Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where the wild raspberries grow

My mother took this series of fuzzy, now faded, snapshots during 1969 and sent them to me in Vietnam. What 40-year-old farmer now would believe it was possible to make a decent living with such small-scale and even then partly antiquated equipment? But nothing was wasted.

This is a time of year I bite into memories, tasting wild raspberries.

Nothing approaches the flavor, handfuls just picked or washed and chilled with a little sugar, in pies, jams and jellies. Neither varieties domesticated for gardeners nor inedible grocery store kinds compares.

Wild strawberries, too --- tiny and unmercifully flavorful, requiring infinite patience to pick from hardscrabble hillsides in the lower 40. Dewberries, big and sweet, on low brambles blanketing the same hills.

As summer advances, gooseberries --- sour as the dickens when picked green but heaven brought to earth after the touch of a master pie-maker; ripening to sweetness translated into rich jam later on.

Then wild grapes and wild plums, intense purple jelly from one; jelly of greatest delicacy and most subtle pink from the other.


I grew up along fence rows and ditch banks, roaming free with dog and stick. My parents never seemed to worry or mind, so when there was no work to do I was gone. That’s partly how I got to be a loner, a trait combined with “Vietnam vet” that used to be considered hazardous. I have always been harmless, however, and as a group we’re getting too old to do much damage now anyway.

During the summer, we picked up bales of hay, picked up bales of hay and then picked up more bales of hay. Cattle have to eat during the winter, too, you know.

There were two farms to choose from --- the home place, a prairie point encompassing two streams that joined in the east pasture, then shot straight to the Chariton River. Hickory hill was about as wild as it got, but I roamed the world in canyon-like ditches carved into black dirt, creating it as I went along, and crossed the prairie along wild and untamed fence rows.

The other place, five miles distant, was different --- a skinny string of 40-acre tracts, rich in springs, rocketing down a creek then up to a hilltop overlooking the Chariton River valley, too. This hill is where my granddad (it had been his farm), good at that sort of thing, always found arrowheads and axes, leading to the suspicion we were not the first to stop there and enjoy the view.

We grazed cattle on the other place (sheep were too clumsy and stupid to survive there, although my dad still loved them, perhaps even more than the cattle) and raised hay. He row-cropped and raised hay on the homeplace as well as grazing sheep and, in season, cattle.

All on a small scale. It was as traditional as tradition got.

The soybean harvest proceeded quickly, thanks to a custom combiner.

Folks who spend most of their time in cities haven’t the slightest idea of how intimately a farmer, farmer’s wife and their kids knew the land, and how much it was loved.


When time came to harvest what was free for the taking, we knew where to go. The morel mushrooms of early spring were in the woods that climbed the bluff south of the creek in the lower 40, and no place else. Raspberries flourished with their feet in the water along the northwest ditch on the home place and in the ditches bordering hayfields on the other place. Strawberries and dewberries on those thin hills opposite the lower 40’s bluff. The wild gooseberries were confined to the pastures of the other place. The wild grapes grew on the west boundary fence of the home place and the plum trees nearby.

In fall, hickory nuts fell on hickory hill, walnuts everywhere and hazelnuts could be extracted from their brush on the south hill of the middle pasture on the other place.

Later on, bittersweet blazed red and gold in the canopy of the lower 40 timber and also deep in those woods was a perfect cedar tree that because it was sheltered retained its green and gold coloring year around. We harvested bittersweet to celebrate fall; cedar, at Christmas.


It was not necessary then to hunt and gather, pick and preserve what grew wild, but it had been once --- when the Ioway and their forbears roamed here; then later, when permanent settlers first rolled in from Ohio and Indiana, Virginia and Tennessee. Later, we had gardens and orchards; now we have grocery stores.

We did it because we were almost as intimately involved with the land as our predecessors on it had been and to do so was part of an ancient cycle --- as we were.

There still was uncluttered time, and time was required both to harvest and prepare. Endurance, too --- brambles and thorn, mud, slippery embankments, mosquitoes, grass taller than the kids and the occasional startled snake.

We did it for the flavor as well --- more intense, more concentrated, more alive.

We have warehouse-sized markets nowadays full of food, bland, some of it flavor-enhanced --- whatever that means. You can’t buy wild strawberries there.

Lives are full of labor-saving devices, but there’s no time. We work as hard to entertain ourselves as we once did to feed ourselves --- and we’re bored, querulous, impatient, terrified, sharpening our tongues for a fight, looking for someone else to blame.

Me, too. But at least I still know where some wild raspberries grow.

But the corn still came out one row at a time.


Ed said...

One of the best posts you've written. It has brought back lots of memories of my youth.

Mark McVey said...

Been reading, and loving, your blog for a few years, now... This post gave me the motivation to actually say thank you! Quite exceptional, Sir!

Frank D. Myers said...

Thanks for the kind words here and at Facebook. I'm tempted to quit while I'm ahead, but lack the common sense to do that.

Ruth said...

Thanks for the descriptive, sensory memories~ ones that stirred my own vivid childhood on the farm in northeast Iowa among the Old Order Amish. "Wild," i like that~