Strawberry picking in June often marks the beginning of the fruit picking season. It was a little early when we went out this weekend, but there were still plenty of strawberries in the patch and we spent a few leisurely hours at the farm, feeding animals, eating apple cider donuts and slurping on apple cider slushies to cool off. It was fairly hot, the kind of day that reminds you that everyday in summer is like this.
I never went fruit picking as a kid. I don’t know if this is something that has grown in popularity as an outing destination in the last 10 years of so or if maybe it was just my family, but I don’t recall any of my friends going fruit picking either. So it was really interesting when one summer in 1990, during the 3 months off we had from college, I found myself picking blueberries in Maine, not for fun, but for money.
Don’t ask me how or why or what I was even thinking, and even though I can still remember how grueling the work was, I’m glad that I can count those 5 weeks of blueberry picking as one of my life experiences. You have to remember that I was a kid from New York City and knew nothing about farming and migrant workers, never mind how to pick berries off low laying bushes with a rake. I also really really sucked at it. You had to be strong to constantly bend down with your back to rake these berries for 6+ hours a day, scooping up as many as you can catch with your rake and dumping them in your bucket. You had to be strong to carry full buckets filled with berries back to the end of your row. It was all about being economical and efficient with your movements. I was neither of these things. I wasn’t strong and I didn’t move smartly. I also pretty much hated that kind of physical labor at the height of summer temps and back then, nobody wore sunscreen, so we got really tan, not to mention sore. But as a kid from New York City, it was an interesting experience and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. No, I have much respect for the way our food comes to us in stores. You don’t really think how the berries you eat were picked by people. We came across many illegal workers, but there were also folks who traveled from other parts of the country to do seasonal work and some of the women kicked ass and out picked any of the guys in the line on the field on any given day.
I think I lasted about 2 weeks on the first large, commercial blueberry farm that we raked at. It wasn’t because I wanted to give up, but because of the pesticides that the farms used. Some days you can see cloudy dusts of pesticides hovering over the fields in the sun’s haze. I knew this wasn’t good, so we sought out smaller, family owned organic farms. During these blueberry picking weeks, we’d stay at houses of people that we’d meet. That may sound crazy, but with a little caution and a good head on your shoulders, we learned that we can trust the world to take care of us. One of the houses that we stayed at was a true hobbit house built out of stone and mud. 2 big round rooms with pointed roofs and windows connected by a short breezeway. A vegetable garden out front and wildflowers all around. You had to drive on a half secluded dirt road off the main road to get there. I wouldn’t be able to find it again if you asked me to. Sometimes I wonder if the hobbit house is still there. Sometimes I wonder if it existed at all, but the only thing that convinces me that it was real is because I can remember the house so clearly. It was magic.
On the days we didn’t pick blueberries we drove out to the jagged coastline and swam. The nights were often hot, muggy and filled with vicious mosquitoes, but the days were beautiful and the water was dazzling. Wading out into those gentle bay waters surrounded by nothing but a million flecks of sparkling reflections made you feel like you were standing in the most awesome place on earth.
I haven’t been back to Maine since that summer 20 years ago. It has long since been on my list of places I want to visit again, but the drive is on the side of a little too long to make it comfortably with the kids. One day though, but until then I can can still see the purple fields filled with blueberries reaching all the way out to the horizon. I can feel that hot sun that turns the blueberries ripe and sweet. I can still smell the heavily perfumed scent of blueberries that seemed to follow us everywhere.