The end of July and the beginning of August always reminds me of berry picking time, blackberries that is. Until the extinction of rotary phones this part of the year meant the telephone at the Macdonald ranch would seemingly ring every few minutes with requests to come and pick blackberries.
My paternal grandparents had the foresight to plant a domesticated variety of blackberry along the banks of our part of the Albion River. Those vines and feral blackberries as well benefited from lateral seepage from the river that kept the bottom lands here irrigated more or less year round. My father planted and tended vegetable gardens just north of the wall of berry vines, again without watering.
In the 1990s the Albion River started to diminish. The year round flow and the level of the river dropped steadily until by the end of that decade and century on through to now, except in prolonged winter storm periods, the Albion River is barely more than a small stream and often dries to a non-flowing trickle in the summer months, even drying up some years where the fresh water stream meets salt water about a half mile west of where I reside. This low flow is not the result of logging practices, it's probably only mildly effected by global warming. Most of the decreased flow of the Albion is attributable to greater and greater usage near to its sources.
I digress from my original intent to discuss berry picking. My oldest sister has always been a very capable picker, meaning she didn't stuff too many in her own mouth before fetching a pail home, unlike our sister Muriel, whose face, in August, usually remained smeared with blackberry juice for weeks at a time.
Our father, Lorne Macdonald, was both a good blackberry and huckleberry plucker. The latter requires a different kind of dexterity, picking the huckleberries (some eastern 19th century transplants called them whortleberries) rapidly and at the same time so clean that it isn't necessary to sift out all the debris later.
My father excelled at this, but he remained a third place finisher compared to his maternal uncles Will and John Finley Robertson. In their retirement years when they resided just upstream from here in two separate cabin homes, these two men walked to Albion at least once a week, several miles each way, to collect their mail. In huckleberry season they stopped on the return trip on the prairie road near what is now the Littleriver Airport to fill three gallon pails each, clean enough to go right into a pie when they dropped them off for my mother at the ranch.
These two Robertsons learned their huckleberry picking as lads when they accompanied their father, John Robertson, on drives from Little Lake (next to Willits) to the coast. The senior John Robertson was a stockman who drove everything from oxen to turkeys over the coast hills to markets, hotels, logging operations, and the occasional turkey shoot. In their spare time, while camping along the way of the drive, John Finley and Will perfected their berry picking techniques.
When my father and his younger brother, Forrest, were boys in the 1910s and 1920s, huckleberry picking augmented the family income. Their pickings were packed in handmade redwood boxes that they had cut and split themselves. The berries were shipped from Albion to Levy & Zettner Co. at 200 Washington Street in San Francisco. At the height of a great drought in the early 1920s a small crate of blackberries cost $5.00 in the City.
Uncle Forrest's berry picking ventures crossed over into his social surroundings. He grew so fond of talking in the vernacular of a certain Mark Twain character that many of his school chums called him “Huckleberry.”