| I speak here not of the Himalayan blackberries, an invasive
that come August rewards us with succulent fruit for the space it
devours. No, here I am talking about the wild, native berries just
now gleaming in the forests and river valleys, the food that has helped
sustained the native people and wildlife of this place for as long
as there have been summers in Puget Sound.
On a recent hike in the Elwha Valley my progress was seriously
slowed, not by tough terrain, but by the seduction of berries. Salmonberries,
soft, juicy, gorgeous, in every shade of yellow, orange and deep
red. Wet with rain, cool, refreshing, oh there is no more Olympic
valley taste than a salmonberry savored on the trail. And then there
were the wild strawberries, tiny, vivid, sharply fragrant.
Not for nothing are the Swainson's thrush, the bird with its
haunting, upward arpeggio, singing away now, too. Their song and
the ripening of salmonberries are coincident, and salmonberries
are an important food source for these birds, whose song is a signature
of the Puget lowland forest in summer, particularly as evening comes
To be in a Puget Sound river valley and hear water and Swainson's
while plucking a perfectly ripe salmonberry shining with rain --
that's knowing all is right with at least a tiny part of the world.
That, and walking up the trail, grazing the backs of your hands
on the tall, wet sword ferns, to soothe a long hike's nettle stings...
Now that's a Puget lowland forest experience to me.
Here's a sampling of what awaits you on the trail -- all the
berries are late this year, but they are delicious right now.
salmonberries beckon on the trail by the Elwha River.
(Lynda Mapes photo)
Sally Brownfield, a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe, grew
up picking berries on her family's land in Kamilche, Mason County.
For Coast Salish tribes, berries are an important food source, but
also a cultural touchstone.
The gathering is as importance as the eating, Brownfield said.
"I have been picking blackberries ever since I was little with
my Mom, and we got told all the family history when we went out
picking. My mom had eight kids, and when my mom was a young lady,
they didn't have freezers, they had to pick enough to have 100 quarts
before they could have a pie, to make sure they had food for the
winter. When you were out picking blackberries you did not eat them
in the field, we got up really early in the morning just as it was
daylight, and you learned a lot of discipline."
And she isn't talking about the big, non-native Himalayan blackberries,
but the tiny, succulent, trailing blackberry, Washington's only
Busy as she is today as education director for her tribe, Brownfield
said she still makes time to pick. "The trailing blackberries
are ripening now, it is time to pick, they are calling me,"
Brownfield was kind enough to dig in her personal photo albums
to share pictures of berries in traditional baskets she showed me
when we first met years ago, when I began covering tribes for the
newspaper. Her pictures, to me, show the love and care that goes
into finding, picking, and sharing traditional foods.
Brownfield's berry harvest, in hand made baskets. That's Brownfield
picking, photo in center at bottom. The basket with red huckleberries
is made of cedar bark in the early 2000s.
(courtesy of Sally Brownfield)
Brownfield remembered during the Columbus Day storm it was the
family's store of blackberries they lived on when fallen trees sealed
off any road access to their home. "We couldn't get to town
for over a week, and we lived on those berries. We made pies and
When her mother passed away, Brownfield said she knew just what
she had to do. "My tribute to her was to make enough blackberry
pies to make sure all the people that came had blackberry pie. That
was the thing that meant the most to me." She made 13.
While they are a wild crop, traditionally, tribal people managed
their berry picking areas, Brownfield said. "The people would
burn the areas, so it wouldn't be overgrown, and the soil would
be rich and the berries would come back in the same place."
the most driven hiker must pause for such pleasure on the
trail. Lush, fragile, delicious, ripe salmonberries must be
enjoyed on the spot, in the moment.
(Lynda Mapes photo)
Today access is the big issue. As timberlands are gated off
or forestland is converted to development, traditional gathering
areas are being lost, Brownfield said. "You remember the past
times you had there with your family, you know what birds should
be there, and the sounds the different animals are making, you learn
those things when you are out there, in the quiet."
The gathering of first foods, as traditional foods are also
called, is more important than ever as the link between diet and
diabetes has come to be better understood. Sally said she is planning
to teach tribal youth about the use of salal berries, naturally
high in pectin, as a low-sugar alternative for jams.
She said novice gatherers should be careful about what they
pick, but there is one sure guide to which berries are tasty and
good: "You watch the birds, and if they don't eat them, you
Too soft to be dried or stored, salmonberries usually are eaten
fresh, right out of hand.
Salmonberries often are found in wet places. Along the Elwha
River, I encountered them in profusion this year. Perhaps a gift
of all our moisture? Even from a distance, they gleamed in the gloaming
of the deep forest.
can be many colors. Even the yellow ones are ripe.
(Lynda Mapes photo)
To me the twin artistry of basket weaving and gathering are
beautifully captured in these photos, taken by Brownfield, of family
heirloom baskets, holding freshly-gathered berries:
Brownfield writes: "The large basket (1920's) with the
blue elderberries was my great Aunt's (1880's-1972). It's a lunch
basket I used when my kids were small for picnics but it works great
for the blue elderberries. The smaller basket with handle holding
wild trailing blackberries was made by Theresa Nason ( Squaxin Island,
1980's). Both of these are made of cattail and raffia."