“Gone by” is a term most Mainers understand even though few outsiders get the gist of what it means. Gone by generally signifies the notable passing of a significant natural event. “The daffodils have gone by,” or, “The strawberries have gone by.” The slow transition from bounteous to gone by is taken as a measure of time and progress, and many folks practically set their clocks to the endless procession of natural events that occur over the living year.
All it takes is a quick glance at the freezer or canning rack to gauge the progress of what’s in season and what’s gone by. In early spring the focus is on fiddleheads, which can be gleaned by the truckload for a short period in April and May before the ferns mature and the crop has gone by. Certain species of mushrooms are next, followed by wild strawberries (and the bigger, juicier tame varieties). I find that wild strawberries are smaller, more delicate and rather mushy compared to the ones I grow in my raised beds, but come winter I find myself digging through the freezer hoping to find one more bag of wild berries to put in my pancake batter. That’s when the wild strawberries are infinitely sweeter – when snow covers the ground and cold winds rattle the window panes.
This year has been an interesting one because no sooner had my backyard strawberry patch quit producing than the wild blueberries started to reach their peak. I have both high- and low-bush blueberries growing close to the house and I make it a point to pick four quarts of each in order to provide enough muffins and pancakes to last through the winter. For some reason this year the low-bush variety was most productive, with even the tiniest of sprigs carrying clusters of fat, bright blue berries. For the first time in years I was able to glean my quota of four quarts while picking in sight of my back porch, and because I had enough to go me I didn’t even wander over the hill or up on the ridge for more. I found a spot where a bear had been in to feed on the berry bounty and decided that I did not need to take them all. The cedar waxwings, turkeys and other critters deserve their share as well!
The high-bush variety didn’t seem to produce as well; in fact I only found berries on the sunny side of the bushes. The shady sides were barren, even in cases where the only shade came from the bush itself. It seems that every year the high-bush blueberries exhibit some kind of growth quirk that defies rhyme or reason, but because my only goal is to pick my allotment of fruit I glean what I can and move on. This year the low-bush plants were the top producers. Too bad they are just ankle high and require several stretch breaks to conquer. Back in my farming days I could hunch over a crop of tobacco, potatoes or green beans all day and not even notice, but those days are decades behind me. Now it’s pick a pint and stretch, pick a pint and stretch. By the time I get to the final quart I’m doing more stretching than picking but, in the end, the job still gets done. In that respect I’m more than happy to report that the wild blueberries in my area have gone by!
Almost within days of the passing of the blueberry crop the raspberries and blackberries come into season. I’m fortunate in that I have access to both wild and cultivated varieties and, because I only require a few pints of each I’m not a threat to those who want to fill their freezers and canning jars. A sprinkling of fruit in the batter provides enough color and flavor for me, and if I’m frugal with my frozen stash I can get through till next spring with some left over.
It seems that nearly the instant the raspberries have gone by the early-ripening tree fruits start to become available. I’m no orchardist but I have just enough apple, pear and plum trees to keep me well stocked for winter and I purposely planted a few early varieties so I can start picking and preserving as early as August. Later, the standard fall varieties will be ready to pick. I have harvested Russet apples as late as Thanksgiving, but not long after that the entire Maine fruit season, wild or civilized, will have gone by.
Like most folks I pick with an eye toward stocking up for winter but I must admit that I also eat my share while I pick. I find it hard to resist fresh, ripe fruit right off the vine, and in fact don’t even bother trying to resist unless the crop is a poor one and there’s not enough excess to justify such thievery. Wild plants, from which I derive most of my winter preserves, are not always as productive as are the cultivated varieties, and in fact the fruits are usually smaller even in a good year. Also, the wild fruits only last a few days or weeks at their peak, while the farmed plants often continue to produce for much longer. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason and method for making fruiting plants produce more product more often but I’m content to just be there when it happens, bucket in hand.
Thankfully, Maine’s wild provender comes and goes at a leisurely pace so there’s always time to pick what you need even if you are not retired and have plenty of time to be on hand for whatever’s next and most abundant. Two or three hours should be time enough to stock the freezer and still enjoy a few stolen handfuls as your reward for doing so.
Come the end of summer and the freezer’s full of hand-picked wild food, it’s common for Mainers to utter another word that most outsiders don’t understand: “Wicked!”