"Blueberryland" Article by Burndett Andres
"Taming the Wild Blueberry - 90-Year-Old Author Keeps on Pickin'"
“I just love to be picking berries,” Walter Staples said during our visit at the Red Barn in Milbridge. We were meeting to discuss his latest book Blueberryland, Taming the Maine Wild Low-bush Blueberry in which he admits he’s addicted to berry-picking. Walter, who celebrated his ninetieth birthday on September 13th, was in Washington County this weekend with his son and chauffeur, Jim, to deliver copies of his books to various gift shops Downeast and to Margery Brown for the Cherryfield-Narraguagus Historical Society. She and my partner, Ralph Larsen, rounded out our party.
This is Walter Staples’ second foray into subsidy publishing with Peter E. Randall Publisher of Portsmouth, NH. The second printing of his first book, The North Bay Narrative, One Hundred Years of a Newfoundland Outport Village is nearly sold out and Blueberryland has been selling steadily since being published earlier this year. The success of both books is due in large part to Walter’s personal promotional efforts at book-signings and the subsequent word of mouth advertising these appearances generate.
The “Author and Fly Fisherman,” as his business card describes him, was born in Eliot, Maine, in 1913 and is a graduate of the University of Maine. For twenty-eight years he traveled extensively in the United States, Canada and Europe while engaged in poultry disease research for a major New England poultry breeding company. He is presently retired, more or less, and lives in Tamworth, NH, but he still writes poetry, travels to promote his books and often comes to Washington County with his son for hunting and fishing...and blueberry picking. Blueberryland is the story of how Walter Staples came to observe, and participate in a small way, in the taming of the wild low-bush blueberry.
A deer-hunting trip first brought Staples to Wesley in 1937, and continued bringing him and his companions back every year until the early 1950s. During those years he made friends with many of the natives and observed low-bush blueberry growing and harvesting. He describes one early visit this way:
“In early August of 1942, I took my bride of two years over the Airline Road to Wesley, as much to explain and justify my annual vacation being spent there, as in the hope that she too would enjoy the trip...We spent a night in a small cabin on the edge of a field just bursting with the blue of ripening berries at harvest time. Picking from bushes just outside our cabin door, we had blueberries for breakfast...”
In the early 1970s, Staples bought a tract of land “just off the Airline Road, on the highway to Machias” that included about twenty acres of blueberry fields. A series of circumstances conspired to thrust him willy-nilly into “the commercial aspects of low-bush blueberry production” and, ready or not, he began participating in the management of a blueberry field. In Blueberryland, he describes with affection raking his field with family and friends.
“Nothing takes the place of a field full of family...chattering...singing,” he told us with a smile. Margery also shared memories of local businesses shutting down during the blueberry harvest fifty years ago and whole families participating in the raking, babies in carriages and playpens joining the children, parents and grand-parents in the fields.
Walter Staples’ involvement with low-bush blueberries goes back half a century. In Blueberryland he provides thorough documentation as he traces the taming of the wild blueberry during that time and the evolution of the big business that has been made of it. He laments the loss of family involvement and the loss of the personal satisfaction that comes at the end of the day when “you can look at what you’ve picked, you can count it.” His son, Jim, who plans to continue raking berries for his own use for many years to come, echoes his feelings. Last year he personally raked over four hundred quarts of berries to share with family and friends.
We all agreed that there is a mystical connection between growing, harvesting and preserving one’s own food, a connection we have all felt at one time or another. Walter and Jim expressed the pleasure they derive from blueberry raking; Margery has looked with satisfaction at some five hundred jars of home-canned fruits and vegetables on her shelves; Ralph has known the thrill of growing prize-winning kohlrabi in his Long Island victory garden. Like them and many of you, I have done a little raking, canning and growing myself and could appreciate their quiet, little introspective smiles.
Staples did a lot of research over the two years it took him to write Blueberryland. He offers hope that even as the blueberry industry grows and becomes more mechanized and monopolized by large growers, pockets of small growers will continue to preserve the old ways and the old satisfactions; they will find ways to make small farms profitable. One example of alternative management he uses to illustrate the point is Chris McCormick and his family in Cooper, ME, who are producing organic, wild low-bush blueberries for the retail market.
Blueberryland will be of interest to the old “blueberrying” families of Washington County because it’s likely their friends and relatives are mentioned within. It’s also of great interest to those from away because it explains the discrepancy that exists between the name of our native product and the practice of cultivation we observe. Irrigation, applications of herbicides and fungicides, systematic burning, fertilization and pollination would not normally be associated with “wild” blueberries. Blueberryland explains how the industry has grown away from its wild beginnings and will relieve any consternation that may exist in the minds of the uninitiated.
Mostly though, Blueberryland is a story about a man who just loves picking berries. You can share his passion by asking for a copy at your favorite gift shop or bookseller. Both of his books are also available from Margery Brown at the Cherryfield-Narraguagus Historical Society, 546-7979.
This article appeared in the Downeast Coastal Press of November 18-24, 2003
Ref: Maine, At Last - Settling In, Vol. II, Page 231
Ref: Maine, At Last - Settling In, Vol. II, Page 231