Berry picking connects you with the land in an incredibly close, intimate way. It’s soothing. It’s healing. It’s humbling. Gazing out over seemingly infinite expanses of trees and hills is powerful, but is also overwhelming. It makes you feel very small. Picking berries involves re-scaling your frame of reference and scouring the immediate area around you to locate these hidden treasures, which in turn can help you experience large expanses of land gradually, piece by piece.
What’s more, the physical, repetitive motions involved in picking berries can do wonders to help ease busy minds — following these motions over and over helps you to focus on the task at hand: that is, to fill your bucket just slightly more than your belly.
For Inuit, the act of picking berries is strongly tied to memories of growing up, representing “…a symbolic enactment of one’s ties to family and the land.”¹ Often, Inuit have special spots where they go, and indeed where their families have always gone, to pick berries. Consistently returning to pick berries at these familiar spots — either alone or with loved ones — is, therefore, a way to strengthen these inter-personal connections. Above all else, berry picking is nourishing for the body and soul; it is a deeply spiritual activity.
“Spirituality isn’t simply spectacular. It’s spectacularly simple. It means whatever moves your spirit. Not your mind. Your spirit. Your mind is not the seat of you. Your soul is. Your spirit. Finding, approaching and engaging with whatever moves your spirit is being spiritual.”
I by no means will ever come close to fully understanding, let alone capturing in words, the significance of berry picking for Inuit. My words come from my perspective as a Southerner, and are not meant to be a substitute for the words of an Inuk. That all being said, I am very grateful to all those that I’ve met in Rigolet who have shared their stories of berry picking with me, and helping me to understand what these stories truly mean. Additionally, I am very grateful for Charlie and Inez, who gave our team a “taste” of berry picking this past weekend.
This past Sunday, Charlie was kind enough to help make our berry picking dreams come to fruition, if you will. He drove us up to some rolling hills just outside town, marshy areas where berries are known to grow at this time of the year. Then, he left us to the mercy of the flies. I don’t blame him. Inez stayed with us, but I think this was mostly so she could laugh at our ridiculous antics.
Specifically, we were on the hunt for bakeapples (as they’re known in Labrador), also known as cloudberries to other parts of the world. These little gems have a similar shape and texture to that of blackberries and raspberries, but are slightly smaller and are shockingly orange in colour. Bakeapples like growing in swampy, Arctic regions, and are highly valued, mostly because they are hard to find.²
The colours of the sky, water, trees, and plants were so vibrant, almost unusually so. I’d never before seen such intense blues, greens, and oranges side-by-side in Southern Ontario. This unique juxtaposition of colours was yet another reminder that we were in a very special place.
Picking bakeapples requires a gentle touch; the ripe ones feel almost as though they will fall apart in your hands if you’re not careful. Also, you have to really mind your footing as you trudge along through the rough tangles of moss, roots, and bushes because accidentally stepping on any hidden berries would be, in a word, blasphemous.
We hiked around the marsh for a bit, and slowly but surely we began to see small orange dots peeking through amongst all the greens and browns.
Venturing further into the hills, I hit some major jackpots. The bakeapples seemed to be most plentiful in lower, wetter, marshier patches. Unfortunately, these were also the patches where the air was still and the flies were thickest…not an ideal combination, to say the least. Ashlee had graciously lent me one of her bug jackets, so I could deal with the swarms of flies, but I started to get quite hot from being so low to the ground, with no breeze, in the midday sunshine. I ended up reaching inside my bug jacket to unzip the jacket I was wearing underneath in an attempt to cool off.
I got so absorbed in picking berries that I lost track of both time and my fellow berry pickers. After we found each other, we made our way back to town, all the way admiring our collection of brightly-coloured berries and dreaming up all the culinary possibilities.
As we pulled into the BnB, I took my jacket off and looked down in horror to see my white shirt splattered with blood. My blood. I tentatively lifted up my shirt, unsure of what to expect, and saw a stomach I did not recognise — a stomach that had been ravaged by flies. I figure I must have unknowingly trapped in a swarm when I pulled up my bug jacket to unzip my other layer.
It was so worth it. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. For the experience of course, and also for the bakeapple pancakes we whipped up the next day.
- Simard-Gagnon, L. (2013). Lived territories: A tale of Inuit women’s contemporary subsistence and belonging. Revue INDITERRA (No. 5). http://www.reseaudialog.qc.ca/Docs/05INDITERRA052013SIMARDGAGNON.pdf