This tool, this beautiful tool, is a berry picker/berry comb, the only thing I inherited from my great uncle Henry and his wife, my great aunt Mildred. They were my godparents. (No, wait, I have a Polaroid camera of his, too.)
When I think of them, i think of: The annual summer party at their place on the lake. Swimming off the dock there. Snapping fresh green beans into a bowl before dinner. African violets under grow-lights in the basement that, as they bloomed, were rotated to the living room upstairs alongside a heavily-pruned little lemon tree by the fireplace. Mildred playing her piano for us. Deer mounts and skins on the walls alongside large scale prints of his photos of northwest mountain peaks. The guest bedroom with walls literally covered in tidy, colorful rows of horse-riding ribbons.
Perhaps best of all came after dinner, though, when he'd roll the huge, HUGE screen down out of the ceiling, magic in and of itself. We (all the cousins and myself) would crowd in down on the cool, tiled basement floor with the aunts and uncles on couches and chairs around us, while Uncle Henry, from the back of the room, running two projectors at once using a little laser pointer of sorts to point things out, would do a slide show of his latest pictures from the past year of anything from local hikes to fishing in Alaska to garden tours in England to trips to Hong Kong or Norway or...you name it.... I think we (the cousins) often pretended to be bored at times but i suspect we all really loved the annual slide shows best of all. I think we all remember most the picture he took and had of Harry Truman (this one) hand feeding a racoon.
Anyways, back to the berry picker:
There are some pretty strong opinions and prejudice toward them out there.
Others say that they do less damage than bears themselves do to the bushes, combing the berries off with their claws or eating the bushes leaves, twigs, berries and all.
Some just don't like using them because the berries have to be "cleaned" of more debris, of leaves and unripe or misshapen berries, at the end of a day of picking.
Others swear by them.
Some say they just plain don't work. (I, too, was pretty convinced of that after borrowing a friend's homemade one quite a few years back, made from a tin can with metal "fingers" and handle welded onto it. It didn't really work all that well, I'd thought at the time, and that I could pick with my hands faster than it would take messing around with a cumbersome picker in my hands, manouevering it amongst the twigs and leaves of the huckleberry bushes.)
Still, when I came across Henry's berry picker at my parents' house a few years back, I asked to bring it home with me. It has sat on a shelf where, since then, it has served only as storage for canceled postage stamps removed from envelopes received.
Until last month, that is, after a couple of days picking by hand, when I suddenly remembered the picker and thought, "You know, that just might work...." and besides "The leaves are going to be falling from the bushes in the next few days to a week anyways, so how much damage could it do?...." What was there to lose in trying?
And, OH MY GOODNESS, I'm sold. The picker did virtually no damage to the bushes but I was able to pick, I'd say, 4-5 times as many berries as without it. Sure, there were a few more leaves to clean out later, but as I see it one only has a limited amount of time out there in the woods picking and certainly more time once one returns home to clean them out.
I don't think it would work quite as well earlier in the season with a broader mix of ripe and unripe berries on the bush, nor would it be worth using where the berries are more sparse. But it worked perfectly in this situation, at the end of the season, when the bushes were absolutely loaded with berries perfectly ripe all-at-once.
For the first time in years I picked enough berries to cook up a batch of jam.
And, I spent a good part of those days, while picking, thinking about my great aunt and uncle,
wishing that they could tell me about the berries they'd picked over the years, could tell me where & when they bought the picker/rake, could share their secret chanterelle picking spots, and more,
wishing that I could have known them better.
As an adult now, I also know this about them: there would have been great big divides and differences of opinions between us. This isn't really the place nor time for that, but every family has its disagreements and dark secrets, does it not? I do think, though, that a mutual love of similar, simple things such as berries and mushrooms and mountains and photos could have more than made up for those sorts of things.
(So, I've been looking around online, on ebay, etc. for another berry pickers like this one I now have but haven't come up with an exact match yet. It works so well that it's worth searching for another one. I'm thinking it might be Swedish? That they could have bought this picker on a trip through Scandinavia? At any rate, similar antique and new ones are available out there and, while Uncle Henry's wooden berry picker is beautiful in both form and function, these red plastic Swedish ones are awfully cute, so I'm hoping they work just as well.)