Monday, September 08, 2008
blueberries, courtesy of wikipedia
In late July through early August, the sky buzzes with the whine of perilously low flying crop dusters and the groan of irrigation pumps. Welcome to rural western Michigan blueberry country, nestled between sand dunes and flat land. The sun burns bright and warm, turning the fields dusty and dry. The air smells of harvest--berries, corn, a hint of Lake Michigan--taking me back to childhood and those summers shaped by berry picking...
This was no idyllic time, even through my genuinely idealistic, optimistic child's view of the world. I longed for cool, rainy days when I could read with abandon, draw dress designs, or go back-to-school shopping at Rogers Department Store in nearby Grand Rapids.
Instead, long summer mornings and afternoons of my childhood were filled with field time. In the early days, my family and I composed the work crew. I even remember one afternoon that only grandma and I were in the field, picking berries and telling stories. As the fields multiplied and grew--from our off season work potting and planting new blueberry bushes--our labor force also grew. Neighborhood kids not working at another farm, kids from the now defunct Port Sheldon Presbyterian Church, and friends from school strapped buckets to their waists, eager to earn $.22 per pound. With a group of peers joining me in the field, picking became less of a chore and more of a social occasion. As the farmer's daughter/granddaughter, I thought I had special immunity from grandpa's gruff warnings and rules. When he yelled at my cousins I realized it was because of my follow-the-rules-don't-make-waves personality and not my last name.
By the time I was in high school, I started hauling a boom box into the field, pumping popular music into the fields. Discussion of how we would spend our hard-earned wages volleyed between the bushes. One year, when I was still in elementary school, I saved all summer to buy a pair of Calvin Klein jeans. Another summer I contemplated saving for a Gunne Sak dress. Always, my mind turned to fashion, even as I was wearing my oldest, berry stained clothes.
We would break for lunch, and I would eat sandwiches and drink pop from grandma and grandpa's garage fridge. Then I would lead the other kids in elaborate gymnastics routines, flipping and twisting and leaping across the front yard before heading back out into the fields for a few more hours of work. At the end of a long, hot day, I was happy if I picked 8-10 pails full, which would add up 50-70 pounds. There were legends of people who could pick 100 pounds a day. I was well on my way to buying one lovely fashion piece for the year to come.
As the bushes grew taller and bent with ripe fruit, hand picking gave way to machine picking, and my job moved indoors to the packing shed. I would stand along the conveyor belt picking out green, red, soft, diseased berries; twigs and leaves; and the occasional slimy slug (which I would only scoop up with an errant blueberry leaf). The wages were higher, the work less grueling, though perhaps more tedious and a little grosser, and more grown-up in nature. My mom, aunt, grandparents, and neighbor lady B all had our favorite positions along the belt...
The vinegary, dusky smell still wafts through my memory, and late this summer I could smell that distinct fragrance as I drove along the familiar roads of my childhood. One night Mom and I were driving back from town behind a truck, out of which debris was flying. We conjectured at the contents, and when we rolled down the windows and smelled that familiar processed berry cocktail, we knew for certain that the truck contained the detritus of machine picked and cleaned berries--a sludge of waste, headed perhaps to a local pig or turkey farm to continue the food cycle.
As I headed out the field the next morning with my aunt and young cousins, I gave into the pleasure of recreational picking--scatter picking the bushes, seeking out the most luscious berries to make our favorite "double good blueberry pie." I was glad to be home, my fingers remembering one activity so intrinsic to my formative years that my pail filled faster than anyone else's. I walked slowly back up the pine needle strewn path back up to my parents' house, swinging my full pail ever so gently, headed for the sanctuary of my parents' porch, a glass of ice tea, a J-Crew catalogue, and a half-finished novel begging to be read.