Planet Alaska: Celebrating salmonberries

By Vivian Faith Prescott

For the Capital City Weekly

The bushes crack and branches bend toward my head. From behind me, Grandson Jackson says, “Look Mummo, there’s some big red ones.”

I peer through the thick green leaves as Grandson Jackson reaches for a salmonberry, picks it, and puts it in his Folgers coffee can hanging around his neck. We’re in the bushes where there is no trail, having worked our way in, using our body and arms to push aside the branches.

Today, we’re scouting the quality and quantity of this year’s salmonberry crop and we promised Grandpa Mickey we’d pick enough for a bowl of berries for each of us. “See,” I say to Jackson, “There’s lots in here. You can’t just pick on the edges.”

This photo shows a red salmonberry in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott/ For the Capital City Weekly)

This photo shows a red salmonberry in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott/ For the Capital City Weekly)

Many salmonberries are hidden from the direct sun, so if you’re relying on driving by or walking by looking for berries to pick, you can miss them. Go in the bushes and once in there, lift the leaves.

Blue sky and sunlight shine through the green leaf canopy above our heads and big orange salmonberries hang around me. This day we celebrate many things. I celebrate my first time out with Grandson Jackson in 15 months. He turned 12 years old this spring and he’s fully vaccinated now and so am I. I celebrate the science making this precious day possible. I celebrate the return to the berry bushes along with the return to my family after sheltering apart for so long.

Salmonberry bushes are shelters for smaller animals, and today this thicket beside the sea holds grandmother and grandson, a healing of mind and body and relationships. Salmonberry picking is good medicine, and salmonberry bark and leaves are also used in traditional medicines. Chewed up salmonberry leaves can be used on burns. And in winter, salmonberry bark can be pounded to a pulp and used on a sore tooth as a painkiller. Old remedies for labor pains, wounds, and burns, are made from boiling salmonberry bark in seawater. I celebrate the salmonberry’s medicinal qualities for lifting moods: It’s sunny out and I’m picking salmonberries with my grandson.

What I love about salmonberries is they’re persistent. Salmonberry bushes can heal themselves. If they’re damaged, they send roots out from the stems, burrowing into the soil in order to sprout other plants. They keep going. They thrive. I celebrate our determination with bushes and berries that are tolerant and tenacious and riparian, meaning their roots help prevent erosion. If salmonberry bushes near streams are cut down the dirt can slough off into the stream, and removing them can cause invasive plant species to take hold. What better way to restore a sense of well-being than scrape your arm on a salmonberry thorn, brush away a bumblebee, and plop a big juicy berry into your mouth.

Together, we move through the bushes. I’m making the way for Grandson Jackson, pointing out the bush full of berries next to him. He stops to pick and I move forward. Now there are only a few bushes separating us, not like the five miles of forever that separated us when we were sheltering and keeping our distance. I try not to think of what we went through and focus on what’s ahead, getting back to safe routines and traditions.

I find myself remembering the sentiment Grandson Jackson was fond of saying when he was a bit younger: This is the best day of my life. The phrase usually popped out when we were sitting on our deck at fishcamp in the sun, sipping iced tea and eating brownies and watching a humpback whale spout.

This composite image shows Jackson Pearson at ages 5 and 12. Pearson is eating salmonberries in both photos. (Vivian Faith Prescott/ For the Capital City Weekly)

This composite image shows Jackson Pearson at ages 5 and 12. Pearson is eating salmonberries in both photos. (Vivian Faith Prescott/ For the Capital City Weekly)

Together we ramble through this salmonberry world, climbing over an old mossy log and around several large boulders and deeper into the thicket. It’s like we’ve entered a different world. It’s dark and much cooler, and though it’s hot out today, we welcome the sun after all the rain we’ve had this spring. We celebrate the sun to ripen all these berries. Because of our mild spring, there’s still quite a few unripe berries. They’re green and hard. I encourage Jackson to eat one and he does. He makes a face.

“Yes, they’re tart,” I say. The taste brings me back to a dusty neighborhood road above town, and I’m there, a child unable to wait for salmonberries to ripen, eating them as I pulled my wagon along.

Now, decades forward, I celebrate this grandson who asked to go salmonberry picking with me. I also celebrate his parents who celebrate Grandson Jackson’s uniqueness, his kid-kind heart who donated money to save koalas from Australian wildfires, who loves pandas, who once wanted a mermaid doll for his birthday, who shares my interest in the didgeridoo and the noisy otamatone synthesizer and the ukulele. I celebrate all this diversity and love because biodiversity is essential to our survival.

I hold a bright berry up to the sunlight. It’s an orange-red berry, which I sometimes find. Salmonberry bushes are monoecious, possessing both male and female reproductive organs on the same plant and are capable of reproducing both sexually and asexually. Nature is creative. And nature embraces the unique aging person that I am helping prune these salmonberry bushes and the young man making his way in the world. The world Grandson Jackson is growing into is more accepting of diversity than the one I grew up in, though there’s still a long way to go. “ Goahead and eat a few berries,” I tell him.

We need our salmonberry strength, plus it’s our first berry picking outing so we’re allowed to treat ourselves.

This photo shows salmonberries in milk and sugar. (Vivian Faith Prescott/ For the Capital City Weekly)

This photo shows salmonberries in milk and sugar. (Vivian Faith Prescott/ For the Capital City Weekly)

As we walk through the bushes and fill our buckets we talk of the Oculus he bought with his birthday money, and we talk of flying self-driving cars, drones, underwater cities and gaming. After we’ve picked this patch we move alongside the road to another patch and another, until the sun is too hot and we’re tired. We get into my car — named Salmonberry—and drive down the road to a blueberry patch. We’ve decided to pick a handful of blueberries to eat with the salmonberries because we know Grandpa Mickey will like that.

Back home at fishcamp, we sit together around a small round table, three generations, as different as a salmonberry is to a salmon egg. We celebrate our elder, Grandpa Mickey, sitting with his heart monitor on; he couldn’t go berry picking with us this time. And we celebrate filling my cedar basket and celebrate the sunlight sparkling on the high tide next to our seawall. We celebrate leaves and sticks strewn in our hair and our bowls full of orange and red berries sprinkled with sugar and floating in milk.

Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.

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