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More Thoughts on Creativity

My last column was the first in a series on the drama of robins nesting in my outdoor sculpting studio. Without ironic intention, I suggested that on the deepest level, to be creative involves the creation of creative offspring. We all know that this is sooner said than done, and it may be a stretch for many of us to think of robins as at all creative (though they did operate a bit out of the box in selecting their nest site). Without addressing seriously either what creativity IS or whether creativity as we normally think of it can occur in non-human animals, I want to go beyond that issue, briefly, to consider organisms which I would have difficulty even imagining as creative, yet which are undoubtedly engaged in creating offspring: huckleberries.

(If you insist on my keeping to the theme of creativity, then consider the ice cream that is the real subject of this article.)

Lucretia raises raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in our large garden, and the forest around us also produces edible berries; in particular, salmonberries in large numbers in early summer and huckleberries a little later. We always have at least a couple of kinds of homemade ice cream in our freezer, and in preparation for the imminent arrival of a whole passel of family for a week of fun, we’ve been stocking up on a wide variety of our favourites. Sadly, though berries are the basis of most of our ice cream, very few blackberries grow on the northern half of Quadra Island.

Though salmonberries are available in untold thousands, are easy to pick, and have a lovely, subtle taste, they are also quite watery and many people don’t use them at all. But they reduce down to a powerful syrup that is truly amazing, and I make 10 or 15 liters of salmonberry ice cream every year.

If salmonberry ice cream is wonderful if made in a way that heightens the fruit’s natural potency, huckleberry ice cream is la crème de la crème, near the pinnacle of the ice cream-maker’s art, and so precious and rare that few people have ever known, first-hand, its superb taste and colour. Huckleberries are also small, slow to pick, and tend to be dispersed widely through the forest (the plants prefer to grow out of old conifer logs and stumps in sunny but moist settings). In most years, it is an absolute pain to collect enough of them to make even one batch of ice cream, and that is a pity. But no pity is required this summer, and no sympathy at all, for this is an absolute bumper year for huckleberries on the east coast of Quadra Island in at least four senses.

First, the berries are larger than usual. On the average, they may be twice last year’s diameter. The largest of them are nearly as big as small grapes. Twice as big means eight times as heavy, eight times as much flavour, and eight times more useful for making ice cream. And to make matters, well, even sweeter, it actually takes less time to pick a big berry than to pick a small one. They are easier to see, easier to grasp with the fingertips, and easier to hold on to. More of them go in the bucket, at a faster rate, and I spend less time looking for berries I dropped in the forest litter.

Second, the berries are at least as high in quality as usual - - they have just as much flavour, per drop, as last year, and are as red or redder than I have ever before noticed. Third, there are more berries than usual, both in the forest as a whole and on the best bushes. Fourth, more than I’ve noticed before, the highest productivity (i.e. the highest densities of big, flavourful berries) is concentrated in a relatively small number of individual plants that attract my attention from a distance with their redness. Another way of saying this is that though most huckleberry bushes are producing better this year than usual, the best bushes are producing far better.

Those few best plants are beacons of profitability for me, and I concentrate my effort on them. I can spend less time moving between bushes, less time preparing to pick from new branches, and more time picking. Picking is a pleasure this year, and if I should happen to pop a berry into my mouth instead of my bucket from time to time, it literally explodes with flavour and moisture when I bite it. It is a gratifying thing to eat one huckleberry and be satisfied!

Like a siren, one bush near my office window demanded my attention. Each morning when I sat down to write, it was redder and more insistent than the day before, and the early morning sunlight made its berries glow in a way that I could not ignore. A couple of days ago I couldn’t stand it any more. I harvested enough for at least 10 liters of ice cream from that one small bush, and there are many more bushes. I was ecstatic. I was ecstatic when I picked them, I’ll be ecstatic when I make the ice cream, and it will be an absolute joy to share the result with my family.

What an old tradition it is to harvest berries from the forest! What an old economy, and what an old set of considerations to be aware of in making our way in the world.

Since reading Douglas Deur and Nancy Turner’s superb book Keeping it Living: traditions of plant use and cultivation on the northwest coast last winter, I’ve been carrying my pruning shears in my pocket as I picked. One chapter showed that the Sto’lo people, in the Mission region of the Fraser Valley, not only harvested montane blueberries in the mountains to the north of their homes, but on a second trip to the mountains after the end of berry picking season, they carefully pruned the bushes. (They also used fire to enhance productivity.) Consequently I have been conducting some experimental prunings of wild bushes to see what will happen next year.

The Sto’lo example was one of many in the book showing that coastal BC aboriginal people not only harvested many natural products (they “gathered” them), but they actively managed the resource, husbanding the habitat to enhance the growth and productivity of useful species. There is a lot to learn in one lifetime, even about a few island acres in the woods.

Photo by Lee Gass

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