I grew up in the country and every summer my mom and sibs and I worked in the berry fields of a neighboring farmer. It's the sort of job that is now done by illegals and which, I fancy, probably now violates child labor laws. But back then everyone picked berries in the summer. If you were a farmer's kid, you spent all day in the fields. If you were lucky, like us, you only worked morning shifts.
There was a liturgy to our berry picking days: up early for breakfast (probably only 7, though it felt earlier) while Mom packed our lunch, out to the fields in the cold, misty morning, gathering around Mrs. Rabe as she gave out assignments. We'd grab our wooden carriers and fill them with berry boxes, then head to the assigned row. Mom would start at the head of the row, with one or two of us opposite her, sending the others of us halfway down the row. She would keep us going with Coffee Nips and peppermint candies. Mrs. Rabe would sometimes appear in our row, checking the vines we'd already picked to make sure we were getting all the ripe berries. It was always a mark of shame if she came up behind you and tossed a large handful of berries into your crate. As you filled a crate you'd take it to the end of the row and get an empty one, returning to your spot and continuing on. The best pickers were vaunted for the number of rows they completed. We never finished that many because we were, essentially, lazy children who hated berry picking and who had to be goaded into doing much of anything at all.
If the day turned warm, we'd start shedding our jackets, sweatshirts and long pants as we went along, littering the rows with our detritus. If it was misty and overcast, as it so often seemed to be in those pre-global-warming days, we trudged along, with our cold, stained fingers and muddy shoes. We picked in all but torrential downpours because if the berries were ripe they had to be picked or they'd rot.
There would be a break mid-morning and then we'd knock off for good at noon, staying to have our lunch with the other workers before getting our tickets punched and going home for the day. Mrs. Rabe would stand at the center of a cluster of workers, tickets and hole punch in hand. You'd tell her how many crates you'd picked and she'd punch the appropriate number on the ticket. The tickets were, if I recall, color coded for the type of berry we were picking. At the end of the season we'd turn in the tickets and recieve our pay. My biggest summer ever was maybe $20.
The Rabes grew a lot of berries. The first year we picked blackcaps, which were freaking horrible and which we kids refused to ever pick again. Blackcaps, which had virtually no flavour, were used to make food-safe ink. Remember when meat would have an inspection stamp right on it? That was done with blackcaps. But they were a tedious, ungratifyingn berry to pick. They were tiny and silly and it seemed that however many you picked you couldn't quite fill your crate. Then there were strawberries, which were great fun, despite having to crawl on your knees or scoot on your bum to progress down the row. Strawberries were the exact opposite of blackcaps, big and delicious, easy to pick and your crate filled up in no time (assuming you weren't just sitting there eating them). But the main staples of the summer were logan berries, marian berries and boysenberries, all of which were taken off to the Smuckers depot to be turned into jam.
The Rabes grew more logan berries than anything else and so, I came to loathe them. They were relatively easy to pick as they had no thorns but there were just miles and miles and miles of them and you never seemed to get done. As the first picking of logans ended we moved to the next field of boysenberries, fat and juicy and treacherous. They had nasty, hooky thorns. Then came the sweet reprieve of the marions. It was a small field and the marians, though smaller than boysens, were easier to pick because they had no thorns. In the week or so it took to pick the boysens and marions the next go of logans would be ripe and the circuit would start again.
I remembered all this as I picked blackberries the other day. I remembered sitting at Vacation Bible school, comparing the berry stains on everyone's hands. The darker your hands, the better a berryer you were. (I also figured out that you could smash berries all over your hands and pick with them all sticky and gross to enhance the darkness factor). I remembered the Coffee Nips and eating Pringles at lunch-time and the blessed relief of going home to change for a swim in the Molalla River.
I hated berry picking but I'm glad now that I had the experience. I know what it is like to labor in a field, something The Child will never know. I think about all this as I gather a few berries for a cobbler and marvel at how much of my childhood comes back to me as I perform the simplest of tasks.