Some parents are soccer parents. Some parents are baseball or gymnastics parents. Some drive constantly to swim, cheer, play volleyball or cricket. My kids do swim, play basketball in winter and pick-up baseball anytime, but our primary family sport is fruit picking.
Historically speaking, berrying is children’s work – one sent the kids out into the woods for the afternoon and if they are not eaten by bears (think _Blueberries for Sal_, _Farmer Boy_, and other classic treatments of the “meet the bear in the woods while berrying”) they come back with a pail of berries for canning.
We, of course, belong to a different era – while we have 19 acres of woods, they won’t keep us in berries by ourselves, and at 9, 7 and 5, the younger children are only now old enough to roam them independently.. Our household bushes bear abundantly, but for the most part fail to keep up with the voracious appetite of four small berry predators.
In addition to picking from our woods and the household berry patches, we go and visit various pick-your-owns. Our favorite, a few towns away in the valley, offers absolutely no amenities of agritourism (why we like it) and lovely views of the rock escarpment near us. It is a place for serious pickers, and the large Polish and Russian immigrant communities in the area make up a big portion of the clientele, along with the locals.
It is a sport – there’s timing (making sure you get there before the fields are picked over, but when enough berries are ripe to make it worth it), strategy (you little people get under those bushes – remember, most people pick standing up) and discipline (our favorite place makes ice cream from its own fruit, but the firm policy is “no work, no treat.” There is speed and endurance and all the thrills and chills of sport (although a dearth of dramatic pratfalls, unless Simon is involved).
Every berry and fruit provides its own skill set. Strawberries are a warm-up fruit – cultivated strawberries are almost too easy, and mostly about getting you going again after winter. They are big and rewarding,even a pre-schooler can fill a quart basket in a short time, and the main thing is just to remember to dress appropriately for red stains on your knees. Think of it as spring training.
From strawberries, we move to more challenging cherries, the sweet and the sour. Those on very dwarf trees are just a leisurely stroll in the shade, but most of our cherry trees are standards and involves acrobatic high climbing, ladders and at least one child hanging off of something they shouldn’t. They are also a race with the birds – who will get them, who will devour first the ripest berries at the peak of the trees?
Blueberries are next, and blueberries are mostly about endurance. It is July now, and hot – blueberry bushes are too short to provide shade. Blueberries are delicious, but tiny – it takes forever for an impatient child to fill a quart basket. Are we done yet? Blueberries teach discipline. I’ll admit, some years, since blueberries tend to fall at the same time as my son’s annual swim lessons, not too far from our favorite farm, I go alone and luxuriate in the peace and quiet.
Then come the bramble bushes, which are true sport – as Hagrid would put it admiringly in the _Harry Potter_ books (one of my sons pointed this out to me) “they can take care of themselves, can’t they?”). It is this very vitality and aggressiveness that makes them fun.
It is true one can find thornless cane fruits, but none of our local sites has them – so one must accustom oneself to being pricked and scratched in the scramble to fill baskets with blackberries and raspberries. Sneaking up on them is a good technique – you see a tempting cluster, and attempt to go over or under or slip around, but they see you coming and thrust out a spiked branch – or worse, with the blackberries, the perfectly ripe berries drop, as you touch them, out of their cluster and to the ground, protected by something like the thorny barrier that grew over Sleeping Beauty’s house.
The challenge of it only makes us enjoy it more – you would think that thorns and wasps would not happiness make, but they do. The children’s complaints are half-hearted and most of the time, they forget to make any in the joy of the chase, working together to fill pails. In an hour and a half on a picked over field, my boys picked 20 lbs.
After the cane fruit come the peaches. At our house, the peaches come late – at the end of August – and involve the most beloved of all rituals – going on on the roof to collect the ones that have grown at the top. We have two Reliance peach trees in a protected area above our covered porch, and the while the roof is normally forbidden to my children, on peach harvest day they are simply warned not to fall off, and everyone lays on their bellies, leaning over the side and capturing stray peaches grown too large for their britches.
Fall raspberries are easier and less aggressive than the summer ones, and while apple picking does involve some tree climbing, particularly in the old remnant orchard we are restoring, it is nothing compared to the cherries, peaches and blackberries – by autumn, fully trained, in the finest fruit-picking shape, you rest on your laurels and ripe apples and pears drop into your hands.
All of it goes back to the kitchen to be processed and devoured. During the season for each fruit, all of us eat as much of it as we want to – an unimaginable luxury. As many raspberries as you can eat – such a joy, and like bears we store up pleasure for the shortfall to come. The rest is dried or jammed, occasionally frozen or turned into liqueurs. All of us know there will be a long and apply winter before the first spikes of rhubarb and then the glorious first strawberries. That’s ok – we love apples and pears and quinces, the fruits of autumn, the ones that keep and make you happy all winter. A winter of apples and pears and occasional citrus is more delightful when a bowl of blackberry-peach sauce flows over your pancakes, when blueberry jam is spread lavishly on your morning toast, and when you can slip a hand into the dried strawberry jar and taste, for a moment, summer gone by, the sunshine and the sport of it built in to every bite.