"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle
First of all, do not expect to pick enough for multiple quarts of jam in an afternoon. The blueberries that grow in the boreal forest are tiny, very tiny compared to those you might buy in the store or harvest from lush, moist woods closer to the coasts.
Blueberries need sun, moisture and a well-drained bed. They grow in open areas in the forest where the trees have been downed by fire or man. Old burns and road allowances as well as cut-lines and clear-cuts that have not had ‘foliage control’ applied are all good places to look for the low shrubs. At this time of year the colours of the plants can range from an almost spring green through the beginnings of what will become a deep red induced by lengthening days and early frosts. Many are painted with late summer’s verdigris.
Once you have identified likely environs, resist the urge to keep eyes to the ground – the single-minded hunt for laden bushes. Take some time to get to know the area. Look out at the surrounding forest. Walk into it. The forest floor mosses may be cushiony and lush or crisp and dry depending on recent rainfall. If the canopy is open enough, you may note reddening leaves of shrubs displaying ripening cranberries for a future excursion. Look up at the mellow autumn blue with the season’s clouds scudding, softly wafting or hovering above gracefully swaying, cone-laden tree-tops.
Scout the area for fresh signs of wildlife. Fresh bear scat may be a sign that you are not the only one inclined to harvest this delectable crop. Smell the autumn rot, the musty fungus and pungent pine bark. Bears, especially grizzlies exude a strong odor too – unpleasant, musty – some describe it as the smell of urine.
Listen to the branches of pine resisting the breeze or rubbing each other as the wind moves leaning trunks against their stronger neighbours. Hear how the shorter days and early frosts have begun to slow the uptake of moisture into deciduous leaves, drying them and modulating the soft slapping sounds of summer to delicate applause.
Turning your gaze to the ground. Survey the ground cover. Compare the relative heights, colours and density of the blueberry bushes that you pass among the welter of undergrowth . Those exposed on rockier earth will be stunted, wizened, barely ankle-height with smaller leaves pockmarked by summer’s hail storms and tiny, sparse berries; their ancient, gnarled forms a testament to their perennial struggle to survive. Near a little cover, perhaps along a mass of leathery Labrador tea on the east side of the forest’s edge, the plants may be more lush, taller, airier, with leaves a slightly lighter green and denser clusters of larger berries. Some swaths may be torn and stripped already; evidence of a grazing bear indiscriminately devouring leaves, fruits and sometimes entire plants, roots included.
Passing clouds turn the tempting berries from a perfect reflection of the soft blue sky to a deep indigo. Upon their departure they allow the sun to reveal the mysteries in woodland shadows, igniting brilliant bunchberries within their rosette of classically ovate leaves, and sparking the fine and feathery seed heads of lissome grasses .
Finally, choose a promising blueberry patch and kneel or sit at the edge. It may be tempting to bend and begin picking, but apart from the strain on your back and knees, you will miss the clusters that hide beneath the interlocking leaves and the intimate feeling of gathering nature around you. Tenderly lift and separate the woody plant nearest you and inspect its branches, seeking out a promising cluster.
Without haste, gently grasp a spreading stalk with one hand. Place the relaxed fingertips of the other above a soft cluster and gently roll the berries between the tips of fingers and thumb, gingerly releasing the ripe ones. If you are careful, those still hard and pink will tenaciously resist ensnaring.
With a smooth twist of the wrist, guide the berries into your palm for emptying into the bucket with another, opposite twist, or keep them softly cupped to hold and protect them while another cluster is reaped.
Your thoughts may wander and picking may become automated, often speeding up with the result of missed clusters, spilled berries and extra chaff to pick out of the fruit later. Embrace the Zen of concentration. Watch the insects that use the plant or the shelter it provides. See the rusting, spotted leaves. Notice the deep polished blue that appears on each berry as your touch removes the powdery bloom. Focus your attention by directing the occasional ambrosial cluster to your mouth rather than the bucket.
Be aware of the sounds of the forest: was that the crack of a dry branch beleaguered by the gusting wind or one underfoot of an ungulate or bear? Can you hear the irregular thumps of pine cones hitting the forest floor from the squirrel high up who is frantically trying to fill his winter larder? A raven may notice you and crawk in protest or greeting. If a grey jay (or whiskey jack as we call them here) notices you, it will likely hang around close by hoping for a hand-out. As you move from patch to patch, stretch and breathe and see the life around you.
Leaving some for the plants and some for the wildlife, I picked nearly a litre of unsorted berries in two hours on a recent afternoon with friends along an old road. The robust wind lent only a pleasant breeze to the understory in the forest. Together with the cooling shadows of regal pine and drifting clouds, that breeze moderated the heat of unusually intense fall sunshine, drawing scent from moss and pine. Berry picking, approached appropriately, can be a respite, a cathartic cessation of demanding thoughts, literally a refresher: re-learning of how to breathe.
More about the Velvet-leaved blueberry (Nature of the Hills)