As another wonderful blueberry season, and summer itself, comes to an end, I thought I’d post the blueberry picking scene from The Queen City which takes place in 1920:
“Mama!” Beth hollered again.“I’m coming,” Kathy called. She had promised to take the girls blueberry picking. Last year a huge forest fire near Birch and Big Bay had resulted in this summer’s mammoth blueberry crop. A “blueberry train” had been organized to take people to the berry fields north of Marquette so they could spend the day filling their pails. When Kathy heard reports that people were returning with tubs full of berries, she was determined to go; she just hoped the fields were not completely picked over; she longed for blueberry pie and did not want to disappoint the girls.
Kathy, Beth, and Thelma soon walked to the train at the depot with a few dozen Marquette residents, all fiercely intent upon blueberry picking, and even more intent on having a good time. Smiles and general gaiety marked the group, for it was a pleasant summer day, with a slight breeze to cool them from the sun’s rays, and the low humidity meant the woods would not be stiflingly hot. True Marquettians are always ready for an excuse to get out of town, no matter how much they love their distinguished city of sandstone and scenic views; they have an innate desire to get lost among trees, to forget civilization’s existence, to renew their spirits amid Nature’s serenity.
The train trip was uneventful, but all the more pleasant for it. Quiet yet eager conversations filled the railway car, and Kathy found herself surrounded by several of her acquaintances. Marquette’s population now surpassed ten thousand, but it remained small enough that if everyone did not know everyone else, people were sure to have mutual friends and acquaintances. Because she could read lips, Kathy could better converse on a noisy train than most of her neighbors with perfect hearing. She felt she hadn’t known such fun since long before the war. Thelma and Beth occupied themselves by looking out the windows. Beth tried to count the birch trees, but she soon gave up–they flew past so rapidly. Thelma willingly entertained her younger cousin, pointing out pretty little meadows or oddly shaped trees. They spotted a few deer, including a princely young fawn. The morning sun glistened through the trees, casting a medley of sunshine rays through the train windows. The ride felt all too short on such a glorious morning, but after a long day of berry picking, they knew they would all appreciate the shortest return trip possible.
When the train stopped at the berry fields, the passengers scurried across the meadows and copses, laying claim to large shady trees under which they could leave their excess belongings until lunchtime. Several people had brought multiple buckets, one even brought a small washtub. People went off with one pail, returned to place it under their claimed spot, set off into the fields to fill a second, and then started on a third. Little fear existed of anyone stealing berries amid such a multitude of overflowing bushes.
Kathy selected a spot for lunch while Thelma led Beth across the berry patches; Beth anxiously followed her cousin, but her enthusiasm was not bound to last.
After fifteen minutes of berry picking, Beth was tired enough to want a break. Thelma, too focused on picking berries to bake a pie for her father’s visit next weekend, ignored her cousin’s complaints.
Seeing that Thelma wasn’t paying attention, and that her mother was across the field, Beth decided to quit picking and go for a walk by herself. As she crossed the fields, she spotted another girl close to her age. She did not recognize the girl from Bishop Baraga School, but that did not matter. Beth went over to introduce herself; in a few minutes, the two girls were best friends, chasing each other and playing hide-and-go-seek among the trees; they completely neglected the blueberries, save for trampling over some of the bushes.
When Kathy looked up, she was concerned not to see her daughter near Thelma, but after a minute, she saw Beth and the other little girl. Having known Beth’s work ethic would not last long, she smiled to see her daughter had found a friend. Kathy returned to berry picking until Thelma had picked her way in the same direction. When the two were close enough, they started to chat and momentarily forgot about Beth until Thelma heard her scream from across the meadow.
Thelma told her aunt what she had heard, and then Kathy, who had not heard anything, quickly looked about for the source of her daughter’s cries. Then Beth came running toward her mother, her dress ripped, her eyes filled with tears, clutching the handle of her berry pail, only half connected to its handle so that the berries were haphazardly plunking from the bucket to the ground as she ran.
“Beth, what’s wrong?” asked Kathy, rushing to take her girl in her arms.
“I saw a snake! I nearly stepped on it before I saw it,” she said between sobs. “And that girl, Amy–I hate her–she just laughed, and she picked up the snake and shoved it at me; it hissed and tried to bite me!”
“There, there, dear. There aren’t any poisonous snakes around here. What color was it?”
“Green, and it was really big, like this.” Beth held up her hands to indicate a foot and a half.
“Ha,” laughed Thelma. “It was just a little garter snake. It won’t hurt you. I know a boy back in Calumet who keeps a half dozen of them as pets.”
Rather than be consoled, this news ran shivers up Beth’s spine.
“There, dear, it’s okay,” said Kathy. “It wasn’t nice of Amy to do that, but it didn’t hurt you any. Now tell me, how did you rip your dress?”
“Oh,” said Beth, forgetting she had intended to carry her pail in front of the rip so her mother would not see it. The snake ordeal had broken her cunning, so she had to confess. “I tore it on a branch while Amy and I were climbing a tree.”
“Well,” said Kathy, “it’s one of your older dresses, and I imagined you’d end up with berry stains on it, but I wish you wouldn’t climb trees.”
The mention of berries made Beth look to see how many she had picked. Then she discovered her bucket handle had broken. The bucket hung down at a forty-five degree angle. Inside, only six berries and some blueberry leaves were to be found.
“I lost all my berries!” she cried.
Twenty feet away, a young boy heard the lament. He had witnessed the snake incident and been unable to restrain from silent laughter, but now he felt sorry when Beth looked devastated by the lost blueberries.
“Come, dear,” said Kathy. “Let’s have lunch, and then we’ll fix your pail so you can still fill it this afternoon.”
“But I had it almost full,” sobbed Beth. “I wanted to pick two pails worth.”
In truth, the pail had barely been a quarter full, but Beth exaggerated her loss so her mother would not chide her for slacking in her berry picking.