I’ve lived in New England my whole life and have never been berry picking. The picking of fruit and such has grown into a very big industry throughout the region. I caught my first glimpse of the nascent picking-pa-looza in the late-1990s on a trip to visit my cousin and her family in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her husband worked one of the area orchards on the weekends in the fall for extra cash.
“Like ringing people up for the bags of apples they pick?” I asked her as we got ready to go over to the orchard.
“Yeah,” she said, leaning into the car to strap her infant son into his car seat. “Or, you know, helping out with the hay rides or manning one of the cider doughnut stands or sometimes they put him on the corn maze.” Was this an apple orchard or Disneyland?
People come up from New York City, Connecticut, and all over the area just to pick at this particular orchard, she explained. Still, I thought, it’s apples. What’s the big deal? We rolled up to the wide, flat acreage of field that served as parking lots. A series of college kids wearing neon orange vests, looking slightly hung over, lethargically waved red flags to tell us where to park. From there we could walk the paths that led to the orchard entrance or we could wait for a hay ride to take us. Turns out apples are a pretty big deal.
I was reminded of this on a weekend trip to Vermont to visit dear friends, Christina and Mary, who suggested we all go raspberry picking. The extent of my berry picking experience was as a kid wandering the untamed perimeters of our yard where woods and thick, weedy patches kissed. I would stand in a suitable patch of prickly bush and eat blackberries until my fingers and shorts were stained purple with juice. Would there be hay rides?
We set off to a place they knew and liked that was more of a “word of mouth” kind of operation than the larger berry farms, which did draw big crowds of families and avid pickers during the short, summer berry growing season. This place belonged to a family who grew a number of items, including raspberries, and permitted people to pick and pay for pints. Mary called the night before, speaking in what sounded like a code: “We wanted to come pick tomorrow.” (pause) “Yeah that time works.” (pause) “How is the crop?” (pause) “Okay. And the stuff is in the barn?” (pause) “Got it. Thanks. Bye.” It was very berry picking mafia style: I know a guy who knows a guy who can help you with that thing.
The fields were deserted when we arrived. The property was laid out in a bit of a valley, the rows of bushes and other crops sloped gently on one hill. A modest farmhouse and barn sat on freshly mowed lawn at the bottom. From the very top of the rows you could just make out a small lake in the distance and mountains beyond that.
As we headed into the patches Christina said, “Now you know how to pick, right?”
“Um, just, pick the berry and put it in your bucket?” I wasn’t trying to be a wise ass. I truly didn’t know there was such a thing as a raspberry picking technique. She smiled and shook her head.
“You take the berry with your fingers and give it the slightest pull. If it yields to you then you know it’s ready. If it doesn’t, it’s not ripe even though it might look pink and perfect, it’s not ready. Let the berry yield to you,” she repeated like a berry picking Yoda.
A comfortable silence settled over us as we made our way through our individual rows pierced with the occasional skree of a bird and the thin baseline of bees as they scrambled to beat us to the sweet punch.
Instead of randomly yanking any pink bud I came across, I did what Christina suggested. I tested each with a tiny pluck and if it gave way easily it ended up in the bucket, if I felt the resistance, I moved on.
Obey the berry, I thought. Not an easy thing for a certified control-aholic. Right now it feels as if all I’m doing is yanking and grabbing in order to make things and people what I want them to be. That’s a recipe for endless wheelspin and needless frustration. I know it, I can even feel it, but I look past it confusing knowing what I want with thinking that what I want is actually in service of the bigger game.
There are times to forge ahead bravely, fearlessly-ish, even ignorantly because that’s the teaching experience we need. We push onward knowing on some level that it’s a bad call, but those are the scars that make the most lasting impression. And then there is this whole other way of being and doing in the world that is about a strong softness. It takes a lot of conscientiousness and twice as much courage to pull off this way forward. It takes putting the ego in the backseat because it’s no longer just about you. It takes an enormous amount of patience, compassion, and trust in a journey that is not entirely yours, but that you are invested in.
Yielding. Letting go of some of your will to make space for something or someone else’s need. I want, you say. I’m not ready, comes the reply. I’ll wait, I’ll come back, I’ll try again.
There’s enormous power in that approach. There’s a ton of bravery in play. And there’s a magnitude of love at work when we’re ready to be like the berry and give, too.