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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.

Blackberry-Picking

BY SEAMUS HEANEY

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.

The Vacation

BY WENDELL BERRY

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.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56192/the-vacation-56d238779b2aa

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? I also now chair the department. And along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

2 Comments

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    A former West-Michigander myself, rooted in South Haven and Allegan, I appreciate how folks can wax nostalgic about picking blueberries on any given weekend during the summer. Imagine though that experience taking up most of your summer as a job: as a pre-teen kid, I worked alongside my mom daily through a good portion of several summers picking blueberries, 8 or 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the local blueberry/christmas tree farm. I saved all my earnings and used the money toward new shoes and clothes for school—which I got to pick out myself, either at local merchants’ stores or from the Sears/JCPenney’s catalogues. The experience taught me the concept of “work”—there’s time involved, days, weeks, months—and conditions like hot sun, rainstorms, insects, and an occasional snake in the blueberry bush, that all affect outdoor work. Being sweaty, tired, a bit sick from eating one too many blueberries (to this day they are not my favorite fruit); but also eating lunch in the shade, talking with Mom, listening to teenagers picking in the next-row-over laugh and sing along to the hits on their transistor radios, tuned in to a Chicago station, are memories all associated with picking blueberries, as a kid in the 1960s.

  • June says:

    Than you Ms. Holberg. And Mr. Carpenter too. For these wonderful words of life.

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