There are a few things that balance out our traditionally gray, wet early summers here. One of them is the giddy jolt of pure joy we all get when the sun finally comes out and another is the berries. Strawberries, raspberries, salmon berries, thimble berries, red huckleberries, evergreen huckleberries, blackcap raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, salal berries, gooseberries, loganberries, marionberries, boysenberries: I’ve picked all of these, some native and wild, some cultivated, and I love them all. I think thimbleberries might be my favorite wild berry, while the runty, wrinkled strawberries that hide below the jumbos on my June bearing plants might be my favorite cultivated berry (I swear the little ugly ones are the sweetest).
The island I grew up on, and where my own kids are growing up now, has rich berry juice in its historical blood. The strawberry economy’s glory days were over by the time I was born, but there were still people making a living from berry farms. Even where the farms had disappeared, there were old furrows and surviving strawberry plants hidden under the tall grass that had turned to pasture or future home lots. Our rival school from the nearby fishing town with Norwegian heritage still taunted us as “berry pickers” (we called them “fish heads” in return).
Strawberries and raspberries have always been tied in my mind to the Japanese American community here, and to the internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII. On March 30th, 1942, our island was the first community where people were removed from their homes to be held against their will in Manzanar. Only about half of the people who were forced off the island were able to return to their homes after the war.
One of them was our closest neighbor. My childhood bedroom window looked out on the strawberry and raspberry fields of an amazing woman, Shigeko Kitamoto. During the war, while Shigeko and her children were being held in Manzanar and then Minidoka, their home was protected and their land farmed by Felix Narte, a Filipino American friend and neighbor. His loyalty and hard work made it possible for Shigeko and her family to return to their fertile land and rightful home.
Picking Shigeko’s berries was my first paying job (I made half the usual rate for my flats, fair enough since my kindergarten hands filled the containers about that full). She irrigated her rows and rows of fruit with a series of open trenches, releasing water into the field in the evenings. The music of that water bouncing along the rocky glacial till that covers this island was my childhood summer lullaby. I walked to the bus stop through her berry rows, past Shigeko and Felix, still working together all those years after the war. On the weekends, my sister and I walked through the woods on the other side of our home to the ruins of Bainbridge Gardens, where the skeletons of the greenhouses and the old store were filled with blackberry vines. The berries that remained and the berries that had been lost with farms, homes, and businesses, they made this unjust upheaval concrete to my little girl brain and body. Berries meant sustenance, loss, friendship, community, history, injustice, the triumph of hard work and perseverance, sweetness and home.
My family had our own field of berries, about 1/2 acre of raspberries and strawberries, farmed by a neighbor or ours. Sam had them most delightful voice and infectious laugh, and grew berries in our field to support his family; in return for the use of the land, we got to pick and eat our fill. This abundance of berries felt like the best sort of wealth to me, even when I was complaining about our daily berry picking chore. My grandparents drove up from San Francisco almost every summer, timing their visit to match peak raspberry season. They’d call each week for a berry report and started driving when the berries were finally just starting to turn red. They’d arrive with the first flush of fruit, and my grandfather would fill bag after bag, humming while he picked, until every inch of their motorhome’s freezer was packed tight.
Shigeko’s field is now an overgrown Christmas tree farm (she switched to trees as she grew older and farmed to the end of her life). My family’s large field of berries is now a community garden my parents created during our current Great Recession to provide growing space for the local food bank and people interested in feeding their families fresh produce. My dad put in a few long rows of strawberries and raspberries, just a tiny fragment of what used to cover the entire area, but enough to keep my berry-hungry extended family happy – Sadly, this takes fewer berries now that we don’t have my grandparents to share them with any more.
My daughters and I have our own backyard beds of raspberries and strawberries, too, enough to grow all we can eat with full bowls left over to share with friends and freeze for the winter. Berries are one thing we never, ever buy from a store. If we can’t grow it or forage for it, we trade with friends or visit a local u-pick. Berries from this island have their own terroir, and imports just don’t taste right to me.
It’s been my family’s tradition to photograph children with the first berry harvest each year and I make my girls pose for this annual shot. Then we sing the Shehechiyanu together before we eat those very first ripe berries, the beautiful red juicy gems that ooze the essence of early summer, family, community, and home.