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Wednesday, 05 September 2007 00:00

Heaven in a bucket, a hillside and some blueberries

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By Stephanie Wampler

Have you ever doubted the existence of Heaven? If so, then I will jump to the hasty conclusion that you have never picked and eaten fresh blueberries.

Yes, it seems a bold statement but entirely true as far as I can tell. Because, although there are many things that I don’t know, there is one thing that I do know: picking and eating fresh blueberries is about as close to heaven as you can get.

Please don’t get me wrong. My assertion is location-specific. Picking blueberries anywhere and everywhere is quite a different proposition. For example, picking blueberries in the middle of Mississippi in the middle of summer is . . . the opposite of heaven. Getting to the berry farm at 7 a.m. doesn’t help very much since the heat index is usually 150 degrees by 8 a.m. And that’s after a cold front has just come through. Normal temperatures are much higher.

My adoration of blueberry picking is restricted strictly to the mountains. Early one morning a couple of summers ago, I saw a hand-painted sign for blueberries at a stoplight. A powerful force somehow pulled my car across two lanes of traffic and down curvy mountain roads until at last I came upon a blueberry field stretching up a hillside. The ground and the bushes were thick with dew, and when the sun peered over the side of the mountain, the whole field sparkled with millions and millions of dewdrop diamonds. Nice enough, I thought, but I want the blueberries.

I parked by some other cars and looked around. A pile of buckets was scattered around the base of a big oak tree. I grabbed one and dove into the berry bushes. There is a fine art to berry picking, I told myself as I squeezed into and under the bushes, choosing the biggest and best berries, finding the fullest clumps that would fall into my hand with the most gentle of caresses.

I was so pleased with the growing pile in my pail that it took a little while for me to notice the music. Fiddle music was floating through the field. Around and over and under all the bushes, fiddle tunes danced through the air. Very good, I thought, someone has left on their car radio, and we can all enjoy some bluegrass music while we pick. Excellent. Adds to the atmosphere. I picked a while longer, and when my pail was overflowing, I came out of the rows to pay for my produce. There was a house that I could just see at the top of the hill above all the bushes, so I headed in that direction.

On the porch were a scale a money box and a sign indicating that I should weigh and pay for my berries myself. That’s fine, I thought. Everyone’s busy these days; I can certainly understand that the berry farm owners have other places they need to be. It’s nice to be trusted a little. So I weighed my berries and wrote out my check. As I did so, I glanced down at an old man in a chair on the hillside, looking out over the berry bushes. He was probably connected somehow with the farm, but he was utterly unconcerned with me and the other pickers at the money box. His back was turned to us, and he seemed engrossed in watching the mountains and the berry picking and playing the fiddle.

What? I looked again. He was playing the fiddle. He was playing the fiddle. That floating fiddle music was coming from that man right there. And it was, for an instant, one of those surreal, timeless moments — an old man with a fiddle playing to the bushes and the berry pickers, the birds and the trees and the mountains, his music forever lilting through the little cove.

That happened a couple of years ago, and this year I have been so disappointed because the late spring freeze destroyed the berry crop for that little farm and all the others in the mountain valleys. But recently, when we were hiking on one of the balds on the mountain peaks, we noticed wild blueberry bushes with green blueberries. Apparently their elevation was high enough that they had not yet bloomed for that late spring freeze. These berries had been saved, and I was delighted. We waited a couple of weeks for the berries to ripen and then went back with a pail.

There was no fiddle music this time, but there was a warm sun, a soft breeze, the humming of bees, and a picnic lunch under a rhododendron thicket. When we had picked and eaten all the blueberries we wanted, we went for a swim in a clear, deep pool at the base of a waterfall, the icy-cold water washing away even the thought of sweat.

You know, life just doesn’t get any better than that. Sometime, I’m sure, a snake will bite me, or I’ll fall headfirst into a patch of poison ivy, or I’ll eat a stinkbug instead of a blueberry. But all that is somewhere in the far-off future. For now, blueberry picking in these mountains has been a little taste of heaven, and next summer, I think I’ll try for more.

(Stephanie Wampler lives in Waynesville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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