My first pair of tiny-sized hip boots was a surprise Saturday morning gift from a father who was preparing me – not for an introduction to stream fishing – but a day of wild huckleberry gathering in the marshes of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. I was probably no more than four or five years old, but I remember the occasion in all its details, including the green tree snake we encountered in our fruitful and near-magical labors.
With a father who was a product of the cedar forests of the Northwest, and a mother whose family had pioneered the Jersey Palisades of the “Garden State”, ours was a family steeped in the traditions of self-reliance and a deep appreciation for the gifts of the woods and fields. The family dinner table and cellar keeping room were at the center of home life, and the small game my older brothers brought home regularly found their way into Mom’s savory “Brunswick stew”, just as our half-acre garden filled the jars which lined the winter shelves in the old cellar which once had harbored the kitchens of the stage-coach Inn which had once graced the premises.
The huckleberries I mention were but one of the sweet gems which linked me and my three brothers to a set of memories that come to mind by easy invitation when I need something to cheer me up in a moment of unease in the midst of a sleepless night or a trying time.
The nearby oak woods were home to a treasure trove of wild berries, from red raspberries and their black-cap cousins, to the king-sized blackberries which were my favorites. My two older brothers who were free to roam freely throughout the surrounding countryside, would know where the most productive patches lay hidden, and with our gathering pails in hand, we would raid nature’s pantry, but only after they had sworn me to secrecy; I was never to let on to my friends and boyhood pals where our special patches were located. Keeping those wild sanctuaries inviolate from trespass was a life-and-death mandate. Often, in the midst of a cold winter, I would pay a lone visit to our basement, where I would gaze with deep appreciation – even a childhood awe – at lines of shining BALL bale-lid jars filled with the berries I had had a hand in gathering and preserving, knowing that each quart would find its way into one of Mom’s incomparable berry pies, made even more tasty for the December winds blowing outside.
Then too, there were climbing vines of wild fox grapes from which Mom made glistening jars of quaking jelly which was somehow more highly esteemed than anything that came from the cultivated Concord grapes which grew on arbors in our own yard, to say nothing of the hard to pick and sort, but wonderfully mouth-puckering elderberries that found their way into juice and jellies (and also I have to admit in my later years a fine wine).
Part of the mystique of those memories lies in the knowledge that we were not only following in the footsteps of this land’s original Americans who had frequented these same woodlands for the same purpose, but that we were walking in the shadows of history which had been written here, where Washington’s ragtag army of Continental soldiers had taken refuge after a nighttime “escape” across the Hudson River after being overwhelmed by a superior British force in the battle for Manhattan which might easily have ended the war for Independence.
Years later, while wandering in my canoe through a chain of ponds in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom”, I thought of all this when finding myself engulfed in clouds of dazzling crimson orbs overhanging the channel through which I was traveling. Recognizing the shiny porcelain-like beads as High-bush Cranberries, I began stripping them into the moving craft until I had enough to take home and cook down into one of the most ravishingly-beautiful jellies our young family had ever experienced. It was to be so rare a discovery that it has never had a sequel.
Whether knee-deep in the red-leafed blueberry barrens of northern Maine or husbanding a hard-won basket of wild, tiny but exquisitely-sweet springtime strawberries from a Vermont pasture, I have reveled in the wild bounty of the free food offered up by Mother Nature across this gifted land I love.
In the years before home freezers were commonplace, a summer’s surplus went into canning bottles, such as these heirloom BALL bale-tops from the author’s collection filled with 2013 blackberries and blueberries.