TODD WALTON: Huckleberries


turn left at the moon tw

Turn Left At the Moon painting by Nolan Winkler

Under The Table Books

“For when you see that the universe cannot be distinguished from how you act upon it, there is neither fate nor free will, self nor other. There is simply one all-inclusive Happening, in which your personal sensation of being alive occurs in just the same way as the river flowing and the stars shining far out in space. There is no question of submitting or accepting or going with it, for what happens in and as you is no different from what happens as it.” Alan Watts

If even half the blossoms on the huckleberry bushes in the Mendocino area this year become fruit, then the huckleberry harvest will be by far the greatest since I moved here eleven years ago. Bushes on our property and in the surrounding woods that previously sported no blossoms or only a few are now white with hundreds and thousands of the lovely little bell-shaped flowers. And friends in nearby Albion report the huckleberry bushes thereabouts are also heavily freighted with flowers.

My guess is that the great rains of this seemingly interminable winter following four years of drought inspired the huckleberries to such prolificacy, though we must be careful not to celebrate too soon. Those myriad flowers must be pollinated, and the primary pollinators of huckleberry bushes are bumblebees; and the bumblebee population has been in decline due to the use of pesticides that should never have been invented, let alone deployed.

Alas, even if you and I and our close neighbors don’t use those ghastly poisons, it only takes a few shortsighted fools in the watershed spraying their shrubbery with bad stuff to decimate the bumblebees and honeybees in our area. Thus the fate of those blossoms is, literally, in the hands of fools and which way the winds blow.

But assuming we do have a bumper huckleberry crop, a few days of picking will fill our freezer with the dark little orbs for smoothies and pancakes and crisps throughout our next winter. And if the harvest is truly epic, we will make great quantities of jam and not have to wonder what to give our friends for Christmas this year.

Whenever I see huckleberries on their bushes, and especially when I am standing by a goodly bush grazing on the delicious fruit, I think of two novels by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife. These marvelous books are about a small population of hunter-gatherers living in Siberia 20,000 years ago, when wooly mammoths still roamed the earth and wolves were yet to be domesticated. And in each of these books there are vivid scenes in which bushes of wild berries are all that save the people from starvation and dehydration.

We think of the wild huckleberries hereabouts as delicious additions to our store-bought main courses, but twenty thousand years ago, such berries might have been the only thing we could find to eat for days on end, and we would have been gleeful to see the bushes as laden with blossoms as they are in Mendocino these thousands of years after the last wooly mammoth succumbed to human hunger.

I am currently reading a collection of intoxicating essays entitled Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish poet with a most intriguing way of writing about birds and stones and landscapes and the ocean. Published in 2012, two of the longer essays in this volume are about remote islands—St. Kilda and Rona—off the coast of Scotland. Jamie writes with exquisite sensitivity about the birds and plants and seals that live on these islands, and the killer whales patrolling those seas. Inhabited by humans for hundreds of years, these islands are no longer home to any people, with only the decaying ruins of the old colonies remaining.

For me, Jamie’s collection of essays composes a deep meditation on the interaction of humans with the natural world, and how that interaction has evolved into estrangement for most of us, though we need not be estranged. Jamie is obviously enmeshed with the natural world, and her essays show us how we might experience ourselves as integral parts of the fantastical whole of life on earth.

I’m hoping the local huckleberries will set in profusion and turn darkly purple and come to taste of divine earthly sugars, so I may stand in the dappled forest light and eat my fill as I give thanks to the nature spirits for bringing me the boon of life.


It says /Turn left at the moon./ But the airplane wing in the picture shows you’ve turned right. Is that the idea? that the bubbles have confused the navigator? And the only way that phase of the moon can be at that angle (horns of lighted part pointing parallel to the horizon) is if you’re at the North Pole, or the South pole and it’s the visually complementary phase, in which case the blinking lights of so many other jets sharing the near airspace is odd… unless that’s no moon but a giant staring eye– the eye of one of the nature spirits you’re thanking? Or the reflection of the artist’s own eye magnified by the curve of the window? And maybe it’s not a wing at all but rather a smokestack being pelted with grapeshot (or huckleberries), or a truncated feather wafting in fog droplets behind your train that’s just entered a tunnel, so turning is out of the question, except for the feather, I guess. Art is hard.

Thank you for giving words to my own passion for this finest jewel of the plant world. In semi-retirement I have found a way to share this passion. I now pick and have others pick for me in the Fort Bragg area and create syrup and jelly that I sell at Farmers Markets in Marin. I thought you might be interested in reading my story, a copy of which I give to all visitors at my market stall.

My story begins in the 1950’s in New York City’s now extinct woods on Staten Island where my favorite annual family tradition was picking wild huckleberries. Using tin cans tied around our necks with waxed string, the Behr family, eventually numbering seven children, would venture into the berry patch to fill our pails. It would take hours to harvest enough of the smaller than pea sized berries for my mother to have the quantity needed to create the most wonderful pies.
During one of these outings, my father and I wandered a bit away from the group and came upon what my father described with delight as the “mother” huckleberry bush, its branches heavily laden with dark purple jewels. We marveled at the bounty as we filled our buckets. It was the closest I ever felt to my father.
After migrating to Marin in the early 70’s, I was listening to a song by Marinite, Jessie Collin Young, about his home on a ridgetop and was stopped by the line, “with a yard full of bushes that turn into pies in July”. Could it be? Were there huckleberries on this coast? I found out what town he was referring to and from there it was natural for a Behr to find the berry patch. I have been picking in the woods of Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties ever since.
I’ve won many awards for my jams, jellies, syrups, preserved fruit and fruit pies at Marin County and California State Fairs, including best of class and best of show ribbons. Of all the delightful flavors I have coaxed from the labor of farmers working in harmony with nature or gathered from the bounty of the wild, it is the flavor of the huckleberry that has garnered the highest awards and, almost always, “WOW!” reactions. I love to watch the faces of those who taste my huckleberry syrup and jelly as they experience the essence of this elixir.
Sharing hundreds of jars of my fruit creations every year with family, friends and acquaintances is a source of great happiness for me, but it is extremely labor intensive to pick, sort, clean, juice, cook and bottle huckleberries; about 6 hours for each gallon. The only way I saw to share this unique taste experience was to handcraft a limited quantity and offer it for sale to you.

Enjoy, Behr’s Wild
Tom Behr 415-686-2345