At five in the morning the horizon is the glazed blue of heated metal and the mosquitoes are already out. In a few hours, when the sun has fully risen and the day has begun in earnest, the mosquitoes will slip back into the weeds that line the ditches and the black flies will emerge. By noon, it’s 27 degrees – positively tropical by Northern standards – but you don’t dare remove your shirt, because even as the black flies recede in the noontime heat, a third kind of fly emerges. This one is approximately the size of a dime, with a shiny green-blue back; when it bites, it doesn’t leave an itchy welt like a mosquito or take a chunk like the blackies, but deliveries a stinging pinch which always comes when you least expect it, when you are bent over the berry screener, have your hands full of buckets, or while loading wood into the back of the truck. I don’t know what these flies are – I’ve never seen them before – but around camp we call them noontime fuckers. By four they receded, by five the black flies come out again, and by seven they’ve gone to bed and the mosquitoes come out again and stay out until the moon comes up, around midnight. It’s like the bugs have unanimously agreed to work in shifts to maximize both feeding time and human misery.
All are edible and all look basically the same once they’re in the bucket, and all of them get shipped south to be bought up and made into fancy jams and put in fancy jars and sold to fancy people who probably have no idea that their wild food must be harvested by wild people.
When I look at myself in the mirror – which I try to do very rarely – my face is a sun-reddened, dirty, spotty mess. The first day I went out into the patch I forgot to apply bug spray, and that whole, ungodly host of biting things chewed me to pieces. It hurts to blink or swallow, and to add insult to injury I’ve sunburned over top of them. Over the course of the next few weeks the bites will crust over and harden into scabs, which will crack and break open as more bites layer over top of them and scab, and more bites pile on top of those and more on top of those until some time, a couple weeks later, when I reach some kind of blessed immunity from sheer exposure and my body stops reacting to the bites at all. When this happens the only thing that will still be able to get me are the noontime fuckers, who will experience an unprecedented population explosion and drive me into a furious rage whenever I roll up my sleeves or take my hat off and feel them start to crawl through my hair. When we go into Stewart – that little coastal town which kisses the ocean – and the strange hamlet of Hyder (which is technically in Alaska but has no road or ferry to access the rest of the American state and is thus by some strange default technically in the USA but practically in Canada) we are informed by the locals that it is the worst year for bugs they have ever seen.
It’s late July, sliding into early August. We are on the Cassiar Highway, somewhere in Northern British Columbia, running between Bell II and Meziadin Junction, picking wild blueberries and huckleberries. Berries like disturbed soil and open spaces, which makes cut blocks the perfect habitat for them, and this is logging country; all along the highway the great trucks come and go, piled high with Douglas fir and red cedar, 30-foot monsters that dwarf the svelte red pines and willows of the boreal country near Watson Lake that I’ve migrated from, a measly six hours north, where the morel season has just ended. From the burn zone, to this; great, green forests of moss and old man’s beard and devil’s club, old cut blocks overgrown with salmon berries and raspberries and fireweed. Amid this jungle growth we ferret out patches of berries, driving down abandoned logging roads with my battered GMC pickup, buckets and machetes and bear spray in the back. On a good day, in a good patch, a good picker can bring in a hundred pounds of berries.
This particular day is a good day; the season is in full bloom, the bushes heavy with fruit, the weather cheerful and sunny. The bears know it too; that afternoon a monstrous black with a hide as shiny and clean as a show dog walks clean through the patch where I’m working, the muscles in his massive shoulders undulating up and down like pistons as he cuts through the yarrow and red clover at the road side. He looks at me dully, as if I bore him, contemplating the full bucket – nearly 40 pounds’ worth – of berries at my feet. I stand frozen with a berry branch in my hand, thinking god Jesus, the bear spray is still in the truck cab, thinking god damn all I’ve got on me is a hatchet if he comes at me can the hatchet stop him but my dog, who has been dozing in the shade in the noon-time heat is already on it. He bursts up and makes a run at the bear, barking, standing his ground, hackles up, drooling and frothing like a maniac. The bear looks at him like what the hell is that crazy thing? and beats it. There’s enough berries to go around, and salmon coming in down the rivers; he can’t be bothered, fortunately, with a morsel like me and my crazy pitbull bush dog.
That afternoon around three we get back to camp. There’s a lineup at the screener – a long one – so we skirt down to the creek in the truck to get some water. When we get there, though, the water is low and smells foul; a dog has died upstream. The water is no good, so we drive further up to Meziadin Junction, where there is a gas station and a restaurant whose miserable service and general disdain for our dirty, gypsy existence has become both a joke and a point of contention among us. We order burgers – terrible, greasy burgers that taste just this side of rancid, with fries cooked in oil that needs changing and an extra charge for limp, browning iceberg lettuce and a yellowing slice of tomato – and while we are waiting in line, the cook eyeballs us. He is looking at Boxer – a puffy-faced, bush-hardened old man with the rough, squat hands of a tradesperson and the beer-swollen face of a hardened drinker.
“Do you guys use rakes?” he says to Boxer. He means berry rakes – red boxes of metal with tines bent into curves at the end, so that when you come to a berry bush you can run the leaves through the tines and the berries drop into the box. When the box is full you dump it into the bucket and start again.
Boxer says yes, we do use rakes.
The cook frowns. He has wide, heavy jowls and a big gut that dips over the edge of his pants and folds like a pork roast around the white string of his apron. “You guys are ruining everything,” he says. “The berries don’t come back next year if you rake them. It hurts the plants.” He throws meat and cheese together on a bun and shoves the meal Boxer ordered towards him so that the plate scrapes over the metal counter top with a squeal.
“Is that true?” I ask, when we get to the table. I think about the rakes, the way they ride over the delicate stems of the plants. It’s my first season berry picking like this, and I don’t know anything about it. All the old timers use rakes, swear by them; but I think about the way they go over the leaves, think somewhere in there there must be the buds of next years berries.
“Fuck no. Fucker doesn’t know what he’s taking about,” Boxer says, taking a bite of his burger. I’ve ordered nothing. I won’t eat something made by someone who hates me. I worked in restaurants a long time. Hate, like any other contaminant, makes its way into food.
An hour later, back at camp, the screener is finally free. The screener is a homemade device consisting of a wooden frame over which chicken wire is stretched. It stands over eight feet tall, with a crude ladder built on the back, upon which you climb – one handed, because the berry bucket is in your other hand – to stand at the top and pour the berries down slowly at an angle. The berries roll down the screen, where fans (powered by gas generators, as there’s neither electricity nor running water in the camp) blow away the leaves and sticks and twigs that naturally fall in with the berries. The berries roll down the screen, where, at the bottom, there is a gap and then another screen; only the good, ripe, unbruised berries properly bounce to jump the gap, and the bad ones fall through. There’s a bucket underneath to catch these, and we call them breakfast berries, because when you’re done you can take them with you to make jam or put them on your oatmeal in the morning; everyone eats out of the bucket in common. It takes a long time to clean the berries even after they’ve gone down the screen, because the buyer is very particular and wants absolutely no leaves at all, so after they’ve been screened everyone sits around their bucket, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, drinking warm beers, and picking through the berries. When every last leaf has been removed and your fingers are stained purple you take your buckets over to the buy station, where the buyer or the buyer’s wife sits with a scale and you bag them and weigh them and they pay you. Today it’s the buyer’s wife – the buyer himself has gone into town some four hours away to get a part for one of the generators, which is on the fritz – and she’s looking very dour.
We have no contracts, no unions, cash work only, no legal rights. What we like or don’t like doesn’t matter – we can either work for the price the market dictates, or not work at all.
“I’ll take these today,” she says, holding up a handful of berries and letting them run through her fingers, “but from now on, it’s hucks only. Buyer down in Vancouver doesn’t want them mixed, says if there’s one more damn blueberry in with the hucks he’ll cancel his contract.”
This is news to us – to Shirtless Fred and Long John and Jos and Boxer and the rest of the crew with me – since we were told when we came in that it didn’t matter what we picked, so long as they were ripe and good and clean when we brought them in. Boxer is shaking his head back and forth, smoke held between his lips waggling like a tail, clucking his tongue, saying I goddamn told him so, I did, I goddamn told him they’d only want hucks and men from the other crews muttering; there are, proportionally speaking, four times as many blueberries as there are huckleberries, which means we will all have to work four times as hard to make the same amount of money we did before, with no warning at all. The growl of displeasure rippling through the workers doesn’t matter though – we have no contracts, no unions, cash work only, no legal rights. What we like or don’t like doesn’t matter – we can either work for the price the market dictates, or not work at all.
The difference between huckleberries and blueberries in somewhat dubious. My herbal guide, The Boreal Herbal, doesn’t even differentiate between the two, and while it is true they have a moderately different taste – hucks are slightly sweeter, blues more tart – they are so closely related they often interbreed into hybrids with the qualities of both. There are at least a dozen different varieties of both – some grow close to the ground, others into high bushes, some with broad leaves and some with almost no leaves, some with so many berries the branches groan under their weight, and some with only a handful of fruit spread across them – but all are edible and all look basically the same once they’re in the bucket, and all of them get shipped south to be bought up and made into fancy jams and put in fancy jars and sold to fancy people who probably have no idea that their wild food must be harvested by wild people.
Over the next few days, morale is understandably low. Rumours spread like the camp shits; the buyer is taking blueberries, this guy is taking hucks but at a better price, the buyers are shutting down, new buyers are starting up, the season is ending here, the season is just starting there, this road has fruit, and this one doesn’t. Some of the rumours are true and some of the rumours are not, but one thing that’s certain is things are ending here. People start to disappear; you wake up in the morning, and tents have been broken down, trucks loaded up, and people you knew and worked with, people you drank with next to smoky fires with and played hands of poker illuminated only by citronella candles have just up and vanished somewhere down the highway overnight. Piece by piece, the camp comes apart, drifts in different directions like a log raft who ropes have been cut. I find myself packing up too, a few days later, loading up my truck and heading down the highway in search of better work and better times. The season here is over, come and gone, and in this business you have to be prepared to come, go, and get gone with it.◉
Photo credit: istockphoto/Jelena990