The trance of the hunter-gatherer: it is an ancient human joy, in the summer, to sit quietly on a hillside in these mountains of northwest Montana on a cool sunny morning, before the heat of the day is up—or in the late afternoon, as shadows are beginning to return—and to pick berries steadily, sometimes daydreaming, other times possessing no thoughts at all, only the moment, and the repeated and nurturing image of purple berries all around you, and leafy cool green foliage. You will be sitting, perhaps on bent knees, and looking about, though no farther, usually, than arm’s reach: and there will be berries everywhere, more berries than you could ever use or eat, and there’s no rush, you’re simply sitting there in the silence, alone or with your wife and daughters, picking. Occasionally you’ll pause and refocus—will lift your head and look out at the view of the green valley beyond—but for the most part, you’re just focused on the here and now, and the very close: arm’s reach, or a little farther, but beyond that, no more. What interesting creatures we are, still honed from deep experience to value the short term—immediate survival—yet capable, sometimes, of grasping the long term.
And in the summer there is plenty of the here and now available, and you are gathering more than plenty, laying in for winter—huckleberry jam, and pancakes, and pies—and even though the earth is pivoting strongly now, it is lulling; it seems that the river of time has stopped, or at least paused, that summer is an eddy—and no matter that it is a fulcrum for change, considerable change, and the resumption of movement. Sitting there in the berry fields, gleaning bounty, you are in the valley’s eddy, and every part of you knows it, every part of you feels fitted to all else in the valley, with a clarity, even an elegance, that seems all too rare.
The value of instinct is obvious, as are usually the mechanisms, the logistics, for its survival and advancement: providing positive reinforcement for those things that serve our species well. But sitting in the berry fields in summer, there’s more—something intangible and immeasurable, something in excess of mere pleasure, it would seem—more pleasure than is really required, to advance the habit. What is the name of this excess?
The truth is, even the best horticulturists in the world haven’t been very successful in growing huckleberries domestically. What appears to be a nonchalant afterthought, up on the mountain—fields of purple berries extending for as far as the eye can see—is, in fact, irreproducible in the laboratory, or the garden; the roots simply will not propagate, requiring instead some mysterious combination of fire and soil and sunlight and chemicals, and, I suspect, some lock-and-key combination of a rhythm and pace that can be delivered only by the wild, only by the mountains themselves; and even in the mountains, there are years when the berries do not appear—lean years, with the berries’ absence seemingly unconnected to any factors able to be observed by us—irrespective of basic patterns of temperature or rainfall.
Again and again, I am reminded that the wild, like the human spirit, cannot be managed or reproduced, it can only be recognized, protected, and honored. And that it can be tasted, even if in a single berry, if not measured and known, at any moment and in even the smallest amounts. I still have no answers to why, but can see it, and taste it, everywhere.
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