There is little that grows in the land of the north that rivals the refreshing flavor of the wild blueberry. For several days in mid-late summer, my father would awaken my brother and me, and we would drive one hour north to the large pine forests in search of these wild delicacies. These blueberry picking trips were routine for us during the summers of my youth. I recall one morning that lasts most vividly in my mind. We woke at dawn, my brother and I hurriedly pulled on our weathered blue jeans and a long sleeve shirts, then inhaled a plateful of steaming scrambled eggs and buttered toast mom had prepared. We washed it down with a glass of ice cold milk, then ran outside to the pick-up truck.
Dad had purchased a mid-1970s brown Ford pick-up around the time we were born, bought third hand from an ad he saw in the local newspaper. As a boy, riding shotgun with the window down in the midst of summer in Minnesota was a blissfully satisfying experience. Paul and I would cordially jockey for the window spot knowing we would have to exchange seats on the way home. Whoever wound up in the middle would strategically have to place his legs around the stick of the manual transmission. If successful, only occasionally would he get whacked on the side of the knee. The ford wasn’t much to look at. I learned about the process of oxidation from that truck. Over time salt from the winter roads had eaten away the fringes of the vehicle, rusting out the fenders, sides and even the floor in places. From a distance, it resembled a rectangular tin can pulled from the dirt following years of decomposition. The original color had decayed into a palate of crumbling browns accented with red hues. If you hit a large pothole with that truck, the appearance of the truck would change slightly as a piece was likely to fall off, changing the collage of earth-like tones.
There are lessons, less practical than some, but nonetheless still lessons a boy can learn riding shotgun with the window down in a rusty old pick-up. An underappreciated right of passage for all young men is learning how to spit. If you don’t believe me, ask a man in your life and he will affirm this fact. Moreover, he is likely to tell you how and where he learned this essential skill. You learn it quickly when riding shotgun with the window down that spitting out the window while in motion is a risky proposition. Even the older boy knows that there is a good chance of being reintroduced to that saliva. The air rushing past the window invariably pushes at least half back into your face like a cool, not so satisfying mist. A second option is to stick your head out the window to spit. The inherent peril in this technique is two-fold. There is no saliva rainstorm, however, one could expect to become a human windshield, accumulating up to half a dozen mosquito collisions to the head during the process, and secondly, my brother and I both discovered it’s a good way to lose a baseball cap off your head. Luckily, the old truck had a surprise third option. The passenger side floor had long ago rusted out. Dad had placed an old road sign over the hole so we wouldn’t fall through onto the road below. The sign was from a local waterfowl production area. In order to show disdain for the federal government and Fish and Wildlife service, waterfowl identification signs would unfortunately often become targets for shotguns or rifles and need to be replaced when unreadable. Dad worked for the Fish and Wildlife service and would change these out. For us, lifting up the sign made it easy to spit risk-free whenever the need arose. There were other not so pleasant surprises with that truck. It had a habit of stalling and dying while changing gears. We had several opportunities to jump out of the truck after stalling in the middle of an intersection to the serenade of honking horns and push it down the road in order to get it started again. On this particular day, we arrived at our destination unscathed.
Turning off the asphalt highway, Dad meandered down gravel logging roads of the state forest. White and red pine plantings flanked the narrow logging paths, thick flashlight beams of sunlight shone down from the canopy. Jack pine and white spruce were also in abundance. Tamarack laden bog and lowland broke up the forest. Driving slow now, Dad stuck his head out of the window and looked for the perfect conditions. Having studied Biology at the U of Minnesota, he was most of all a student of botany. He studied the soil, ground cover, and terrain as he drove along. We finally arrived at a promising looking spot. We enjoyed the last minute or two of mosquito-free air, then piled out of the truck to assail the task ahead.
When most people think of blueberries, they envision rows of giant blue ovals the sizes of marbles sitting in the produce section of the local grocery store, able to be gathered in their clear plastic containers at will. With a simple reach of an arm, one can load a shopping cart to the brim with these beauties. Modern farming techniques have made this kind of blueberry cheap and widely available. However we would not be stopping at any grocery store on our journey today, we were after wild blueberries, an entirely different task.
The species of blueberry that predominates Minnesota is the Vaccinium angustifolium or Lowbush Blueberry. These blueberries are different from the highbush variety available in supermarkets. Berries from the Lowbush blueberries are much smaller but sweeter. The fruit is a round berry, ¼ to 1/3 inch diameter (about the size of a small pea), typically with a waxy powdery blue coating. During the season the blueberries may lose their blue powdery coating and appear very dark, almost black. The plants themselves rarely attain a height of over 2 feet, making the name lowbush blueberry quite suiting.
I knelt down on the sandy soil of the moist pine forest. Rays of sunbeams shown through the patchy canopy, a gentle north breeze weaved its way through the understory. I tucked the bottom of my patchy blue jeans into my sock and put on a long sleeve shirt despite the seasonably warm weather and humidity. Both of these measures were not for comfort but self-preservation. Blueberry season in northern Minnesota runs from late July to mid-August. Regrettably, this is also the time of year when a mosquito, deerfly, blackfly, and horsefly populations are at their zenith. Dad sprayed us down with bug spray and offered mosquito netting to put over our heads. Being cavalier on this particular morning I declined and instead sprayed my baseball hat in deet based bug spray until it was nearly dripping. Dad then handed us a white 1-gallon ice cream pail. Inside the pail were our last two essential pieces of gear: a compass and a whistle.
From a young age, Dad had taught us how to use a compass. He would send my brother and me on orienteering courses around the backyard and through the 10 acres of wooded hillside behind our home. A compass never runs out of batteries or needs a satellite to work. It was a simple reminder of no matter where you were, true north was always discoverable. The compass, of course, had its use for blueberry pickers as logging roads in this part of Minnesota tend to run straight. It was a pretty sure bet that if a picker got lost in the midst of his blueberry euphoria, as long as he knew what side of the road he started on, the way back could be found. The whistle had multiple possible uses. It could serve as a way to identify your location. In the event of exsanguination by mosquito, the incapacitated whistle wielder would be able to broadcast his plight to his co-pickers. Similarly, the whistle could be used to scare off bears. When blown at a higher pitch and frequency, it could also signal that the bear in fact was annoyed by your whistle and instead of running away is chasing you. We all knew the universal signal for help, a sequence of 3 whistle blows.
On that particular day, we all set off in different directions. I crouched my way east of the logging road, picking as I went from bush to bush. The berries “tinged” in the bottom of the ice cream pail as I started out. After 2 hours, my pail was filling up. The “tinging” was replaced by a gentle thud now with each additional blueberry added. While more weighty, the pail was not burdensome knowing how much effort went into each ounce. My youthful legs felt crisp walking back to the truck with my first pale full. A little over 2 hours was not bad at all for 4 quarts of blueberries. Our plan was for all of us to meet at the truck around noon for a baloney sandwich, which meaning I had about an hour and a half to pick more. With socks and shoes damp from the morning dew, I headed back east but this time farther into the woods. Sunny skies gave way to a slate, overcast sky. I picked my way through low some low country where I spotted a few wild cranberries and grabbed them for a snack, then up onto a small ridge surrounded on 2 sides by black spruce covered bog. There was a small patch of open water on the edge of the bog. I pulled an unripe, green blueberry from my pail and like a basketball lofted it in the open water. Sploosh it went, a ripple emanated from the center and quickly was visible throughout the small patch of water. The mosquitos had been dining on my wrists and they began to burn from the bites. Surely it was nearing noon, I got up out of my crouch and surveyed the landscape.
At first glance, I could not discern the grassy bridge I had walked earlier through the bog. Trekking for another 15 minutes on the ridge provided no further clarity. I pulled out my compass to discover that I had gotten turned around somewhere, and what I thought was west was actually south. Sighting down the compass I took a bearing on a rotted out popular tree about 100 yards away and walked to it. The next westerly bearing was a clearing 50 yards. Then again a clump of red dogwoods at about 30 yards. All this territory seemed foreign. The forest understory was thick and eerily similar looking all through the forest. At the same time, one clearing could look vastly different depending on which angle it was viewed from. Inside I was getting nervous, looked up at the sky again to catch a glimpse of the sun to verify my current trajectory but no luck, the cloud appeared just as gray as before. I continued on my westerly bearing for another 8 legs. My mind had forgotten the spongy shoes, my angry wrists, the weight of the pale seemed negligible. Either the humidity seemed more real or I was getting more nervous as beads of sweat began to run down my brow, the saltiness stinging my eyes. Finally off in the distance, I saw a reddish yellow unnaturally flat patch of ground, the way an unmaintained gravel road looks. I had found my way to the logging road. Following the road north walking a mile and a half I came to the truck, my brother and Dad sitting on the tailgate eating baloney sandwiches.
So what does blueberry picking in Minnesota have to do with what is going on right now in our world with national shutdowns, quarantines, financial uncertainty and outright panic. Everything. You see right now we are all walking through a landscape foreign to us. No one alive today has seen anything like this. All of us are lost to some degree and looking for what direction to go. Each of us has a compass. For me it’s my faith knowing ultimately God is in control of this situation. We all know what true north is, what the right thing to do is. Like a hoarder, are we going to Walmart and buying all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer? That's like using up all the bug spray and leaving our neighbor to get eaten up by the mosquitoes. Maybe your family gives your life direction. During these times keep your compass close, refer to it often.
Don’t spit in the wind. It’s perilous. Plus it will probably come back to hit you in the face. Follow the guidelines set forth by the CDC and Minnesota Department of Health. Not doing so runs the risk of collateral damage to yourself and those around you. There are times to go against the grain but this is not one of them. We are combating an illness which can be asymptomatic and spread easily.
We all have a whistle and can hear others blow their whistle if we are listening for it. We are a community, we need to come to the aid of others who are out of work and struggling. Some of us are enduring this time in a rusty old pickup with half a floor, others in a 2020 suburban with heated seats. Let's help those around us who are trying not to stall out in the rusty pickup. I would challenge you to give your high school buddy a call and see how he is doing. Call your neighbor, ask if there is anything they need. Ask for help if you need it. Pray for each other.
There is no doubt in my mind that we will make it through this coronavirus forest beneath our current gloomy skies and get back to the road of familiarity. We’ll again sit on the tailgate of daily routine and eat our lunch in the sunshine. As I finish writing this it’s nearly 7:00 am. Time to get to work. I grab my stethoscope and mask, and put my lunch in the fridge, a baloney sandwich.
Mark Vukonich, MD
Lake Region Healthcare