Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 27, 2021

Blackberry birthday

"This is it!" husband Art exclaimed.

He braked, backed our brown 1983 Pontiac off the edge of the road, stopped the engine and got out. A few seconds later, the water in the radiator-overflow tank bubbled, something I had heard countless times over the years.

The car had belonged to his parents, but in 1998 the garage had declared it dead, thanks to a flaw in the engine block. That was almost 40,000 miles ago, but a lot of pampering and liberal doses of Stop-Leak have meant it's now Art's go-to fishing car. Parking was a bit of a chore as a power-steering hose ruptured six years ago, making turning the wheels a test of arm strength.

But we weren't fishing today. We were after dry-land quarry!

I had decided to sleep in that morning, so when I arose, Art was working on his laptop. I asked what the temperature was.

"69 inside and 61 outside," he answered.

My thoughts went to my Kansas family and friends. Those aren't temperatures that happen much there in mid-August. But in the pine woods of Northern Wisconsin in late summer, it's just a typical day.

"What would you like for breakfast?" I asked. Then, after glancing at the time, I said, "Or brunch?"

"Wieners ... no, bratwursts, but I'll make them!" he said.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

He confirmed it and a few minutes later he was cooking brats while finely chopping an onion.

"So what would you like to do today?" I queried.

He suggested we head out into the nearby national forest to pick blackberries. I was up for that.

We stopped at several places, but while the numbers were good, the berries were small. We had maybe half a gallon when we made our final stop.

It was only 4:30 in the afternoon, but darkness creeps into the woods early with the towering trees making it hard for sunlight to reach the ground. While August is frequently the warmest month, something about the angle of the light said fall was just around the corner. There would still be days the locals consider hot - anything above 80 degrees - but the days are growing shorter ever more quickly now.

Berry canes grow one year, bear fruit in the second year and then die. Once established, there is fruit every season because during the bearing year, new canes emerge that will produce in the following one. But in the forest, no one is culling the dead canes, and eventually a bramble results with marginally-bearing plants. So part of every berrying excursion is keeping an eye open for new places.

Just before we made that final stop, a red fox crossed the road ahead of us. The only humans we saw were a woman on a bicycle dressed for serious cycling, a forest ranger and a lone vehicle beside a lake.

Several years ago, Art and I had been picking when I asked what the likelihood of meeting a bear was.

"Well, in this area, there is one for every square mile," he answered.

He later told me when he looked up to answer me, a bear crossed the road about 200 feet behind me. He decided not to say anything. He knew my picking would have been over if I had known.

After half an hour, I was done. My back was unhappy about bending over and the thorns had left their calling cards. My arms had a few trails of blood next to scratches that hadn't gone deep enough to bleed. Several times, the berry thorns had pushed through my jeans into my legs.

I told Art, who was still working on the hillside a few feet away, that I had reached my limit and began to slowly walk to the car. Soon, he joined me. The old five-quart ice cream container was now nearly full of glistening black jewels.

We were sweaty, a bit scarred and tired. Art has mentioned that at times like that, his dad would often say, "And they call this fun," ... but with a smile that said it was, indeed, fun!

We headed north, then west and then south on Divide Road. The forest road was so named because to the east, rains collected in streams that ended up in the Great Lakes, while those to the west drained to the Mississippi.

That evening, I made a pasta salad for supper. We didn't talk much, partly from being tired, partly from being hungry and partly from being lost in reliving our small adventure.

When we finished, Art remarked that his grandpa Edgar Vaughan had always wanted to live to reach 90. He did and then died two months later.

"I always wanted to reach 77, and now I have done it," Art said, "but I hope to continue on for a while. The average person lives to that age and I wanted to at least be average."

Our berry-picking day had been his 77th birthday. He has long disliked making a "to-do" on his birthday. Our adopted German daughter Nadja remembered his preference for no-fuss birthdays and texted, "A very very happy but normal birthday."

At the end of the day, I asked Art how his birthday had been. "Perfect!" he said with a grin.

That pleased me.

Then he added, "Since I reached the average early this morning, I guess from now on I'm exceptional!"

Exceptional? I don't know about that. I think "unusual" is a better fit.

Top-left: The birthday boy picking berries; top-right: Berrying is about more than just the berries. It is also about enjoying settings such as this; bottom-left: A small ripe berry (left) is glistening black and sweet, while the reddish ones are nearly ripe, but taste bitter. On the right side of the cane opposite the red berry is a thorn that discourages berry gathering by humans and forest animals; bottom-center-left: While the quest was for ripe fruit, there was time to appreciate the brown-eyed Susans blossoming everywhere; bottom-center-right: Once home, the freshly gathered berries are washed; bottom-right: while I filled and froze many containers so we can enjoy the berries next winter, some had to be "taste tested" on a bowl of ice cream.

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