Listen To Article
I’m technically on vacation right now. “Technically,” because I did spend time finishing a syllabus on Saturday and I did go into work today for a meeting. Well, and I’m writing this blog. But mostly (and especially given how bad I am at intentional time off), I feel like I’m doing great.
In any case, I started off well late last week when a dear friend invited me to go blueberry picking. Despite my many years in Michigan, I had never participated in what seems like a state ritual. I can see why so many families were out under that gorgeous late July sky: the bushes were laden with fruit, and the picking was easy. And delicious as only something fresh-picked can be.
It was easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm of it all. Plus, I suffer from something I think of as “Farmers’ Market Buying Syndrome”: you know, when you go to the Farmers’ Market and way over-buy because of the enchantment of all the beauty at each booth, coupled with wildly ambitious aspirational cooking ideas.
So of course, I idly wondered if one bucket was really enough. But my friend was very wise: “I think about blueberries as if they were manna,” she declared as we walked back towards the barn. “They never taste quite the same frozen, and so I pick only what we can eat in the small window that they’re really good.”
That made me think of a poem I first read in college, Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-Picking.” Different fruit, same idea: the delight of savoring something truly in season, the foolishness of trying to hold on too long. Every day brings us “manna” in some form: the trick is to cultivate the mindset to see and taste, as it were, and know that it is good.
Which made me remember another poem, this one by Wendell Berry. I’ll leave it to you to read, but you’ll see some of the same themes are present as in Heaney’s. But importantly, Berry ends with an implied directive to urge us to be fully present, even on vacation.
for Philip Hobsbaum
Late August, given heavy rain and sun For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills We trekked and picked until the cans were full, Until the tinkling bottom had been covered With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's. We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. But when the bath was filled we found a fur, A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
Once there was a man who filmed his vacation. He went flying down the river in his boat with his video camera to his eye, making a moving picture of the moving river upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly toward the end of his vacation. He showed his vacation to his camera, which pictured it, preserving it forever: the river, the trees, the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat behind which he stood with his camera preserving his vacation even as he was having it so that after he had had it he would still have it. It would be there. With a flick of a switch, there it would be. But he would not be in it. He would never be in it.