Story by Judith Horstman.
All year long the color of blueberries sleeps in the mind’s eye, elusive. A few days each year, I go and find it, climbing Wildcat Hill in southern New Hampshire with a backpack and my best friend, brushing through ferns and twigs and clambering over disheveled stone walls. It’s always high summer and golden hot, and we set off eagerly, tasting blueberry pie, blueberry muffins, blueberry jam. Creating blueberry memories, the climb leaves us breathless with exertion and anticipation.
Near the top of Wildcat we wade into overgrown pasture, rustling through heath and young trees. There, matting the hillside, are the blueberries. So that’s what it was: the color of babies’ eyes, night skies, lake water. And I bend down, plastic milk carton dangling on a string from my neck, to pull off the fruit with both hands. The first ones always get eaten, a reward in advance, because soon, too soon, the back begins to ache.
It takes the patience of age and the supple body of youth to pick wild blueberries. They are so small, so sweet, so hard to pick, and it takes so many to fill a bucket. I get annoyed at the time it takes, creeping across the heath, the heat. Then the rhythm takes over. In the hot high thrum of August, really, what is the hurry?
My friend wanders out of sight, pursuing a growth line of her own. We are separated by trees and shrubs, but still within earshot. Our fingers are stamped purple. Our tongues turn blue-black and loosen. This is when confidences come, amid the rustle of the stiff bushes, the silence of midday, and the isolation. When our girls were young, they used to pick with us. They camped here in nightgowns, like Victorian princesses, eating smeary handfuls of blueberries from their bedrolls. As they grew older, they preferred to go pick on their own, giggling and long-legged, blue eyes flashing. We would hear their voices singing across the side hill. They had secrets, too, probably the same ones my dear friend and I have been sharing since we were their age: the uncertainty of the future, the meaning of the past, mistakes and lucky guesses, and what one should or could do next.
The August day ambles on. I tell her about the story that blueberries were once used to tint milk-based paint a mystical blue. “Imagine,” I tell her as the afternoon birds swoop and dart above us, “picking enough blueberries to paint a room. Imagine!” Cicadas hum on the hot rocks. The young trees sigh in the light wind. I hear my friend now, humming also, off-key. She will climb up the hill many times this summer to fill the freezer, the jam jars, the pie plates. I do it only those few days when I come north each summer, so I recall the events, the exact turning of each blueberry day, with a piercing vision. In midwinter, a continent away, blueberry memories revisit as I open a jam jar. Ah. That’s how it was. Blueberries.
Want to pick your own blueberries? A day trip of sunshine and berry picking can entertain the entire family—although more berries usually end up eaten than saved. The hillside where we picked is on private property in southern New Hampshire, and these cobalt gems are intrinsically connected with New England: remember the classic children’s book, “Blueberries for Sal?” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blueberries_for_Sal] or audio [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsycR7XNpEU]
You can indeed pick your own in Maine, Vermont or New Hampshire. But you might find blueberry picking wherever you are: Native to North America for more than 10,000 years and commercially cultivated since the early 20th century, the US is the worlds largest grower and producer of blueberries. They are the country’s second most important commercial berry crop (after strawberries), and farmed as both wild and cultivated varieties from coast to coast. Almost every state has you-pick farms that welcome families. While Maine is the largest producer of wild or low bush berries, and they are the official berry of Nova Scotia, Michigan leads in producing cultivated or high bush blueberries, followed by Georgia, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey (where it is the official state fruit). New York and Canada also grow blueberries. But not to be outdone, several southern states produce blueberries: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina.
To find you-pick berries near you, check the website pickyourown.org for finding and harvesting many kinds of fruits and vegetables in season in every state: http://www.pickyourown.org/index.htm#states