Every wild berry has its own charm, but the one I most like to pick is the cranberry. It ripens in autumn when the air is crisp, the tamaracks are turning sun-gold, and all gardeners and gatherers have that quickening feeling—summer has fled and winter is coming.
Cranberries are the ruby jewels of the boreal bog. They perch atop or hide within the spongy hummocks of sphagnum moss. Picking is a process of plucking the perched ones then waving a hand through the feathery tendrils of the sphagnum to find the hiders. In the quest for cranberries, the picker’s field of view is narrowed to one hummock, then the next, and at this eye level the bog world becomes a miniature forest of grasses, sedges, and fungi.
Picking cranberries puts a person in touch with her body. I call it bog yoga. There is lots of bending, stretching, squatting, teetering and balancing in the squishy muck. (My biggest concern is that I will fall over and spill the contents of my bucket at the end of picking when I’m slogging out of the bog.) The next day the bones and muscles have plenty of twinges of happy remembrance of the day before.
Picking is more relaxing in years of average or below average rainfall, which 2016 was not, because in parts of the bog it is dry enough to lie down or kneel on a cushiony hummock while picking. This year was all bending and stooping and a little harder on the lumbar spine. But the reward for an aching back was traipsing in the waterlogged bog. With every step, the calf-deep water sluiced and gurgled and the moss hummocks quaked. The bog was more like a creature than a landscape.
Perhaps because of the ample summer moisture, the 2016 cranberry season was exceptional in the bogs around Embarrass, Minnesota. Not all years are so bountiful, and some years there are none. Pickers were talking of gathering bucketsful in a few hours, and the season seemed to stretch out for weeks, perhaps because the fall was mild. Unlike most of my friends, who are berry-picking machines, I never come home with bucketsful, but I cherish every ruby jewel. I freeze about half of my harvest. The rest are folded into scones and coffeecakes.