I think blueberries on the tundra are the most beautiful thing in the world.
I’ve not been writing lately; fall is such a busy time of year. Homeschool is settling into a pattern, housework ebbs and flows, I’ve learned how to nap, and the outdoors calls to us on the beautiful days that are further and farther between. My kids like exploring the tundra, climbing rocks, riding the Honda, and coming inside for hot drinks after, but what gets me outside and keeps me there are the berries.
I have friends who are wild about fishing, and I’ve never really understood it. “The fish are calling my name!” said one friend with a laugh. I like eating fish, but the process of fishing hasn’t gripped me. But now with berry picking, I get it. The process of being outside, finding a patch of particularly plump fruit, and popping them off their stems and into my bag, is completely addictive.
Aqpiks came first, in August. These are cloudberries in English, also called bakeapples, and they are hard to find. A friend took us to an excellent spot one day, and Stringbean came with us. What a day that was!
After aqpiks came blueberries. Blueberries were a big deal in Iqaluit, but here in Rankin there aren’t usually many to be found. But after a sunny summer, they were fabulous this year.
Minimighty isn’t much of a picker, but she’s a great blueberry-patch-spotter. She led me to the most wonderful area of plump wild blueberries. I ended up with enough to make several jars of blueberry jam, with only 1/3 store blueberries to pad out the mix.
Spotting blueberries is like finding sapphires. They hide under the wings of their reddening leaves, hard to spot at first, but that peek of periwinkle reveals itself more and more to accustomed eyes. Untouched on the land, their skins have a slightly velveted texture and a surprisingly light colour. Touched by harvesting hands and added to many companions in a container, they become a more expected smooth dark blue.
Crowberries or paungat are not the most flavourful of berries, and they are very seedy, but they are also very plentful. We picked many of these during the week or two in between the peak of blueberries and cranberries. They are best when large, having the highest juice-to-seed ratio, and late in the season they are just a bit sweeter. They remind me of mulberries a bit. Oh, and they make the most satisfying pop when you remove them from their stems, handfuls at a time.
Cranberries are the last, and we’re still picking them now, after the frosts have begun. Cranberries start turning red early, a bright Christmas colour, making it hard to believe how long it takes for them to fully ripen. Two months after you first spot them, they are finally red all over, and turn a deep crimson on top. Like all the berries this year, they were especially large and plentiful. I have visions of homemade cranberry sauce on a turkey this year.
Something about berries just flips a switch in my brain, a hunter-gatherer instinct buried thousands of years in my ancestral past, before the advent of agriculture. My companions and teachers here are much closer to those roots, never having really left them. Hunting and gathering are supplemented by modern food sources, but those traditional foods from the land are Inuit soul food. But picking berries myself reminds us that all our peoples started here, hunting and gathering.
The process of picking berries is full-body questioning and questing. Is this a good spot? Is there a better one just around the corner? Having picked as far as I can reach, should I move to the right or to the left? There’s nothing to do but take a guess, and there’s no way of exhausting the bounty, so I just move without thinking. Crossing the tundra on my knees.
Some people look over the tundra and see a bleak, monotone landscape. If all you do is look at the big picture, maybe it would seem that way. But when you get down on your knees to find the feast of colour and sweetness in every square foot, it changes your perspective. I listen to the news every morning, and the big picture is so dark right now. But God’s incredible provision, more bountiful and limitless and compassionate than we can conceive of, is found closer to the ground.
That’s how the arctic summer surprises you: there is life everywhere. The tundra is made of layers upon layers of plant life: peat moss and fungi and lichens and scrub plants. Years of their slow growth are tangled together over rich brown loam. When one plant grows during its brief season, it becomes an anchor for its neighbors to climb. An illustration, if ever there was one, that our differences can be used to build each other up, rather than compete.
But it’s not just on the earthy surfaces. Life is in the water – seaweed in the bay, willows and cotton and grasses in the ponds and puddles. On the rocks – Any rock left undisturbed becomes a surface for lichens to spread. Even the indecorous dung of birds on the cliff-rocks becomes a growing place for the incongruously brilliant orange lichen. Held back by six months of extreme cold and darkness, the long days unleash an explosion of life.
Spending this season on my knees, harvesting only a fraction of what I can reach and understand, cements in me a positive view of the big picture. This landscape cannot look empty. It is full beyond my mind’s measure. I can’t touch or use or make a difference in any but a tiny portion of that space, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not there for me. It’s there for itself, and I am a part of it. That helps to make peace with my little place in a big, hurting world.