Meditations on the blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium et al

Russell Wangersky
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Hello, single-chirping-bird out here on the barrens, peeping your solitary peep while the wind tries repeatedly to spill my berry bins. What is your problem? Are you offended? Am I on your turf?

Am I picking your berries, or at least berries you believe to be yours? Seriously: there are enough berries for both of us. For a whole island. There are enough for a chain of islands. For Samoa or Indonesia or both. For all of the Horn of Africa. There are literally blueberries as far as the eye can see.

So you and I can share — particularly because there is not another thing picking berries anywhere in sight just now, and a billion billion berries are swelling, blueing and preparing to drop.

Scientists say there are scores of varieties — different tastes, sizes hefts — all lumped together in the same family. And how do you know when they’re ready to pick?

Try looking. Right now would be a good time.

Or listen for the sound of their ripening.

It sounds like chainsaws — or, more to the point, when you start hearing chainsaws for winter wood, chances are the blueberries are ripening, too.

On picking: some bushes are weighed down heavy with fat clumps of berries — is it good to strip those ones clean and fill your bucket? Does the plant give a sigh of relief to be free of providing moisture and sugars to its lumpy sweet burden? Or, like throwing back small male Dungeness crab, are you merely giving the more unsuccessful blueberry plants a new evolutionary advantage to cover the land with their stingy, mingy fellows?

Some years, the blueberries are better on the highly sloped lands above the old rail bed. Other times, they are better on the flat ground below. Is there a reason for this? Is it water and heat? Picky pollinating bees? Could I have a schedule, please? (And this year, where I pick, it’s the higher lands that have the better berries.)

And better berries there are just now. Mountains of them. So many berries — and so few people picking them, that it begins to feel more like a duty than an outing. Fill the bins — empty and freeze. Fill the bins. It is exhausting and exhilarating work, the thing sore backs are made of.

Speaking of hard work — ants.

It’s terrible to be an ant waiting for blueberries: they don’t really start to get any benefits until the blueberries bulge, split and rot. That’s when the ants can dive in and gather the spoils. If someone comes to pick them, it’s often mere days before the ants would have the benefits.

Still, the blueberry bushes around the anthills always seem to have the best berries — why? Is it hard work in the berry mines? Land that’s been tunneled through?

Are ants berry farmers, soil aerators, or just plain perpetually lucky?

Clever pests

And while we’re on insects, how does the mosquito know to land on the back of the hand that is holding the berry bin, so that it is both upside-down and out of sight? And how do mosquitoes co-opt gravity to manage this?

Hello rain. Single droplet, stray shower, full downpour — why am I not surprised? Once again, gravity is not on my side. There is a blackfly inside my ear, my ear canal, my brain. But there are berries to be picked — miles of them. Rivers of them. Blueberries and raspberries right now, partridgeberries to come.

And one more thought on berries — this time, raspberries. Plant them if you will, as many drills as possible, and wait happily for their treasure. But remember this: it is a murder of crows, a school of fish, a pod of whales. It is a responsibility of raspberries.

Look at your hands and the stains of blue and red and purple. Best solved in a warm bath — your back will like it, too.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Geographic location: Samoa, Indonesia, Horn of Africa

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