There’s good news and bad news about getting older. I found this out when I went to the opthamologist a couple of months ago. “Well, the good news is your eyesight is getting better!”, said Dr. Paul. I guess the bad news was that I was getting older. I don’t usually chat when I’m in the doctor’s office. I prefer to lie back in the chair, close my eyes and half fall asleep in the denist’s office. But you don’t get that same luxury at the eye doctor’s. Dr. Paul was asking me a lot of pesky questions until I figured out that he was just trying to find out what I did with my eyes all day long. “How much time do you spend at the computer?” “A lot”. “What do you do? “Write…look at photos”, I told him. “What do you write about?” “Food.” “Food?”, he asked me with that lilt in his voice that told me he was probably a foodie. “I’m a food producer”, he said. “Really? “What do you produce?” I asked, wondering how this full-time, bespeckled doctor could have time to produce a cooking show. With that, he reached into his cabinet and pulled out a can of blueberries. “I produce Wild Maine Blueberries“. “Blueberries?’ “No, not blueberries, Wild Maine Blueberries!
Well Dr. Paul had me at “wild“. What’s the difference? I asked, my interest now piqued. Wild blueberries are a completely different plant than commercial blueberry plants. They come from rhizomes and have been around for thousands of years And so, with a voice barely above a whisper, the eye exam stopped, and Dr. Paul told me the story of his 40 acres of secret, wild blueberries.
Sometime after WWll, Paul’s father met and married a German woman. They decided to spend their honeymoon in Maine. They stayed in a guest house. One morning, a couple of days after they arrived, his mother woke up to find her new husband and his gun gone. Eight days later, he showed up, dirty, tired and hungry. Whether or not his none too happy bride ever got an explanation, I didn’t find out. In any case, shortly thereafter, they purchased 40 acres of scrub land, covered with blueberry bushes and a small cottage where they raised their family.
“So,” I asked, it must be a great place to visit, how often do you go there?” “Once every two years.” “Every two years? What do you mean? Who harvests the berries, who watches the land…the house…the property when you’re gone?” “No one”, he said. “It just lies vacant.”
Now I was hooked. I needed to know everything there was to know about this mysterious Wild Blueberry…the cultivating, the growing and the harvesting. He preceded to tell me about the entire life cycle of the wild blueberry from blazing red foliage to the hills covered with white blossoms. “So, why every two years?” “Ahh, that’s when I go there to burn.” Burn? As I drew in closer, his voice got lower, as though he was inviting me to enter into his secret society.
Every two years, Paul returns to the Maine to burn the spent plants. Why don’t you just hire guys to do the burning for you? It sounds awfully dangerous.”
“It must be done at night, alone, and only the owner of the land can do it.” I imagined the doctor, naked to the waist, covered in Wild Maine Bear Grease, like a character in a Robert Bly book, the scent of burning sage filling the air, flagellating himself with a willow reed before setting the hills on fire. “There’s an art to it, you must feel the wind, maneuver the fire…keep it smoldering…low. I learned it from my dad, and I think, but I’m not sure, that when he disappeared for those eight days on his honeymoon, that he was hiding in the brush, observing, learning, and that’s how he learned to do it.”
“It sounds so…Zen…so…Native American.” I said. “Yes, for those 3 or 4 days, I sleep on the grass, under the stars”. His voice trailed off and I was left to imagine what he thinks about when he’s there. “So, how do you keep people from harvesting your crop before you do, since there’s no caretaker?”
“That’s the interesting part!” (He’d clearly found his audience and was on a roll.) I sat, mouth agape, rapt. (There was more?) “It’s impossible to find the plants. No one knows where they grow from year to year. Only someone who knows their growing habits intimately can ever find them!”
He continued with his story. “In the sixties we use to hire immigrant Puerto Ricans who’d come for the season to pick. As they assimilated into the culture, they were replaced by West Indians. Then, sometime in the 70’s, they stopped coming altogether. One season, a young European couple, who had heard about the wild blueberry cultivation, showed up on the property and asked if they could help pick…for nothing. They slept in sleeping bags on the property.” Two years later, at the next harvest, more young Europeans showed up and within a few years, they would have dozens of pickers camping and picking, for free. I imagined some sort of Blueberry Love-Fest a la Woodstock. When they finish picking, they leave the bushels by the side of the road and trucks from the Maine Blueberry Co-op pick them up.
A half an hour had passed when he resumed the exam. My head was spinning. Could this true? Why had I never heard of this before? As soon as I got home, I raced to the computer to see if I could find anything on the “Secret Life of the Blueberry”. I spit out the story for Spencer, “You’re not going to believe this!” I said as I recounted the story. He just laughed. “Only you could talk to someone for 1/2 an hour about blueberries!” “Not blueberries!” I said. “Wild Maine Blueberries!”
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