The Lure of the Berry
MEN have sung the praises of fishing and hunting, they have extolled the joys of boating and riding, they have dwelt at length upon the pleasures of automobiling. But there is one — sport, shall I call it ? — which no one seems to have thought worth mentioning — the gentle sport of berrying.
Perhaps calling it a sport is an unfortunate beginning, — it gives us too much to live up to. No, it is not a sport ; though I can’t think why, since it is quite as active as drop-line fishing. Perhaps the trouble is with the game — the fish are more active than the berries, and their excesses cover the deficiencies of the stolid figure in the boat.
What, then, shall we call it ? not an occupation, it is too desultory for that ; nor an amusement, because of a certain tradition of usefulness that hangs about it. Probably it belongs in that small but select group of things that we do ostensibly because they are useful, but really because they are fun. At any rate, it does not matter how we class it, — it is just berrying.
But not straw berrying. Strawberries are so far down, and so few ! They cannot be picked with comfort by any one over six years old. Nor blackberrying! Blackberries are good when gathered in, but in the gathering process there is nothing restful or soothing. They always grow in hot places, and the briars make you cross; they pull your hair and tear your clothes and scratch your wrists; and the berries stain your fingers dark blue; and, moreover, they are frequented by those unpleasant little triangular greenish-brown creatures known as squash-bugs, which I believe even the Ancient Mariner could not have been called upon to love. No, I do not mean blackberrying.
What then ? What indeed but huckleberrying! How can I adequately sing the praises of the gentle, the neat, the comfortable huckleberry! No briers, no squash-bugs, no back-breaking stoop or arm-rending stretch to reach them; just a big, bushy, green clump, full of glossy black or softly blue berries, where you can sit right down on the tussocks amongst them, put your pail underneath a bush, and begin. At first, the handfuls drop in with a high-keyed " plinking " sound; then, when the “ bottom is covered,” this changes to a soft patter altogether satisfactory; and as you sit stripping the crisp branches and letting the neat little balls roll through your fingers, your spirit grows calm within you, you feel the breeze, you look up now and then over stretches of hill or pasture or sky, and you settle into a state of complete acquiescence with things as they are.
For there is always a breeze, and always a view, at least where my huckleberries grow. If any one should ask me where to find a good situation for a house, I should answer, with a comprehensive wave of my arm, “ Oh, choose any huckleberry patch.” Only ’t were pity to demolish so excellent a thing as a huckleberry patch, merely to erect so doubtful a thing as a house.
I know one such — a royal one, even among huckleberry patches. To get to it you go up an old road, — up, and up, and up, — you pass big fields, new-mown and wide open to the sky, you get broader and broader outlooks over green woodland and blue rolling hills, with a bit of azure river in the midst. You come out on great flats of rock, thinly edged with light turf, and there before you are the “ berry lots,” as the native calls them, — rolling, windy uplands, with nothing bigger than cedars and wild-cherry trees to break their sweep. The berry bushes crowd together in thick-set patches, waist high, interspersed with big “ high-bush ” shrubs in clumps or alone, and great, dark masses of richly glossy, richly fragrant bay, and low, hoary juniper. The pointed cedars stand about like sentinels, stiff enough save where their sensitive tops lean delicately away from the wind ; and in the scant herbage between are goldenrod, — the earliest and the latest alike at home here, — and red lilies, and thistles, and asters; and down close to the ground, if you care to stoop for them, trailing vines of dewberries with their fruit, the sweetest of all the blackberries. Truly it is a goodly prospect, and one to fill the heart with satisfaction that the world is as it is.
The pleasure of huckleberrying is partly in the season — the late summer time, from mid-July to September. The poignant joys of early spring are passed, and the exuberance of early summer, while the keen stimulus of autumn has not yet come. Things are at poise. The haying is over; the meadows, shorn of their rich grass, lie tawny-green under the sky, and the world seems bigger than before. It is not a time for dreams or a time for exploits ; it is a time for — for — well, for berrying!
But you must choose your days carefully, as you do your fishing and hunting days. The berries “ bite best ” with a brisk west wind, though a south one is not to be despised, and a north one, rare at this season, gives a pleasant, suggestion of fall while the sun has still all the fervor of summer. Choose a sky that has clouds in it, too, for you will feel their movement even when you do not look up. Then take your pail and set out. Do not be in a hurry, and do not promise to be back at any definite time. And, finally, either go alone or with just the right companion. I do not know any circumstances wherein the choice of a companion needs more care than in berrying. It may make or mar the whole adventure. For you must have a person not too energetic, or a standard of speed will be established that will spoil everything; nor too conscientious — it is maddening to be told that you have not picked the bushes clean enough; nor too diligent, so that one feels guilty if one looks at the view or acknowledges the breeze; nor too restless, so that one is being constantly haled to fresh woods and pastures new. A slightly garrulous person is not bad, with a desultory, semiphilosophic bent, and a gift for being contented with easy physical occupation. In fact, I find that I am, by exclusion and inclusion, narrowing my description to fit a certain type of small boy. And I believe that here the ideal companion is to be found; if indeed he is not, as I more than suspect he is, the ideal companion for every form of recreation in life. Yes, the boy is the thing. Some of my choicest hours in the berry lots have been spent with a boy as companion, some boy who loves to be in the wind and sun without knowing that he loves it, who philosophizes without knowing that he does so, who picks berries with sufficient diligence sometimes, and with a delightful irresponsibility at other times. Who likes to move on, now and then, but is happy to kick turf around the edges of the clump if you are inclined to stay. Who takes pride in filling his pail, but is not so desperately single-minded that he is unmoved by the seductions of goldenrod in bloom, of juniper and bayberries, of dry goldenrod stalks (for kite sticks), of thistles for puff-balls, of deserted birds’ nests, and all the other delights that fall in his way.
For berrying does not consist chiefly in getting berries, any more than fishing consists chiefly in getting fish, or hunting in getting birds. The essence of berrying is the state of mind that accompanies it. It is a semi-contemplative recreation, providing physical quiet with just enough motion to prevent restlessness, being, in this respect, like “ whittling.” I said semi-contemplative, because, while it seems to induce meditation, the beauty of it is that you don’t really meditate at all, you only think you are doing so, or are going to. That is what makes it so recuperative in its effects. It just delicately shaves the line between, on the one hand, stimulating you to thought, and on the other, boring you because it does not stimulate; and thus it brings about in you a perfect state of poise most restful in itself, and in complete harmony with the midsummer season.
Yes, fishing is good, and hunting is good, and all the sports are good in their turn, — even sitting in a rocking-chair on a boarding-house piazza has, perhaps, its charms and its benefits for some, — but when the sun is hot and the wind is cool, when the hay is in and the yellowing fields lie broad, when the deep woods have gathered their birds and their secrets to their very hearts, when the sky is warmly blue, and the clouds pile soft or float thin and light, then give me a pail and let me wander up, up, to the great open berry lots. I will let the sun shine on me and the wind blow me, and I will love the whole big world, and I will think not a single thought, and at sundown I will come home with a full pail and a contentedly empty mind.