For some people, summer begins with the first warm days on city patios or the chance to sit, dripping wet, in a Muskoka chair on a dock. My best memories of summer are stirred when my back aches, sweat runs from my forehead and my fingers are stained bright colours. The best summers are spent picking berries.
Blueberries started it all. Native to the land around my Sudbury childhood home, wild blueberries require more determination and effort to harvest than the inviting rows of the south's cultivated berry farms. Not until you complete a journey deep into the rocky hills might they reveal themselves, tiny and blue, in the jagged crevices of the Northern Ontario landscape.
My mother taught me this. I am the youngest of six by almost a decade. For as long as I can remember, we'd head out picking with an air of family entertainment.
Baskets swinging with lightness, I'd greet with enthusiasm the first patch I came across. My mother would shake her head. It was too soon, these bushes too picked over. Begrudgingly, I'd press on, higher up into the rocks, passing patches that seemed perfectly respectable. Finally, we'd come across what seemed to be an endless sea of untouched clusters. These would fill baskets much more quickly, worth both the wait and the walk.
After decades living in Southern Ontario, I've come to appreciate this as a quintessentially northern life lesson. The fresh, tart explosion of the hardy plants' fruit can be popped like candy, with little more effort than a step off a path or a short walk along the northern shore of a camp - the local term for summer cottage.
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But the act of reaching tiny hands into a six-litre basket and gorging on fresh, wild blueberries by the mouthful - the true northern summer experience - is enjoyed without consideration for the expense of someone else's time. The harvest of blueberries in quantity requires a sense of maturity, the capacity to delay gratification. Serious blueberry picking has an age of majority.
My own maturity arrived in the summer of 1985. It was a perfect year for blueberries, much like this one. Clear days and cool nights, combined with enough rain, kept the burn of the August sun at bay and the plants kept producing.
I was 19 and it was my first summer back home after a year attending university in Toronto. It was a lousy year for student employment, and I could only get part-time work.
My mother was 60 and retired. It was her idea to pick berries together for wholesale. We would head off early in the morning, each carrying two 12-litre baskets and a small knapsack containing lunch. Day after day, we hiked into the hills until we'd found a spot and began the rhythm of picking by hand.
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I'd fill the air with my latest woes and philosophies. It was there my mother revealed herself to me for the first time as one does to another adult rather than to their child. Over hours of winding intellectual conversations, we learned who the other was and very much liked who we'd found.
We'd break at noon and head to a hilltop for a smooth rock with a view. There, we'd drink from thawing bottles of water and juice and eat big chunks of Finnish rye bread thick with butter. We'd peel hard-boiled eggs, the whites turning blue from our stained fingers, and sprinkle them with salt before each bite.
By midafternoon, our baskets were full. We would gingerly hike down to the car to sell the berries to a wholesaler for destinations unknown.
As the season waned, I felt at home hiking each day the weather held to work in those rocky hills, where the breeze cooled the summer's heat. As long as I could remember, a love for labouring in the bush had burned deep within my mother. It was probably an artifact of her Finnish childhood. That summer, I discovered the same passion lived within me. I found reward in the labour itself.
That was my last summer in the bush. With a new career and life, I could carve few days each year for picking with my mother. She often went alone, taming the hills and its bounty as her own.
The summer of 1991 was her last in the bush. She succumbed to cancer later that year.
My summers still begin when I pull out the baskets, although I now head for farms and orchards closer to home. I save blueberries for the times I can access them directly from the north. These days, I pick from the bounty collected by strangers, sold from the trunks of cars along the highway at a price that would make my mother pale. I don't begrudge the cost. There is many a price to pay for leaving family and the familiar to find fortunes elsewhere.
I hope a future season of my life will grant me time, once again, in the northern hills. In the meantime, as I pull away satisfied from a roadside stand with a bounty destined for my freezer at home, I can't help but reach over to run my fingers through those precious blue pearls. I bring handfuls to my face and fill my waiting mouth with the richness of summer, childhood and home.
Maija Saari lives in Hamilton.
Illustration by Neal Cresswell.
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