REVIEW by Seth Rosenbaum
The Blueberry Years
by Jim Minick
Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover: 352 pages, ISBN: 978-0312571429
When were you forced (probably) to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden for the first time? Middle or high school? The lesson plan sounded like this: man leaves society, goes into the woods, lives a self-sufficient life in a cabin made with his own hands, gains insight into the nature of the "civilized" world, then returns one day to Concord, Massachusetts to write one of the most famous and enduring works in American letters. If you came back to Walden on your own volition, you found that the initial school-story was more or less true, but what made you want to read, and reread Walden, was not the clear, self-inflicted separation, but the myriad points of contact and communion Thoreau found with society while he was supposed to be isolated from its center. Thoreau "lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor," but he spent plenty of time during his 26 month "sojourn into the wilderness" hanging out in the center of Concord, catching up on gossip and local news. Thoreau chose to live differently, but he was no misanthrope and he never swore off his roots. He simply, and elegantly, found a way to see those roots differently.
It is Thoreau’s uncanny ability to create distance and intimacy with both society and self that makes him the ideal muse for Jim Minick’s The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family. Besides Jim and Sarah Minick, it is Thoreau who presides over the Minick blueberry root and bush adventure—their decision to leave suburban Maryland, and the financial security of two full-time salaries in education, in order to plant 1000 blueberry bushes, with the ultimate goal of living off the profits of their farm. Set amid 66 chapters of narrative are numerous "Blue Interludes," as Minick calls them, in which the author explains, economically and coherently, aspects of the science, history, and aesthetics of blueberry cultivation. Minick writes,
[s]ure it’s blue, blue-jean blue, bluebird blue, deep blue of these blue mountains. And if untouched, it should also have a veil of white, a cloud cover over this ocean globe... Before all of this, before the purple and blue and green, a blueberry really is white. And this white really is a bell, the bell of a blossom that rings and rings the invisible din of scent, all of it pealing the blue sky with waves of sweetness, all of it music to a bumblebee’s ears.Minick grew up around blueberry bushes, but Minick, and the reader, are learning about shades of "blue" as each chapter in this adventure progresses.
What makes The Blueberry Years thoroughly Thoreauvian is Minick’s ability to see, and more importantly convey, his world through the minutiae of his experiences as a blueberry farmer. If you’re a blueberry fanatic, this book might disappoint—it’s more memoir than farmer’s almanac. While there is plenty of joy and sweet accomplishment in The Blueberry Years, Minick is at his best when he reflects on the darker stains of blues—the recurring themes of loneliness, religious uncertainty, the search for community. He is both a responsible farmer and global citizen, totally organic, unlike his exceedingly good natured, loveable, but DDT spraying neighbor, Joe. Minick is concerned about harming the land, and the world, and this concern ramifies as the memoir proceeds. But Minick is no saint, and the honesty with which he conveys his hot temper and acute awareness of the economics behind The Blueberry Years makes him a true, organic character, fit to match his farming technique.
The darkest stain of all is not blue, but black—melancholy. The dream diverted, given-up, the farm sold because of blight, economic failure, and the personal toll the labor had taken on Jim and has wife Sarah. Fear not, no spoiler alert necessary: the title and the table of contents make clear that the blueberry "years" are part of the past. The fruit of Minick’s labor—blue roots planted, tended, pruned, loved, and finally sold, wither and die quickly in the hands of a new, less conscientious owner, thus ending the book.
Minick refers to Thoreau more than twenty times in this book, and quotes him at some length. The most compelling conversation with Thoreau comes in the Blue Interlude, "Picking with HD":
Despite his curmudgeonly stuffiness, his convolutedly beautiful sentences, and his sometimes contradictory habits, Henry David Thoreau has shaped me and helped define how I live in this world... For HD shows me that berry picking is a holy act. He finds equal value in both the gathering and the eating. In Wild Fruits, he notes the "value of these wild fruits is not in the mere possession or eating of them, but in the sight and enjoyment of them" and also in the journey, the exploration. Everywhere he picks, from field to burnt-over forest, from swamp to mountaintop, he finds Nature "inviting us to picnic." And this fruit is her holy body that we "pluck and eat in remembrance of her."There are sound structural and ideological reasons behind Minick’s decision to pay homage to HD. Thoreau played a bit of a trick on his reader, condensing the story of Walden to read as if it had taken place in one calendar year. Minick acknowledges a similar act of compression, in "the service of art and good storytelling." It is a testament to Minick’s engaging writing that he literally brings his blueberry bushes to life and blossom in what reads like a very short journey. It is difficult to believe, when we put this book down, that twelve years have passed, and thousands of pounds of berries have been picked and consumed.
But the intellectual friend and spiritual guide Minick finds in Thoreau is what really makes The Blueberry Years worth reading. "For Thoreau, and for all pickers," Minick writes, "the holy acts of gathering and eating transform us, help us to know that we, too, sometimes can become gods..."—no small aspiration, or accomplishment. By conversing with a titan of the past, Minick finds his way through an uncertain present, and succeeds in bringing this reader, who lacks a green thumb, into the conversation. Like Thoreau, the Minicks forego comfortable surroundings to pursue a pastoral ideal. And, like Thoreau, they ultimately return and write a memoir, a minor Walden, the final fruit of their hard labor.August 11, 2011