Northern Lights

Berry-Addled

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The local bounty of summer

Rebecca Siegel/Flickr

By Miranda Weiss

August 4, 2016


 

I’ve got berries on the brain. Blueberries. And I can’t stop picking them.

Blueberries have ripened weeks early this year. Likely our mild winter and early spring have made the bushes go crazy with fruit. In some places, the berries hang off the branches like bunches of grapes. Some bushes topple under the weight.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve picked blueberries on the properties of two different friends, on a vacant lot up the hill from where I live, along the ski trails, and across the bay—under power lines that run through a gap in the spruce trees and, for as far as I could see, connected nothing to nothing. Between my fridge and freezer, I’ve got four or five gallons.

It’s harvest time all around. We’ve prepared about 30 pint jars of canned salmon, 16 pints of smoked salmon, another half dozen or so pounds of smoked salmon vacuum-packed and frozen, and more than 100 pounds of frozen filets. We hope to freeze some halibut too; that mild white flesh you can do just about anything with is a nice break from salmon in the cold months.

For picking berries, I wear a two-quart yogurt container strung around my neck and pull the branches over my bucket and pop the fruit off with my fingers. The first ker-plunks in an empty bucket always remind me of Blueberries for Sal. “Hey bear,” I call out, knowing that our fondness for this sweet fruit is something that we share with these animals. When I’m confident I’ve made my presence known, I find berry picking immensely relaxing. The single-mindedness of the task is probably what makes it so. You might be chatting with friends, or not, but essentially, you are not trying to multitask. How many other times in the day are we doing only one thing, and a simple thing at that?

When I get the berries home, I spread them out on a cookie sheet and sort and clean them, taking out the slugs, inchworms, spiders, stems, and leaves. Then they’ll go into plastic storage bags for the freezer, except for a large bowl I’ll keep in the fridge.

I’m ambitious when it comes to picking, but not particularly creative when it comes to using the berries. All winter long, my kids will eat oatmeal with blueberries for breakfast, and from time to time, I’ll make blueberry pancakes or blueberry syrup to have on waffles or ice cream. With this year’s bounty, I’m determined to make a pie … maybe two.

“Again?” my kids whined the other day when I picked them up in the late afternoon from camp and daycare and announced that we were going to pick berries for the third day in a row. “Why do we always have to pick berries?” They haven’t been bit by this harvest bug yet, but I’m confident that one day they will be. I gave them each a quart-sized tub with a string that fit their necks, but I knew they wouldn’t use them. The four-year-old ended up leaving hers somewhere in the patch, maybe next to that pile of bear scat we saw right after we stepped out of the car. Instead they shoveled the berries into their mouths.

At our friend Joel’s house the other night, we topped off a dinner of fresh halibut smothered with herbs from our garden with a blueberry crumble he’d made out of berries he’d picked a few hours before from around his house. We all had purple teeth when we walked the quarter mile trail to where we’d left our car to make our way home. That stain didn’t last, but there doesn’t seem to be much point to trying to scrub out the sickles of blue under my fingernails until berry season is done. That could be weeks—maybe even months—away.


Miranda Weiss is the author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska. She is a science and nature writer in Homer, Alaska.

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