VanHaren: Picking wild berries was great country experience

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

Growing up on the farm provided me with lots of experiences which my “town” cousins and friends seldom had.

Picking wild berries was one such experience. Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and gooseberries grew wild in the woods and swamps around our area of Oconto County, and we picked a lot of them for fresh berries and jams and jellies which my mom cooked and canned.

Our farm was on the Oconto River just a couple of miles from the Machickanee Forest, just down river from our farm. The Machickanee Forest was a “managed” stand of pines that had been planted in the depression years by make-work projects of the government, and each year workers would go through and cut the lower branches and just let them lie on the forest bed. These “slashings” became fertile ground for lots of wild berries, especially the wild blackberries, and we made seasonal forays into the woods to pick them.

I’m sure you couldn’t have paid us to do this job by the hour, but we never really minded getting hot and tired going looking for the the big bright berries — just for the fun of it. There’d always be chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches and other birds chirping in the trees, and there’d be lots of white Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, daisies and other wildflowers decorating the area. Sometimes we’d see flattened-out spots where deer had slept.

These were family outings. Mom would pack a picnic lunch, and we’d take the car back in the logging roads into the forest. I was always lost back in there, but my dad always knew where he was going. We’d go into the woods armed with lard pails attached by a belt to our waists and pick (and eat) the berries. Struggling through the slashings was not easy and sometimes resulted in lots of scratches and bruises when you’d sink into holes in the dead pine branches. The scratchy brambles of the berry bushes could inflict some painful wounds, too, if you weren’t careful.

A lot of times, there’d be some monster thistles growing up through the slashings, with their pretty purple bulbous blossoms and their sharp stickers to contend with. There’d be heavy spider webs, which you’d sometimes have to break through to get to the berries. Where there are webs, there are usually spiders, you know.

Another hazard was the bees that competed with us for the sweets. One time, when I was about 11, I think, I stepped into one of the traps in the slashings and right into a nest of bees. They were not happy about my invading their abode and became pretty hostile. They got inside my clothing, and, trapped as I was by the slashings, I couldn’t get out very fast.

The result was over 100 bee stings on my stomach, chest, back and arms. By the time my screaming (I was a wimp) got my parents’ attention, I was almost hysterical from the pain. They took me to the hospital, where I was treated for the stings. Seventy years later, I still have scars from that encounter, and since that time, I’m allergic to stings and I copiously avoid all bees.

All the scratches, bruises, sweat and bee stings notwithstanding, my memories of berry picking are primarily pleasant ones. I like almost all berries, but there’s a special taste to wild varieties, especially wild blackberries, and my mom made wonderful pies, preserves, jams and jellies from the “fruits of our labor.” Domestic berries are good, but they don’t match the tastes of the jams made from wild ones.

I used to love the smell of the house when the berries were being cooked, and I liked to be part of the process of sealing the jars with the melted paraffin. Mom would buy big blocks of paraffin and melt it in a double boiler on the stove, and then my sister, Joyce, and I would help her pour the liquid wax into the tops of the open jelly jars; the wax would seal the flavor in and the air out to preserve the goodies for use in the winter.

Being a farm kid also gave me some advantages over my city cousins and friends when it came to wild berries and fruit. I knew, for instance, that chokecherries — while not harmful — were awful tasting, and I could usually con my victims into trying some, and then I’d laugh at the puckered expressions on their faces when the astringent flavor of the fruit hit their palates. The birds wouldn’t eat chokecherries, so that was a good indication. I knew which kinds of wild grapes were the best to eat. I knew how to handle the thorny fruit of the wild gooseberry to squeeze out the sweet-tasting seedy pulp to eat them raw.

The reddish-purple fruit of the elderberry was good to eat, but only if you knew when to pick it. Too early, and they were sour; too late, and they were almost fermented. The birds, especially the cedar waxwings, would sometimes get a little loopy from the fermenting fruit.

Yup, picking wild berries was a sort of active meditation with nature; it satisfied both body and soul. As tired as we’d sometimes be, it was hard to leave a patch when you could see there were more berries out there waiting to be picked, but there would always be another day.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.