Tuesday, July 9, 2013

wild blueberries

Upon entering my Grammie's house, we were often met by the smell of something baking in the oven.  Her blueberry cake was one of her best recipes.

She would usually be busy in the kitchen as we entered her house, my mother's childhood home, after four hours of driving north.  She would come out of her kitchen and find us in her living room, perhaps already sitting on her couch, a large tweed one I remember as stiff and rather unwelcoming.

Or perhaps one of us was being brave and was sitting in my Grampa's chair if he was out, a green vinyl beast with a kick-out foot rest.  He usually filled it when he was home and so it was respectfully left empty after he died a number of years before my Grammie.  Or perhaps we were sitting in her chair, cozy and comfortable and worn. It was always oriented toward the large TV in a wooden console, a small notebook on an end table next to the chair with all of the Red Sox batting averages carefully calculated and recorded for each game in her school teacher's perfect script.

Often we stood.

And then my Grammie, after greeting us all, would invite my brother and I into her kitchen for a piece of blueberry cake.

It's not a very good one, I'm afraid she would always say.

My brother would laugh.  And I would smile.  And she would pull her cake out of her oven, and serve us each a large still warm piece.  It was always very good.  I am not sure why she would tell us each time that it was not her best batch.  But her smile as she said it made me think it was a joke and that she knew it was delicious too.  Perhaps it was just the modest Mainer in her.

My Grammie, and my mother, come from the western mountains of Maine.  There are lakes and streams and wild animals aplenty there.  Roads pass through woods for miles without a single clearing, house, or person seen.  But in the periodic open mountainside meadows wild blueberries flourish.

My grandfather roamed the woods around the town in which he grew up, the same town where he met my grandmother when he was a young man.  She was a school teacher in the one room school house and when they married, they moved to the slightly larger town just to the north where they lived for the rest of their lives.  So these woods, he knew them.

At some point, my Grampa purchased a small bit of land in his hometown and built a very small, rustic camp on the side of a lake surrounded by mountains.

This camp is now my mother and father's camp.  And I have gone there all my life.

I return there now as often as possible, less than two hours from where we live in Portland, with my family.

This past weekend we were there, and we headed into town for a few supplies.  We ended up on Center Hill, a clearing half way up the mountain that is visible from camp directly across the lake.  We stopped to take a picture for Elliott who wanted a picture of the lake to put in the frame he had chosen at a tag sale down in town.

I stepped out of the car and walked toward the lake to take the picture for Elliott.  The hillside, I knew, was covered in wild blueberries.  We have often picked here.  I with my own family, and also as a child with my brother and my parents.  My mother's family also picked here long ago, too, and I think many of the blueberries for Grammie's cakes came from this very hill.  I assumed it was still too early for there to be any ripe berries.  I looked down and confirmed this when I found a patch of unripe green berries.  I made a mental note to make sure we were back in a week or so to be there when the berries ripened.

Nonetheless, I decided to walk toward the pink flowers I had spotted just up the hill a bit.  It was pink milkweed, a monarch butterfly favorite, and I ventured toward it to take some pictures.  

And looked down.  And saw blue.

It is quite a cliche, picking blueberries in Maine.  People here pay a good deal of money to head to the blueberry farms and pick, often high bush blueberries, thinking about Blueberries for Sal, and feeling all proudly Maine-ish in their endeavors.  Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk.

We do this, too.  We love Libby & Son U-Picks, sometimes trekking there several times each summer.  They have high bush plants with huge berries and branches full to bursting, our three children filling buckets of them in no time at all. So fast, in fact, that I need to monitor their harvesting to make sure we don't add kerching to the sound effects of picking, raking in more fruit than we have cash for in our wallets that day.  Those high bush blueberries are sweet and so good.  And don't get me started on the homemade blueberry doughnuts they make there.  It is a friendly, bustling place.  You are greeted and chatted up by the farmers themselves.  Golf carts drive you out into the fields and sometimes live music can be heard across the fields from the market.

But on Center Hill, it is quiet.  Birds call to each other.  The wind gently rustles the grasses.  You are alone.  It is not a farm, there is no price per pound.  The berries are simply part of what is there.  And the view is breathtaking.

Center Hill overlooks the lake where I learned to swim, where I learned to paddle a canoe and then a kayak at our camp in a sandy cove.  We're protected by a line of boulders between the cove and the open lake.  This is where my brother split his knee open on a summer afternoon, where we then learned just how far away the hospital is.  Where we would come for long weekends and eat peanut butter and potato stick sandwiches and drink iced tea and work on paint by number kits when it rained.  Where my Grampa could set out walking through the woods for the day and never get lost.  I know the houses in which my Grammie boarded with families during her time as their school teacher, dotting the road that circles the lake just below us.

The berries on Center Hill are a part of that familiar landscape.  These are truly wild blueberries.

Blueberries that are small and tart, and yes, really difficult to pick.  You can pick for an hour, and only fill one carton.  This day, it was still very early in the season, and therefore the picking was even more arduous and labor intensive.  The first morning, I picked for a bit collecting the berries in my hands, and then beckoned for the kids and Jonathan to join me.  Jonathan brought a cup we happened to have in the car and he and I filled it while the kids ran back and forth on the hill, stopping here and there to fill their mouths with berries.  None of theirs made it into the cup.

Then Julia joined me and asked if we could come back when we had a better container.  When the sun was not quite so high and blazingly hot in the sky.  When it wasn't actually already an hour past when we should be eating lunch.

So we left.

And came back the next day.

Jonathan and I picked for an hour and a half.  And filled one and a half Tupperware bins.

The kids tried to be enthusiastic pickers for an admirable period of time.

But in the end, they played games we had picked up at tag sales enroute to the berry field for a bit.

And climbed and leapt on the big rocks.  The big rocks that are so much of the landscape here, erratics they are called, left behind eons ago by the moving glaciers.

Many of the smaller ones are gathered into expansive stone walls that run through the meadows, signs of the farmland of long ago, rugged terrain that was somehow worked and cleared by hand.

And they ran, in the way that a large open meadow calls for, when no one is there to see you.  And shouted with the abandon that only the knowledge that no one can hear you can offer, each of them rewarded by far away echoes.  They filled the field with movement and noise for a brief time.  Filled it with themselves, and took this place with them when we left.  The stories of its sounds and smells and view and expanse. Its wildness.  And theirs.

We picked until I knew we had to stop.  Because if I did not stop, I was worried they would remember the waiting, the heat, the beginnings of grumpishness more than they would remember the feeling of being alone and free in that meadow.  And we headed out.  Admittedly, I did pick all the way from where I was was standing until I reached the car.  

I saved the full container for cooking and handed the half bin to the hot, impatient kids in the back seat.  It took only the first few minutes of our drive to a nearby river for a swim for them to eat the whole thing.

This morning I made Grammie's blueberry cake for the kids for breakfast.  It is a simple recipe.  Made with the berries from the hill on which she picked, on which my mother picked, on which I pick, and now on which my children pick.  But the picking, filling the buckets, is only part of the story.  I am just as full of watching them run on the hill, arms spread, as fast as they possibly can.  Singing, playing, leaping, and laughing.

It was very good.

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