Pick It

How was your Independence Day? Mine was a terrific toggle between pooltime and mealtime, a game of Marco Polo with the cousins in the shallow end, followed by London broil and Nana’s strawberry-rhubarb cobbler on the patio, with the sun dipping below the orchard atop the Pochuck mountain.

But what’s a Newsom holiday without a few family fireworks between independent minds? It’s a big, barn-style house, but nowhere is big enough when we go at it. I take off on runs this long weekend. Despite that bully, my trick knee, ever threatening to pull a fast one, a crippling lock down, reducing my right leg’s range of motion from 90 degrees to 9, I’ve started running. I hate running. It’s pointless and boring. But I’m in the country this July 4th, separated from my sweat videos and the bully is well-behaved, biding his time…

7-04-14: Rewind to dawn - I let the poodle out to pee at 6:30 am. If green has a smell, this is it. Oaks, maples, black walnuts, cypress, silver birch, all in verdant gowns, edging the fields of the family farm. A soft summer breeze swells, a sigh from the south, but it doesn’t loosen these ladies’ leaves. By the end of the month, a gentle gust will start these same trees trembling, and the first leaves will fall, but for now, the dames are fully dressed.

I skip the stretch and I’ve got the wrong sneakers. No New Balance for me, I’m making do with Zumba dance shoes. They are, at least, a step-up from my Keds, with $2.99 cushion insoles from Duane Reade. I start out slowly, a lite jog uphill and down, running with traffic — except there’s no traffic this holiday morning. Not one car passes.

Instead, I share the road with wild turkey, Canada geese, squirrels, chipmunks, a juvenile buck. I’m Snow White with all my forest friends. Heel toe, heel toe, over small rises and around curves, past the “dirty farm” (my name for the not-so-bucolic barn overrun with crusty-eyed cats and cows flicking flies with muddy tails). I pant up to a bank of wild black raspberries, or “black caps.” Of the trio of berries that ripen in Orange County every summer, the black caps come first. The red raspberries, more abundant, follow in late July, and the blackberries in August. Each fruit has its window, and if you miss it, you’re shut out 'til next year. I know this. I abandon exercise and start fisting berries. Tart and crunchy with seeds, black caps have a bona fide berry flavor. The red raspberries are downright sour and the blackberries, bitter. None resemble their GMO cousins, those plump, sweet cheats in clamshells in the produce section.

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Berry picking is synonymous with summer, and for me, it means I’m sunny in my solitude. Can you pull up a beloved activity from your pre-pubescent past, 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 years ago?  (Yes, dear, appreciated subscribers, you span these decades.)

Think back. What’s gathering berries for you? Pick It.

That solitary childhood experience where you weren’t lonely or bored; you were alone, sure, but lost in the woods of your pleasure. Maybe you let a sibling or parent in on your rapture now and then. I’m not asking for competitive sport stories, with winners and losers. (You’re more likely to remember losses anyway.) Over this holiday weekend, my 10-year-old played chess online, match after match, all going against him. He wouldn’t quit til he won. We’ve all had those experiences. I’m not talking about those.

Was it skateboarding in a cul de sac? Was it building a plywood and brick ramp, tying a bath towel around your neck and becoming the caped Knieval on your Schwinn with the angel handlebars and banana seat? Or maybe it was scouring the beach for shells after a nor’easter? Or the hypnotic motion of making dribble castles? Dipping your hand in the pail, scooping sand soup, and building a fortress where warrior mermaids guard pirate treasure...

I wonder what it will be for my sons, years from now? For William, age six, it may be compulsive money counting. Future chairman of the Federal Reserve, Nana predicts. Billy can count change for hours, maintaining Ziplocs of nickels, dimes, and quarters, baggies building steadily from lemonade stands and panhandling. Eventually, there’s enough to roll and bank. I watch him this 4th, stretched on his back on Nana’s Persian carpet, waving a five-dollar bill overhead. (Five easy bucks for accepting his cousin’s dare to down a cookie doused in hot sauce.) Yes, rolling pennies with Nana definitely might be what William picks.

Sated, I’ve switched from consuming to collecting, lucky to find a baggie, tucked in my waistband pocket.

There’s dimension to the avian symphony this morning. True, the song of the common sparrow dominates, but below that, the mew of the catbird, the warble of the warbler, the chirrup of the cardinal.  At bottom, percussive crickets, or is it the year of the cicadas?

The easy pickins are in the bag, I now go for the hard-to-get berries. I reach through sticky spiderweb to pluck a berry already claimed by a stinkbug.


To get the tender fruit I’ve got to brave hardship. I’ve got to roll down my sleeves and snake through a thicket of fine thorns that lodge in my fingertips and require tweezers and magnification to pry loose. I’ve got to pull away vines: wild grape, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, all intertwined with my luscious bramble of berries. A machete would help right about now. I don’t forget to look under leaves. That’s where I find a hidden cache of the best. They’re always there, if I remember to look for them. I find them. I fist them.

Have you thought of yours yet? For me, it started with those unsupervised afternoons spent picking raspberries around the Tarrytown reservoir when I was nearly nine. My brother and I were living with our grandparents in Westchester that summer of ‘74, having just moved north from New Orleans. We were between homes, waiting for the fall closing on our Brooklyn brownstone.

My brother might pick fishing for sunnies in that town reservoir that summer. Dunno. He was a kick-ass skateboarder too. That was the best summer. Formless days spent picking berries and wandering downtown to the public library, followed by evenings of clearing plates and playing crazy eights and jacks with Nana and Grandpa on the dining room table. Two Julys later our Nana would be gone, taken from us at 58 by late-detected colon cancer.

I’m getting hungry, I haven’t had breakfast yet, or coffee. The sun is getting hot. My baggie is full. Birdsong has given way to crickets. I notice a cluster of the biggest, blackest berries. These look so GMO.

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But my bag is full and I almost spill what I’ve got reaching for them. It’s killing me. And then I notice another cluster, and another.

That’s when it hits me like a ray of Disney sunshine reaching me, Snow White, curled on the forest floor.

You have to leave some unpicked.

Those are the ones, I console myself, best left for the spiders and the stinkbugs, for the birds and the does and the elusive black bear. Those berries that I leave behind reseed, go back into the earth, and bear new fruit next July. I tell myself this. Then I walk away. I climb the gravel driveway to the homestead. I see moving forms through the front window. The family is up. Good. I can make out my brother fussing with the coffee pot. My baggie is bursting. I’ve got more than enough for everyone’s Wheaties.