Four years ago my good friend poet Kirk Judd and I journeyed to Tennessee to attend the SAWC (Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative) fall gathering. It was a glorious October weekend filled with opportunities for renewing creativity and making new friends. One of these is guest blogger, Jim Minick. Jim is an essayist, a poet, a teacher, and the author of The Blueberry Years, a memoir on blueberry farming and family. He and his wife, Sarah, currently live in Virginia. The topic here is near and dear to my heart, and Jim is an extraordinary friend. - PAH
By Jim Minick, author of The Blueberry Years
When I was working intensely on The Blueberry Years in the first six months of 2009, I developed a pattern for what became my ideal day. I wrote at the computer from roughly 9:00 to 3:00, with a break for lunch, and then I headed out on our farm to do something physical. In the winter, I took a mattock and chopped bushes of invasive, multiflora rose. In the summer, I took a hoe and chopped thistle, again, an invasive, non-native plant that, untended, can cover a pasture in a few years, leaving nothing for the cows to eat.
This balance of work, of mental with physical, of creating with “destroying,” all of it seemed to fine tune my whole being. Our bodies and minds were both created for action, both meant to be used, and only in our recent history have we become a nation of couch-veggies. Yet writing, while great for keeping the mind sharp, seldom physically exercises more than the quick, soft pushups of fingers on keypads.
So getting out every afternoon released that morning’s pent up physical energy. And nothing like the pleasure of killing a thorny rose to also work out a thorny problem in the prose. Usually, though, I found a certain inner blankness in the afternoon where I could focus just on finding the next thistle or stepping into the center of a massive rose bush to uproot it with a few swings of the mattock. Always I sweated, even in winter, and often I swore as the thorns tore skin or cloth. But also, always I stopped to rest, listen, watch, and listen some more—the physical world once more becoming more alive than the one in my head.
The blueberry, the “hero” of The Blueberry Years, also echoes this theme of balance. It was first domesticated 100 years ago by a man and woman working together. Frederick Coville brought his scientific understanding of the blueberry, while Elizabeth White brought her family’s land and her community. She recruited her neighbors, the “Pineys” around Whitesbog, New Jersey, to find wild, exceptional bushes and bring her samples. Then, in the dormant season, they ventured into the swamps to dig up these plants and bring them back to the growing nursery. Soon Coville and White had a huge project, and in six years time, they were able to sell the first domesticated crop of blueberries.
In our own blueberry field, we can see in a plant’s leaves if the soil is ‘out of balance’ and needs some amendment, like sulfur to lower the pH.
Or when we prune, we try to balance the number of new canes with the old. And here, when I forget about the day’s troubles, when I just focus on the plant and lose myself, I begin to find some inner balance as I imagine what each bush needs to become, begin to see what to cut and what to keep. What is and what could be. I work to bring some openness to the berry bush’s interior, and I try to imagine a space in its heart large enough for a sparrow to fly through. Balance on my haunches to snip a few canes and create that space, and then move to the next.