FAIRBANKS — We were face down in the blueberry patch, my daughter Kristine and I, hardly aware of anything except the azure clusters amid the greenery. My grandson and husband were 50 yards away, sitting by the car.
Gnats, flies and bees zipped around our heads, but we were hypnotised by the berries and we barely noticed them, well, until the bug spray wore off. We didn’t notice much else, maybe the leaves clapping with the breeze. Intermittently, a tractor trailer would rumble by on the dirty Dalton Highway in the distance. But most of the time, it was just my girl, my grandson, my husband and I rustling the bushes gathering the blue treasure.
There were so many of them, the kind of bounty that when you close yours eyes, all you can see is blue, in the secret spot shared with me by friends and family.
Every July, I start getting antsy, feeling like I need to check the berry bushes. It’s been that way in my family since I was a girl, and likely for any Alaskan who is connected to seasons and the land. My mother took me to the woods as often as she could while I grew up in Fairbanks.
Last year, my friends Barb Andon, Dorthea Adams and my cousin Joni Nelson took me to this wild berry patch. The berries lulled us into a trance, while we quietly remembered our childhood spent with our families in the wild during blueberry season. We remembered our dead. We remembered our Athabascan heritage. We filled our buckets.
Last winter I often daydreamed about this lovely place, smelt the labrador tea, felt the warmth of the sun and slight breeze and saw the blue. I heard the plunk of the berries hitting the bucket bottom until it was covered. This was one of the wildest places I had ever been.
I had to go back. This time I brought Kristine, her son and my husband. It was another chance to continue the family lessons of the woods.
My husband and I have been bringing our three daughters blueberry picking since they were small. At first we left with a scant cup, but in the last trips, the girls competed with one another to see who could pick the most. We had an abundance of berries then.
I made sure to tell them about the men and women of our family who took me to the wild when I was a girl — how Uncle Don loved my mother’s blueberry pie, and no matter what, we always made sure to pick enough for her pie. My mom and her sister would talk quietly with each other. The summer of my childhood meant family and berries and tradition. I had to pass this on to them.
The girls are grown. Kristine is the only one who lives in Fairbanks. Our grandson, Mack Benn, now 10, is no stranger to nature.
“Do you want me to find you a really good patch?” he asks while we sprawled among the brush. We say yes and off he goes. A minute later, “I found one!” We reluctantly move from our abundant bushes and go see. Yes, blue as far as you can see.
Mack sits down and swallows handfuls of berries while his mother and I hunker down again.
Worries and cares seem to fall away in the woods. Occasionally we have to remember to make noise or sing to scare off any stray bears, or at least raise our heads for a look around.
I think about my ancestors, the Gwich’in. Berry picking wasn’t a luxury, but a necessity. I look around and wonder if they found peace in the patch like I do. They traveled by foot or boat or dog sled, and gathering food took a lot of energy. I image they learned to live in the silence of the taiga forest and could fade in and out of the trees without a sound. Making unnecessary noise must have been sacrilage and only neccessary for safety. Now if one of us goes a short ways away, the brush and woods muffle our voices. I can see how easy it would be to get lost.
Living off the land is hard, and I don’t have the ability, nor the time. Like so many urban Alaska Natives, I have to take time off of work to go to the woods and find myself, be with my family and pass tradition along.
On social media, friends say they are back in their home villages, visiting family, going to fish camp, and making a trip to the berry patch. My mother’s home village was Venetie, but she left when she was a child for school. She was Gwich’in and Alutiiq, and her family was from the Chandalar River area and Tatitlek. She was a child of orphans, and little of either culture made it to me. But mom didn’t let me forget who I was or where I came from.
Now, I realize my heritage and my home village is the berry patch.
I look at Kristine. Her bucket is full and for the first time she has outpicked me.
“My hands are cramping,” she says. I tell her to find a nice spot nearby and enjoy the sun while I finish my bucket. She does and settles into the moss with a sigh. She looks around.
“I think I better sit over there,” she says while looking in the direction of a wall of blue.
And she does.
Diana Campbell is a Gwich’in/Alutiiq writer. She lives in Fairbanks with her husband, Mack Campbell. They have three daughters and two grandchildren.