On Wildness, Saskatoon Berries and Prairie Identity

Photo - Kay Niedermeyer

Photo – Kay Niedermeyer

This summer, in an effort to “permaculture-out” my mom’s yard and build a fruit forest at the back of her property, we planted saskatoon bushes. This is really neat for many reasons – not only does it pays homage to the prairies surrounding her home, but it also provides her with one of her favorite foods right from her backyard. Which got me to thinking…

When I was growing up, every spring was marked by a very special ritual. My Opa and I would drive out along back country roads, surveying the landscape as we went. We would pull over when we found what we were looking for, carefully climb through the barbed wire fence that enclosed the field, separating it from the road. Even when there was a ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign, Opa would just laugh and say “I’ve picked berries here for years, no sign or fence will change that. It’s fine.” Armed with ice cream buckets tied around our waist with a belt, we’d start to pick.

The bushes were so much taller than me, and since I was tiny and young, I would always climb into the middle of the bush to get the fruit hanging underneath, while my Opa would pick the ones out of my reach. Inevitably, at the end of the day we would be scratched up all over, but our prize was worth it: buckets and buckets of delicious saskatoon berries.

We’d take the berries home and give some to my Oma for making pies and jam. Some would go to my mom who would make syrup for pancakes. Many we would just eat fresh, and we’d freeze the rest so we’d have berries all year long.

If you’ve never been to the Canadian prairies, you might have never tasted this delicious berry (you can almost never find them in supermarkets) but for any kid who grew up around these parts, the saskatoon berry is an integral part of our sense of home. 

Often, we don’t even realize this until wanderlust starts leading us to different parts of the world, and we start to long for that distinct indescribable flavour – the taste of wildness and home embodied in a little berry.

The annual ritual of saskatoon berry picking was not exclusive to my Opa and I; rather, it’s been a part of many prairie folk’s lives. But its only been just recently that I realized what a political act of rebellion it was when we harvested these berries straight from the land.

Photo - Kay Niedermeyer

Photo – Kay Niedermeyer

The Privatization of a Wild Edible

Last summer when I got back home to the prairies, I was longing to feel connected to this place again. I asked my mom if we could go pick berries, like I used to do with my Opa and like my mom always did with her mother.

We went down all the same dusty roads, but we couldn’t find any saskatoon bushes. Instead, we were met with prairie expanses and no trespassing signs that somehow seemed more daunting now than they did before – a fence after all, can only keep those in or out who are willing to comply with its symbolic power.

We looked all day, and then we drove past a sign for a berry farm. It was the first time I had ever been to a ‘u-pick’, and while we still left with the loads of berries that we craved, the experience certainly didn’t fill my desire to be connected to this land and my memories here.

The berry shrubs were small and close to the ground. They grew in straight rows. A man even helpfully guided us to the row that had the largest amount of fruit hanging from them. And when we had our buckets of berries, we went to the counter and paid for them.

It’s crazy to think how this wild prairie staple has essentially become privatized within my living memory. Saskatoon berries weren’t even planted commercially in orchards until about 20 years ago. Now, between orchards and u-picks, their production could even be considered an industry here in the prairies.

I was surprised when I learned just last year, from a wise horticulturalist pal, that saskatoon berries grow all over her city in Ontario, but most people think that they are an inedible ornamental berry and avoid eating them. It’s funny to me to learn that a friend of mine living so far away from the prairies has easy access to so many urban berries, while people in the prairies pay to go to ‘u-pick’ farms.

Photo - Kay Niedermeyer

Photo – Kay Niedermeyer

Resisting the Enclosure of the Canadian Prairies

This industrialization of saskatoon berries is actually part of an enclosure of the prairies that started long ago, and also I think, part of a neoliberal erasure of the prairie folk identity and sense of prairie community. I guess it’s nice that these berries are available in ‘u-picks’ and orchards; in some ways, this makes them more accessible to people. But idea that they are becoming harder to pick in the wild means that our relationship with this berry is shifting very rapidly.

These berries were a common good in the prairies since before European settlers even occupied this land. The misâskwatômina (saskatoon berry) was an important part of the indigenous Cree culture and diets. It says a lot that the connection to this wild berry lasted even through colonization and the violent carving up of the land that created the quilt work patches of field that we recognize as the prairies today.

Even after the land became privately owned, these berries seemed to transcend private property land titles, even if it was unofficially so.

And so, planting Saskatoon berries in my mom’s backyard is actually a significant act of resisting capitalism and going back to our prairie roots. Really, growing any kind of food is an act of resistance, because when you become less dependent on the industrial food system can you start reconnecting with the land and what she provides. 

For us, nurturing these saskatoon bushes is also a way of remembering the history of our land, including the people and plants that have existed here for ages.

-Kay Niedermeyer

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