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Blue bounty

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We first planted our sprawling blueberry patch more than two decades ago when we were thinking about having kids. In just a few blinks of an eye, the kids were born, learned to talk and learned to walk. And, all along, they loved their mother's blueberry pie. They grew up, went off to college and left the orchard. Now the owner of an empty nest, I wondered a bit this year if I could get into the blueberry harvest, or would it simply be a stiff reminder of where the kids aren't now? But that's not the deal one makes with nature: When the fruits are ready, you have to pick them.

Each morning, I'm working on my first quart before 7:30. The scene is a three-ring circus. One dog climbs an apple tree to roust a Granny Smith, while another camps at my feet, chowing on the berries shaken loose. If we're out there long enough, even the cats join, circling with quizzical expressions.

Birds in the surrounding trees greet each arrival with squawks of displeasure. Greediness, I say. The blueberry bushes, like the kids, have gotten big now—up to nine feet tall, with sturdy, sage gray-brown trunks an inch and a half thick. The wrens and chickadees will find plenty that's out of my reach, in spite of my trusty, rusty stepladder.

After nearly a quarter of a century, this patch has become a bit of a forest. In most places, individual plants have grown together with their neighbors. Blueberry bushes have shallow roots and tenacious propagators, sending out runners in all directions. It's all about reaching for the sun, finding the moisture. Our orchard runs east to west, and the blueberry patch has evolved in the same pattern, elbowing slower-growing apple, cherry and pear trees. I never prune the free-range fruit.

So as the morning dew tickles my toes, I reach into the bushes. I love tucking under a canopy of blueberry boughs with my back toward the sun. The surrounding branches are so many shades of green, and the tiny blue marbles hang all around, as if ready to drip into my bucket. One by one, kerplink, kerplunk: There's a real rhythm to picking, with the left hand, right hand, thumb and fingertips working in concert. Each year, I forget the fun of that harvesting motion.

The evening scene is optional and much more mellow. Locusts serenade the orchard. After a hot afternoon, the berry bushes sag. Dawn's pink berries have already turned a deep, dark blue. This last week the sun has been setting so far north, I consider which trees we'll have to remove come winter.

For now, though, we're rolling through the varieties, with different Rabbiteye species ripening every two weeks. Some are loose, bushy and tall, while some are dense, tight thickets. All offer some spin on that sweet blue bounty. If we get regular rain, we'll have fresh berries through August. The first wave always seems the sweetest, though. The kids might be gone, but we continue to negotiate the futures of our fruit: These are for the freezer, but these are for the pies.

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