Michael Perry: Summer berry picking clears the mind
ROUGHNECK GRACE

Michael Perry: Summer berry picking clears the mind

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Headlines and deadlines having dumped me in a brackish stew, I decided it was time to take some sun. I left my air-conditioned room above the garage, grabbed a plastic tub from a drawer in the kitchen, and headed out to pick black caps. Everywhere I looked they were thick on the bush.

I started out alongside the driveway, where the brambles intertwine with grapevine, which in turn has woven itself in and around the sagging barbwire strung to contain cows absent this farm for 30 years now. I wonder what it was like when the ground on the other side of the fence was well-grazed, back in the days before the barn burned, when the milk truck rumbled out of here filled with its sloshing, frothy gallons. Back when 30-40 Holsteins was considered big-time. The smoke was still clearing when the farmer asked his sons if any of them planned to follow in his footsteps. Nope, they said, and so they dozed the whole smoldering works into a hole and that was that.

The first berries dropped tap-tap into the tub. I had no plans to make jam or put up preserves. Apart from a row of raspberries and some blueberry bushes, we don’t have a berry patch as such; they just grow hither and yon in the woods and along the fencelines. Every year we try to gather some — and some remnant orchard apples — more as an acknowledgement than a harvest. I figured to pick a few dozen, eat them, give the gods a nod, and get back to work.

But about 40 berries in I decided to just keep going. I needed the rhythm of the reach and pluck. Needed to feel the sun warm my neck. Needed to drain my brain of rancidity. Berry-picking seemed just the thing.

It was a perfect afternoon. The air was thick with birdsong. The breeze was whisper-soft. Just enough to clear the bugs. The entire picking session, I slapped two mosquitoes. No gnats, no deer flies. Every tree was at peak green, the living definition of lush. All around were leaves steeped in sun, photosynthesis in the flesh.

I picked and let my mind go where it would. Reached down in there deep, where the fresher canes glowed pale green. Focused on the delicate pinch of pulling the berry without squishing it. Now and then a nettle or a thorn, just nip and scratch enough to heighten the moment. A little habanero in the soup. An hour passed, the container was brimming and heavy in my hand, and my mind was clear.

I topped the black caps with two dozen raspberries from the patch that has otherwise mostly failed this year, and passed over the blueberries, still a dusty green. Swung down by where that barn used to stand and picked a final handful just for me. Ate them on the spot, then placed the tub on the kitchen island where the rest of the family would find it when they returned home.

Returning to my room above the garage, I read Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” and got back to work.

An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio”(tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.

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