries – never by going out in search of them, but I’ve found them hiking and collected as many as I could in plastic bags I had in my pack. Alas, I’m much more likely surrounded by people these days as in the video. I don’t much miss being alone, but I sometimes miss hiking in the woods. Well, fortunately fresh blueberries seem to be plentiful in store-bought tubs these days.

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    1. Yes, although the store-bought ones I’ve seen tend to be the enormous commercial berries, which are altogether a different fruit, as different as cultivated strawberries are from their wild cousins.

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  7. I find I generally need time for time and places and things like these to work on me before I can find words for them. Occasionally a phrase might spring to mind at the time, but usually I find it more satisfying (and “productive”, although I don’t like that word) to focus on where I am, on what’s happening — to use the hackneyed phrase, to “be in the moment” (another phrase I’m rapidly tiring of. Crikey, I’m grouchy today). Often, words come more naturally if I return to a place in my mind; searching for words when I’m actually present in a place can distract me in much the same way as excessive effort to photograph can remove me from the experience.

    I trust this makes some kind of sense.

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    1. Pete, you expressed that perfectly! I think that exactly summons up letting an experience filter in by relying on senses and memory, rather than by putting in what you so succinctly sum up as ‘excessive effort’ to record it in words or photographs. For me as a painter what you describe exactly accords with my own experience. Interesting that it applies to poetry/writing too. A cross-disciplinary technique of working.

      I went to Venice quite a few years ago and kept a diary while there. Apart from one occasion when I wrote about a painting while sitting in front of it, I waited until the evenings to try to recall my experiences in words. Years later I was able to find images of the paintings online to cross-check my writing with reality, and I discovered that those descriptions of paintings written from memory on the days that I’d viewed them, were invariably startlingly mis-recalled. Nevertheless, for a long time the descriptions had vividly conjured inspirational paintings for me while working in my studio. In fact the mis-descriptions of paintings had been much more useful than the images I later found thanks to Google! It’s the imaginative ‘processing’, I find, that makes the memory so potent. Once that has taken place, the actual experience, if it can be accurately recalled at all (or checked in a photograph) can seem quite wan.

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      1. Ha! So a poor memory may serve the artist better than a good one! If that’s true, I am indeed blessed. I just need to be careful of unconscious plagiarism.

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    2. It does make sense, Pete, and I’m with you on the alembic of recollection. That’s usually the way it happens with me, too, and maybe it is the best way to create.

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  8. Kia ora Dave,
    I recall many blueberry hunting family experiences in Wisconsin, always being told to watch out for black bears. Thanks for bringing those memories back so vividly. Having just returned from 3 days alone in the mountains I understand how suddenly being in the city brings on a panic sooner than later.
    Very enjoyable post.
    Cheers,
    Robb

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    1. Hi Robb, thanks for stopping by. Don’t get me wrong, I do like cities — this reaction was worth commenting on, I thought, precisely because it was unusual for me. Lord knows if everyone gravitated toward the empty places as you and I do, they’d be overrun.

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  9. nice pail of blueberries! It’s good to know there were plenty this year…last year I seriously worried about what appeared to be not-so-good pollination. I wonder how blue that other place is this year…by the lake.

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    1. Probably excellent there too. Here on the mountain we have the best lowbush blueberries and huckleberries since 1980, according to Mom, who would remember.

      Also, there’s an extraordinarily heavy crop of black cherries on the way, and the wild grapes look good, too. The bears will be in heaven.

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