Study No. 156 

The Berry Fields of Gresham

The sun was not yet up, but its light was breaking over the eastern horizon. The dew was thick, and the air was cold this June morning. A ten-year-old boy walked hurriedly, with purpose and spring in his step. He arrived at the strawberry field, grabbed a couple of empty crates, located his row where he had stopped the day before, and found his marker, a furrow in the dirt, that he had made to indicate where he had left off. He dropped to his knees, placed his hands into the cold bushes, and began picking strawberries in earnest.

As the sun rose, other pickers came, and eventually the boss came with his scale and truck to load full crates of strawberries. It was the second or third picking, the "peak," when the berries were loaded and you could pick a crate in a distance of ten or twenty feet. He had it down to a science. His goal this day was to pick a crate every thirty or forty minutes. He would fill two crates, then stagger with the weight of thirty pounds of strawberries to the scale. The boss would weigh the berries, punch his ticket, and then the boy took two more crates and ran back to repeat the process.

About noon, the boy ate a quick lunch, and rushed back to his picking until the heat of the afternoon became unbearable. Then he walked back home, took a bath, and rested on a recliner. Usually, his legs ached and he put a hot water bottle under his knees to ease the pain. His hands became gnarled and cut from the strawberry leaves.

The summer continued in July with red raspberries and black raspberries (called "black caps"), and in August and September with blackberries. The "himalaya" variety of blackberries were deep black and sweet, but the thorns on the many vines made picking them a delicate task of finesse to avoid being grabbed by a vine in the back or shoulder. It was easy for one to become crabby after a day of being irritated by these sticky vines. But berry picking enabled the boy to make money to buy school clothes, a new bicycle, and save for college. What a wonderful character-building experience he had in the berry fields of Gresham, Oregon.

As I recall those idyllic days, I am sad that my children cannot repeat the school of learning that I went through in the berry fields of Gresham. Those days are largely gone, in this present world.

A personís character, or lack of it, is often shown in the berry field. Some young people had to be closely supervised by their parents, and continually nagged at to quit throwing berries, to get back to work, to stop running through the bushes and stepping on berries, etc. Some deliberately concealed rocks and dirt with their berries to earn more money from the extra weight. Can you imagine how the berry grower felt when he saw his slim profits destroyed by such people?

I have never met a berry farmer I did not like. There was old Cipriano, an Italian with a deep heart but a gruff appearance. He would curse and shoot the robins for stealing his strawberries. But when I was only five years old and picked enough berries in one day to earn a whole dollar, he praised me greatly for earning a "dallah." My favorite berry farmer was a filipino whose real name was V.V. Pandit. I donít remember what the "V.V." stood for, but I couldnít pronounce it anyway. In my childish substitution, I called him "Benny," and the name stuck. His wide smile revealed white teeth on his dark face. I remember one day, when as usual, I put my lunch at the end of my row. When noon came, to my chagrin, someone had stolen my sack lunch. Benny said that because I was such a good worker, he would buy me lunch. That hamburger and milkshake was the best tasting feast I ever had. Another farmer was Oscar Brue, who kept his berry patch going years after it had stopped making him any profit. He loved berries and loved the people who came to pick in his patch. Mr. Brue had great skill in pruning raspberries and blackberries to enhance their growth and productivity. But the city was encroaching on the berry patch, and taxes and restrictions were putting a crimp on the economics of raising berries.

Like a growing cancer, the city of Portland crept the twelve miles to Gresham. Once the self-proclaimed "berry capital of the world," Gresham gradually became just another suburb. Its population has multiplied many times, and is now over 73,000. First, they cut a road extension right through the middle of the acres of lush soil where the berry patches were. Then the farmers, one by one, sold out to developers who built houses and roads, and even a shopping center, over the ground that had once had been my field of dreams, my school of character, which taught me the value of an honest day of hard work. There are few if any berry patches left in Gresham. Some berry fields exist further east toward the Cascade Mountains, in Sandy, Oregon, where the soil is not nearly as good as the thick, rich dark soil of Gresham.

This process is being repeated in thousands of places in America, and around the world. A recent news report said that in the United States, one million acres of farmland are being lost to development each year. The Wall Street Journal of August 30, 1994, said that currently there are 125 cities in the world with a population of over a million. By the year 2000, there will be 300 cities with over a million population, including eight cities with over 15 million people each. In Latin America, the population has increasingly become urbanized. In 1950, 42% of Latin America lived in cities, while in 1994, 73% of the population was urban.

As world citizens, we have lost touch with the soil. Believe me, you cannot get any closer to the soil than when you are picking strawberries in the rain. When others rushed for cover, I would try to stick it out to make my daily self-imposed quota, sometimes getting stuck in the mire. Years later, when I was in my twenties, I went back for a day of picking, and realized that I had grown much taller, and the bushes were much further down. To stoop over to pick gave me an aching back, but to crouch down gave me a leg cramp. I moaned for days afterward. I shook my head, not comprehending how I did such hard work when I was so young.

Too much of the best land of the world is being developed, while the farmland that is left is being raped and pillaged instead of tenderly cared for. Sooner or later this mass destruction has to stop, or we are all dead. In this society, we cannot seem to return to those "good old days," which were indeed much better in many ways than today. Since my childhood, I have grown up and moved away from those berry fields of Gresham, but they shaped my temperament in many ways.

The State of Oregon has since made laws restricting and even forbidding children under age fifteen from working in the berry fields. I worked in the berry fields, alone, when I was ten years old and it did not do me any harm! The few berry farmers who remain have switched to migrant Mexican laborers, and where possible, now use machines to harvest berries which taste like cardboard instead of the juicy delicious ones that I would sometimes sample during a day of picking. Back then, you could brush off the dirt and eat them right in the patch. But when farmers started using chemical sprays, pickers were warned that they could be seriously harmed from eating unwashed berries in the patch. This is "progress?" I never had to compete against a Mexican worker to see who was the fastest picker. I would have given it my best shot, because I did not like to be second to anyone. But there was only one berry picker I will freely admit was faster than myself ó my mother! She taught me to work, and set the best example of anybody I know.

Ah, those berry fields of Gresham, how I long to return to them now! At the beginning of the season, you could smell the lush ripe berries. After the season was underway, and you picked berries every day, your senses were dulled and you could not appreciate what the one-time observer could sense. Some day, I believe, the taste and smell, and the reality, of those times shall return. I think of the several generations of children which have been raised in houses built over the berry fields. They have summers of wasteful boredom, of getting into trouble because they have nothing to do, when I experienced the challenge of hard work. They sleep until noon, when back then I hit the deck running at 4:30 A.M. The cool of the morning was the best time of all, when a chorus of birds announced the coming sunrise. That sunrise is what keeps me going. For some day, I am entirely convinced, there will be a new day for the culture and civilization of this world. And, that new dawn will be far better than my reminisces of those long-gone days in the berry fields of Gresham.