Gathering Berries

I KNEEL IN THE MUSKEG, bucket between my legs, cushion of sphagnum moss crimson beneath my rubber boots. My fingers follow an old pattern: pluck, twist, plop into the bucket. Among the browning skunk cabbage beneath the jack pines, clusters of bunchberry announce fall’s arrival like splashes of wine. Nearby my brother leans into the hillside.

I have picked blueberries on this island for as long as I can remember. Before me — mother, father, grandmother. A hundred years, and every year the berries bring their summer glow to our freezers, our ovens, our plates.

The search image for berries lies deep in my body, wherever such inclinations reside. Scan the meadow, the forest edge, the avalanche chutes. Highbush or lowbush? Blueberry or black huckleberry? Wrinkled and wormy or a plump, perfect, purple sphere? My eyes don’t even pause on the empty bushes. Scan left, right. Up ahead — jackpot. A loaded bush, heavy with fruit. Bend over, pick till your back hurts. Fall to your knees, pick. Stretch. Sink back down. The harvest is deeply satisfying, an old rhythm of provisioning for winter, of sharing in what the land has to offer. I am slowed into meditations on the shape of leaves, the rising scent of earth, the gradual cycle of ripening. This is one of the great traditions of my life.

Today, half the berries I touch dissolve beneath my fingers, the water-logged spheres spitting soggy grains from their skins. This has been southeast Alaska’s wettest summer in thirty years. Many of us in the rainy capital city have spent a good deal of time and conversation feeling sorry for ourselves, owing to the particular lack of sunshine this year. And now fall has come, light is waning, water has gotten to the berries. Grumbling, I mutter to my brother about the sodden mush I keep picking. He replies, “The land just gives and gives and gives, and all we do is show up.” Looking up from a bush, he adds, “I think they’re in exceptional condition, given everything they’ve been through.”

I continue to pick and realize he is right. All we do is show up. Wake up, drink our coffee, jump in the car, head for these boggy slopes. Expect the land to provide. And it does. Despite the soggy ones, there are plenty of good berries. Plenty for us, for bears and birds and insect larvae. Plenty for muffins, pancakes, and smoothies. Even if it takes longer to fill our buckets, if some fruits are saturated, if we slip and slide and have to hold our pails high above the dripping branches. It’s part of living among wilderness, in a rainforest. Part of why we love it here.

I find myself feeling a huge gratitude, not only for what the land shares, but what it endures. Given everything they’ve been through. Mid-September, cold mists, no sun by which to ripen, berries still hanging on. I think about the story line leading to each fruit. The poor drainage and low nutrients that give rise to the muskeg. The perennial ericaceous shrub surviving winter temperatures and darkness. The pink blossom opening in April or May. The dusting of pollen that must be exchanged, the hovering of bumblebees and hummingbirds. Each fruit an evolution.

At the end of the day, covered in mud, tongues purple, we tramp down through fog and reddening moss. We stop to pop berries into our mouths, last tastes for the day. These tart ones, so different from the sweet domesticated ones sold by the pint at the supermarket. Within it, each fruit holds what I hold: an accumulation of place. The tangy explosion of these northern berries on the tongue is the landscape communicating itself, an expression of its essential wild character. Taste me — here is your peat moss, your snowmelt, your glacial till. Here is your hemlock root, your jack pine, your overwintering bee. Taste me.

Aleria Jensen is a fourth-generation Alaskan who works as a marine conservation biologist in Juneau. Her writing has appeared in the Potomac Review and the Alaska Quarterly Review.