Food & Drink

The Zen of Blueberry Picking

By Mary Simon
President Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (2008)

When the editor of Inuktitut Magazine, knowing my passion for picking berries, especially blueberries, asked me to write about the experience, I initially resisted. After all, berry picking is a personal experience. Somehow there is a magical and spiritual aspect to being at the blueberry bush all laden with the deep blue berries.

I once remember reading about Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to climb Mount Everest, who, when asked about the experience, responded by saying, “To those who climb, no explanation is necessary. To those who don’t, no explanation is possible!”

Blueberries are not mountains, but for “we pickers.” a berry patch can transcend mountain tops and take us into the clouds beyond. Berries can have us living in three dimensions in the same moment, the present, the past and the future.

This family photo includes Her Excellency, her brother Jonny, her mother, her grandmother and her paternal grandfather. All images courtesy of Mary Simon

Picking is what I do solely for myself. It is the one time when I try to remove myself from the hustle and bustle world around me and escape political issues, organizational or business crises, even family distractions. This is my time, in my place and the serenity I draw from this experience begins long before I begin gathering up my mosquito netting, repellent and berry buckets.

The berry season may only last several weeks, but the anticipation is eternal. I can be at home in Kuujjuaq in a blinding blizzard, or in a far-off city preparing for yet another meeting with yet another politician or bureaucrat and feeling considerably pressured and stressed when suddenly, August and September come into mind and I tell myself, “Soon it’ll be berry time.”

Often in my work, it is a challenge to tell those in governments why we need changes or, for that matter, why we as Inuit resist certain changes. We speak so easily about preserving and protecting our “Inuit Culture.” Berries are part and parcel of living our culture. Yet we speak so little of our “gathering” culture. I think most Inuit women understand the strength we can draw from berry picking where even a few litres in a small container, picked over a few hours can balance weeks of stress and anxiety brought on by the constantly changing “new world” we all find ourselves part of.

On reflection, I am not sure if there was ever a time when I did not pick berries. Although as a teenager I probably looked at it differently because then it was more like a chore and something we had to do to gather food for our big family. Today and for many years past, those days with my mother
and grandmother are treasured memories. Their stories, their values and their work ethic greatly shaped and influenced my life.

Governor General Mary Simon has treasured childhood memories, especially of times spent picking berries with her mother and grandmother.

I suppose, for most of us, there is that moment in our lives when we move into adulthood and realize we have become our mother or father, that moment when their old values become our values. Even in my early twenties almost as soon as I was “independent” and living on my own in the south I began feeling the pull of the Arctic to the blueberry bush every summer.

I watch the calendar and in the early part of the summer I find myself checking the bushes, trying to imagine what kind of “season” we can expect. Watching the first berries ripen, this year the earliest I can remember, and then the delicious taste of the first berry of the year. This is where the magic truly takes over.

As I have grown older, I have come to realize that with each passing season, both the berries and the memories that linger through my mind as I pick grow ever sweeter. Boating up the George River in a freighter canoe, living in tents, hunting, fishing and travelling by dog teams, early mornings with the
birds singing and ptarmigan laughing, spruce bows on the floor in our tent and waking up on caribou skins and under down blankets with the wood fire crackling. The hard work, cutting wood, carrying water, making bannock, learning to sew, listening to legends, hunting with dad, fishing with mom
and grandmother Jeannie across from Helen’s Falls. Watching famed bush pilot Phil Larivier find our little log cabin on a cold Christmas morning and land on the frozen George River with fresh oranges and small presents, all arranged months earlier by dad. The boat and canoe trips we took across Ungava Bay, living on the islands on the Ungava coast in the summer, picking mussels, digging for clams, collecting duck eggs, hunting for seals.  That was our life and every year, in every berry patch, it remains our life.

Mary J May

As hard as I try to stay in the moment, invariably the glorious past gives way to the challenges of the present and future. As Inuit we have come so far, and have done so much in the past 40 years. Yet there is so much more to do. Can we meet the challenges? Can we overcome the social and health problems that so plague our communities? Suddenly I think of something
I recently saw on TV. “Yes we can… Yes We Can!”

Reservation turns to inspiration and I see a promising new patch of berries, ripe and bountiful, and I know that someday we will reap a harvest of justice and fairness. For now, my bucket is full of delicious berries and I have enough blueberries for a pie, two crumbles, and about four cups to freeze for this winter. By the end of the summer, our freezer will contain enough berries for the winter if we use them sparingly. Oh! The blueberry bush glistening with fresh deep blue berries is such a sight to behold!

Reprinted with permission from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami