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Berry picking a lesson in where to look

They are mostly dried up now – sad, shriveled husks of once gloriously robust berries.

For the past three weeks I had grown accustomed to my dawn picking ritual, hitting the patch at first light, occasionally skipping a day for crop recovery. Collecting a gallon of the bumpy fruit was an easy task, one I eagerly anticipated as the sun broke daily over the eastern hills of Pease Mountain. I had put 17 gallons in my own freezer; half as much was donated to friends and family.

At July’s end, however, I was lucky to find a handful. Raspberry season was over.

There is something I find immensely satisfying about picking berries, but it’s not something I’d expect a lot of folks to understand or appreciate. It can be tedious work, filling a sizable container, something I’d never accomplished until well past 30 years of life. There’s little time for such drudgery at age 25, and certainly no patience for those lost and confused in the embrace of teenagery (yes, it’s a word).

Picking a pound of berries is an insurmountable goal for any child, a statistic my sister and I endorsed from deep within the huckleberry brambles near Priest Lake. Our parents would drive deep into the Idaho wilderness, arm us with DEET and a 3-pound MJB can, then drop us into a thicket to pick until full.

We were typically motivated by a DQ Dilly Bar bribe, and we’d pick furiously for ten minutes before complaining, and then dedicate another five before mosquitoes, stifling heat and suggestive bear-rustling in adjacent bushes convinced us to abandon it altogether. Our best combined take measured shy of the letter “J”, and we never had another Dilly Bar until we left home as adults.

Since my youth, though, I’ve flip-flopped, discovering there’s something profoundly rewarding about picking, especially raspberries. In mid-summer, the tops of leafy stocks exhibit a decent smattering of berries across the tops, beckoning novice pickers with easy loot. But the real gems lie beneath, hidden in the undergrowth, unseen without ambition and effort.

Few things are better than squatting low and lifting the skirt of dense foliage to discover clusters of rich, maroon berries hiding within the canopy, at times dangling mere inches from the ground below.

I prefer raspberries to other small fruit for a variety of reasons. Cherries require ladders, bird defenses and pitting, making them labor intensive from the beginning. Blackberries make for great syrup, but thorns and yellow jackets make for painful detractors. Huckleberries, while delicious and considered quintessential Northwest, involve substantial competition between people and wildlife, alike.

In contrast, the raspberry patch in my garden is not only crowd-free, but the picking is easy, the location ideal, and the variety of end products are countless. From simple oatmeal topping and freezer jam, to smoothies and rhubarb-ginger jelly blends, the raspberry is unmatched in both compatibility and versatility.

My particular stand of raspberries began with starts handed down from my father and aunt, whom inherited them from their father, and likely his father before that. On my last day of picking, I reflected on the generations that had benefited from this ancestral stand, those that cared for them as I had, and escaped from all but the present moment every time they looked beyond the obvious.

There’s discovery and treasure to be found everywhere, if you just know where to look.