As a child, I lived for that sunny Sunday in July when Dad would announce on the way home from church, “Get ready, we’re going to Findlater Valley after lunch.”
By “get ready” he meant: put on a pair of long pants, a shirt with sleeves, a hat, and a belt, and ditch the flip-flops in favour of those sneakers that had not been worn since the last day of school. Mom packed a picnic and Dad packed a stack of empty ice cream pails into the station wagon, and in no time flat, we were on the annual expedition to Findlater Valley to pick saskatoons.
Oftentimes we can trace our talents and predilections directly to our parents. From my mom, I inherited the collect-vintage-dinnerware gene. From my dad, I inherited a talent for picking berries. This gene is, no doubt, related to that ancient survival instinct called gathering, the act of foraging in the wild for berries, roots, mushrooms, nuts, and edible greens. Thanks to my mom, my dinner table is vintage chic; thanks to my dad, I’ll always find something to put on it.
My dad is a terrific picker. He starts early, picks steady, eats very little, and doesn’t quit until the pails are full. There is a legend in our family that he broke an all-time record for the most cherries picked in one day at a certain u-pick orchard in British Columbia. The owner offered him a job. That’s my dad—a picking machine.
I imagine that somewhere back in our genealogy—say a few hundred generations ago—Dad’s ancestors were legends in their tribe for picking the most berries or gathering the most mushrooms or collecting the most nuts. They’d trundle off in the morning with their reed baskets for a pleasant day of foraging and return at dusk, baskets overflowing with good things to eat. Sure, the hunters were the heroes of the tribe, with their dramatic campfire tales of stalking wild beasts for days and felling them with a single spear, but the gatherers were the Steady Eddies who could always be counted on to provide something to nibble when the hunters missed their mark.
Like my dad and my grandmother before him, I have always loved to pick berries. I love being outside on a hot summer day with the buzz of insects and the scent of dry herbs and grass. I love the rhythm of picking, like a meditative exercise that occupies the body but frees the mind. I love that sense of self-sufficiency, of taking what Mother Nature so freely gives. It fills me with hope. A berry-picking bucket is never half empty; it is always on the upside to being full—until you eat them. And that, of course, is the best part of all.
“Everybody out,” called Dad. I was already out of the car and looping the handle of an ice cream pail into my belt. Not everyone in our tribe showed such prominent expression of the foraging gene. My little brothers were more interested in chasing frogs and climbing trees than picking berries, and my sister would rather sit in the car and read one more chapter of her book.
Even my mom, an auburn freckle-puss, would rather sit in the shade than stand for two minutes in the hot burning sun. She slathered us with sunscreen and mosquito spray, and Dad inspected his crew.
“Jim, get your shoes on.” “Tom, where’s your hat?” “Maureen, why don’t you have a bucket?” She groaned, “Do I have to? I promise I won’t eat any pie.” “Ya, right.” Dad could always spot a fib. “Everybody picks for one hour.”
We set off in single file behind Dad, our ice cream buckets bobbing at our sides and a bead of sweat forming inside our long-sleeve shirts, with Mom pulling up the rear to discourage stragglers. At the fence, Dad held down one strand of barbed wire with his boot and pulled the other one up, so we could bend and step through without catching a barb. We followed a cattle path through a shady copse of trees, avoiding that other prairie pie—the cow pie—and marched down the valley into a thicket of saskatoons. (excerpt from Prairie Feast chapter 4)