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Strawberry Fields (graphics and text by A. Leon Miler)

March 11, 2012
My desert strawberries.

We would wake up to the alarm going off a couple of hours before dawn, and stumble down to the glare of the kitchen light. Nobody ever talked too much at this time of the morning. We made our eggs, fried potatoes, and toast, ate, gathered up our sack lunches and headed out into the darkness.

At the time we lived in a small town sheltered at the base of Bald Peak called Laurelwood.. (We moved often, usually living in one place for less than a year.) Our house was at the end of a gravel road on the hill above Laurelwood. On one side, over a small brook lay a barley field, on two other sides were logged out clear cut areas growing back in columbine, fireweed, vaccinium, and assorted other things. In front, and below our house was the gravel road where we would wait in the darkness for the farmer’s old flatbed stakeside truck to come up the road, yawning and rubbing our eyes into wakefulness in the cold, damp, morning air.

We got to the field as the sun was just clearing the horizon. No one spoke above a hushed whisper. It just didn’t feel right. The row boss would come along and assign each picker a row. We would grab our berry carriers, go to our rows, and silently start picking. The plants were drenched with the cold morning dew, with the berries cold and wet to the touch. That was alright. Wet berries weighed more than dry berries even if they were cold and clammy. We got paid by the pound. I was eight years old, and this was the first time I got my own row to pick.

Morning Light

I promised myself I would not eat a strawberry at least until mid morning, a promise I usually could not keep, and doubt I could keep even now. I think I would concur with Izaak Walton (1593–1683) and his friend “… as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries, Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did…”

As the sun rose and slowly warmed the air, the bob white quail could be heard in the surrounding open fields. Occasionally a rooster pheasant would be heard startled by something and equally startling that something as he bolted from the brush. Layer by layer, the coat would come off to be tied around my waist, followed by the long sleeved shirt, leaving the white t-shirt between me and the sun. People started chatting and laughing as they worked, filling their berry flats with strawberries.  Occasionally a berry would be slyly thrown by one of us younger pickers, usually aimed at a deserving target, all the while making sure that the row boss was not anywhere in sight.

Further in the morning as the sun headed to noon, meadowlarks sang in the open fields, and we all headed off to take a half hour lunch break in the shade of an adjoining woodlot: white bread and bologna, or peanut butter and jelly, or the classic pinto beans mashed with mayonnaise and chopped onion on white bread. The adults always had their coffee filled thermoses.

The woods were a place of coolness even on the hottest of days. This was a place where the yellow wood violets resided along with wood sorrel and prostrate Oregon grape-barberries. The woods were a mixture of vine maple and wild cherry, Douglas fir and red cedar, and around the margins, alders, wild roses and sweet smelling thimble berries;- and, of course, wild strawberries strewn with abandon across the woodlot floor mixed in with dewberry brambles.

The afternoon was short. Red tailed hawks soared in the updrafts as kestrels hunted for grasshoppers or mice in the open fields, sometimes hovering stationary in a gust of breeze. Around 2 pm, we would do our final weigh in of berries so the trucks could transport them to the canneries for processing. We would climb back aboard the flatbed truck for the trip back down the mountain and onward to home, almost as quiet as the morning ride.

The seasons of summer could be measured by the smell of berries: 1st, and best were strawberries, followed by raspberries, followed by blackberries, with trips to the mountains in between to gather wild blueberries- or huckleberries depending on your point of view. Picking raspberries and blackberries always earned more money, but strawberries were always the most pleasant.

 

 

 

 

(The last 4 images are: 1. Columbine, 2. Wood Sorrel, or Oxalis (watercolor), 3. Kestrel (watercolor), 4. Chamomile and Viola)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Eva permalink
    March 11, 2012 4:21 pm

    That sounds lovely. Well except for pinto beans with mayonnaise. That sounds wrong somehow.

  2. Joy permalink
    March 11, 2012 5:44 pm

    A bean sandwich is actually good, but it must be on white bread!

  3. March 11, 2012 5:58 pm

    I’m almost positive that cherries are God’s greatest gift to mankind. I kind of miss berry-picking days. I want to walk down the road and find an enormous bramble forest of raspberries or blackberries.

    • March 11, 2012 6:02 pm

      There are wild raspberries up in Water Canyon. We also found wild black berries in Glenwood! As for the cherries, it’s a tough choice.

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