I’m not sure exactly when Uncle Johnny planted these two blueberries at the Cabin. Certainly this must have been fifty or sixty years ago. I only know that the stems are thick and the bushes are eight feet tall and would be a lot taller if not for years of pruning the high reaching shoots to keep them from pushing upward against the top of the cage.
I’m not sure when Johnny first built the chicken wire cage around the plants. It was probably soon after the bushes began to fruit in earnest and he decided that the local birds and chipmunks had enough native forage and that he didn’t really need to share. I only know that in the mid-1990s a heavy snow collapsed the cage and Dad welded a larger new one from steel pipe left over from building his own garage decades earlier. Dad never throws anything away.
I’m not sure what variety the blueberry plants are. I only know that one bush ripens earlier and we have already picked it clean, and the one I am about to start on is just hitting peak ripeness. Johnny probably knew that blueberries love diversity and make more fruit when multiple varieties are planted near one another. I know that once there was a third plant that died soon after Johnny had a stroke and had to leave Smith River for a care facility in town. After he died Mom planted an Olympia in its place that languished for years. The new plant seemed to know grief in its heartwood.
I know that no one should be blue while picking blueberries. I had my nap. Drank two big glasses of water. Yet here in the peace and calm and all-consuming triple digit heat, I can’t quite let go of stuff. Student papers are in need of grading. A remodel of the back bathroom needs my attention. My stomach has been acting up. But the berries must be picked because the heat from several 100-degree days is ripening them rapidly and they will begin falling, whether the papers are graded or the new sewer pipes for the shower are backfilled or my stomach gets sorted out or my head is screwed on straight. Or not. The world of blueberries doesn’t give a rip about the version of humanity we choose as our own.
So I focus on the sensuality of blueberry picking. Reaching with an open hand, I place my fingers around a cluster of purple fruit. The berries are smooth and soft. Some are ripe. Some are not. Ripe berries are receptive and respond to the gentle stroke and roll of my thumb and fingers by falling free from the plant, their seductive roundness gathering into my palm. A small green stem or two might still be attached, but not many. I pop a particularly soft berry into my mouth, roll it on my tongue for an instant, then crush it under my molars and let subtle sweet blueberry-ness gush over my cheeks and gums. I know what those people are missing when they buy their blueberries already picked, and I am grateful for that knowledge.
The juice runs into happier creases and crevices of my brain. There is a community of effort in growing these berries that is at least three generations deep and wider than my family. Johnny planted them, then Mom and Dad bought the place and cared for the plants when Johnny no longer could, and for two winters my friend Krystal covered the ground beneath the plants with cardboard and covered it with sawdust from my woodcutting area while I pruned apple trees. Before all of this someone must have cleared the ground, because blueberries don’t grow in a forest. And this is only the human component.
The blueberries are watered by a spring on the hill shaded by 150-year-old Douglas-fir. The water flows from an aquifer of sandstone scooped onto the edge of the westward-floating North American plate tens of millions of years ago, a spring that for all I know was formed during the last big 9+ Cascadia subduction zone earthquake in 1700. The water may go away when the next Big One arrives. For now the blueberries are moistened for one week at a time, every other week, with a dribbling soaker hose made from oil and all of the oil-forming geology this entails. The land remains generous with her water and therefore generous with the food she provides. But we can only grow things while we have water and, earthquakes aside, it seems we are entering a new age of hot and dry. Who can think they are anything other than the beneficiary of a community of ongoing human and nonhuman processes over millions, even billions, of years?
Taking my own water break, I notice the thermometer on the front porch registers 101 degrees. I go back to picking, and the heat persists. Sweat dribbles down my back. I pull a cheap straw cowboy hat down over my eyes, one of two that that my son and I received at a cowboy-themed Cub Scout Camp we attended two decades ago. It is a practical piece of headgear, simultaneously shading my face and neck, something the baseball hats I usually wear can’t accomplish. A little relief arrives when the wind kicks up from the southwest, and a film of brown smoke from a distant forest fire moves in over the hills above the valley, thinning the sun, diluting it, watering it down to a wan version of its former late afternoon self.
After a couple of hours that state of pleasant picking boredom that I know so well finally arrives, hastened along by the heat. My fingers are smudged with purple film, their supple berry roll is becoming tired and awkward. In the shade of a nearby apple tree are two 1.5-gallon ice cream tubs holding about fourteen pounds of blueberries. I formulate an excuse to quit by promising the plant that I’ll return in two days to pick the rest of the ripe berries. And yes, I’ll be here, because there aren’t many things that are more important to me than picking these blueberries.
Locking the cabin and the garden gate, I stow the fruit safely on the floorboard of the passenger side of the pickup, slide into the cookie-oven cab, roll down the windows, and descend the shady driveway to the road. On a whim I turn right, opposite my usual direction home. A few miles down, I park at a place where the creek comes close to the road. Beavers have used "all local" materials of alder and willow to dam the channel at a convenient choke point, backing the creek up to waist height. I strip and slip in, gasping at the sudden coolness. In moments I am washed clean by the quiet, tannin-stained beaver water.
How else would I live?