My dad made me an offer I couldn’t refuse in mid-July: “Get here by 4 o’clock Friday, and I’ll help you pick the last of our black raspberries. You should also be able to find about four quarts of reds to pick and take home.”
I’ve never been much of a gardener, but I’ve always liked picking berries (wild or domestic) while standing up or kneeling down. Maybe that’s because harvesting raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries involves some degree of hunting. The berries often hide well enough to make things challenging, even though they can’t run away when you find them.
And maybe that’s why I return with buckets each July when finding wild raspberries along hiking trails close to home, and why I make time to hunt wild blueberries each September when bowhunting elk in southeastern Idaho.
But homegrown strawberries and raspberries offer the easiest, most reliable hunting. I’m lucky in that regard. Mom and Dad spend April through early October at their home on Lake Poygan in central Wisconsin, where he tends a large garden with three long rows of raspberries; two rows of reds and one of blacks.
I’ve always preferred black raspberries for their taste and firmness, but reds taste great too and aren’t as seedy. So, when Dad offered both varieties and his efficient picking services, he didn’t have to ask twice.
Unfortunately for him, I arrived about 40 minutes late, so he had already filled two small buckets by the time I parked my truck and climbed out.
When spotting me, he shouted: “I was right: I thought you’d come dressed for fishing, not berry picking. Go grab a light jacket from the garage. You don’t want to come in here wearing short sleeves.”
I laughed and didn’t argue. After all, he and I were taught by the same raspberry-picking teacher: his mother and my grandmother, now 20 years in her grave. No matter how hot the day, Ursula Durkin always wore long-sleeve shirts to protect her arms from raspberry thorns. She might let you get away with short sleeves if you picked only reds, but you “dasn’t” push into a black raspberry patch without protection.
When I returned wearing one of Dad’s old Firefighters Local 311 nylon jackets from his days on the Madison Fire Department, he initially objected because it’s one of his favorites. He relented when I promised to be careful when weaving my arms through the prickly plants.
Dad estimated he would need another half hour to finish the black raspberries, so he suggested I start working on the reds. I saw ripe raspberries everywhere in those two rows, but Dad assured me I’d find even more if/when I returned in a week.
My father doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, but minutes after those big red berries started thumping into my bucket, Dad said berry picking reminded him of life itself.
“How so?” I asked, even though he didn’t need prompting.
“You can only pick what you see at the moment, so you have to keep looking ahead and behind to find what the leaves hide right in front of you.”
“I like that,” I replied. I pulled out my iPhone and made a note.
The same principle applies for looking up and down, of course. Casual berry pickers see only what grows above their knees. Serious pickers—those who think it’s sinful to let berries rot on the stem—kneel often and pull sagging plants upward to look under their skirts.
It’s also easy to separate serious from casual pickers when plants hang heavy with ripe berries. Casual pickers grow antsy when standing in one spot too long. They impatiently move down the row a few feet, often leaving ripe, unpicked berries in their wake.
Serious pickers are more disciplined. Time is irrelevant to them. They don’t move from any spot until they’ve picked every ripe berry within reach, no matter how long it takes to inspect fore and aft.
Serious pickers also keep their hands away from their mouths, seldom eating the fruit of their labor. That, too, can wait.
When Dad finished picking the black raspberries about 45 minutes after my arrival, he headed toward the house, dropping two full buckets by my truck. He returned minutes later with several empty tinfoil pans.
“Your mother says we need to spread out the berries in these pans,” he said. “She thinks our buckets are too deep, and the berries will get crushed under their own weight.”
He then spread his cache evenly into the pans and put two of them in my truck’s back seat. He left me several empty pans, and made me promise to spread all my reds into at least three of them. About 45 minutes later, I did as instructed.
When returning home near sunset, I felt rich, maybe even miserly, while carrying the five berry-laden pans into my home. “I know what we’ll be doing Sunday,” I told my wife, Penny. “Cleaning, bagging, and freezing berries, and turning the rest into jam.”
We wouldn’t be so patient tackling that job. The more you’ve tasted past rewards, the more you anticipate treats that await.
Images by Patrick Durkin