When I was young, I had the privilege of growing up on 13 acres of secondary-growth forest in central Maine, between Farmington and Augusta. Our land had a stream and frog pond, a field full of wild strawberries, a thicket of blackberries, an apple tree whose fruit was always harder and tarter than we hoped, a Concord grape vine, and a high bush blueberry planted along the split rail fence separating us from the road.
From April until October, we could roam at will, picking fiddleheads and fruit, imagining that we were sustaining ourselves from the land.
Imagine my delight, then, when after a few years in our home on North Haven, many of the same foraging opportunities presented themselves in our yard.
The next spring, I noticed a small serviceberry tree growing alongside our compost box…
We have a few patches of strawberries, a raspberry thicket that I tolerate because every few years it produces enough berries for jam, two blackberry bushes, and most excitingly, a Sasketchewan serviceberry tree.
I had never heard of serviceberry (also known as shadbush, Saskatoonberry, and Juneberry) until two summers ago, when a friend pointed out an absolutely loaded tree at Birch Point State Park. Her two young daughters kindly picked handfuls of them for us.
The next spring, I noticed a small serviceberry tree growing alongside our compost box, easily identifiable by its narrow-petaled white flowers. I kept an eager eye out for fruit, but sadly, caterpillars got in early.
This year, the caterpillars didn’t get in the way of the little serviceberry tree becoming fully decked out in fruit. Penrose and I picked and ate a few before we left for the West Coast, and I regretted leaving the tree before most of the berries had turned from green to red to purple.
When we returned, I was delighted to find that the tree was still ripening in stages. We went out the next day with a small bowl to see what we could harvest. We grabbed a few from the lower-hanging branches, but quickly realized that the majority were above our heads.
I decided to make a bold move and climbed on top of the cedar compost box. This had the potential for disaster, as I wasn’t sure the aging planks could hold a densely compact 40-year-old, but I cautiously hoisted myself atop the box, kneeling and then standing to reach the higher branches.
Serviceberries resemble blueberries in a way, small and round with a pucker at one end. In flavor, they’re plummy and surprisingly complex. They’re tasty when they’re a deep mauve, and absolutely heavenly when they fully ripen and turn deep purple. I picked until I couldn’t see any more ripe berries, then just as cautiously heaved myself down.
Pen and I took turns eating berries from the bowl, supplementing our harvest with a few early raspberries. We went back to the tree several times in July, each trip yielding just enough for a delicious snack, with raspberries and blueberries added to the mix as they ripened.
Watching Penrose scour the yard for tasty treats, I couldn’t believe my luck—that she should enjoy the same privilege I had as a child.
Privilege carries with it other connotations, though, and the willingness of the land to offer us sweetness on a summer day—and other wild foods from dandelions to chanterelles—reminds me that North Haven has sustained people for much longer than its habitation by white settlers in the 1770s. The fact that I’m here to enjoy found fruit is inextricably bound to the fact that the original inhabitants and their descendants aren’t. My beautiful yard, which sustains my senses and feeds me on warm summer days, is part of unceded Penobscot land.
Ending the column like this doesn’t feel like a conclusion, because it isn’t. Land acknowledgments are a beginning, just the part of the story where we admit that the fields and hedges and gardens and fruit trees are beautiful and beloved, but not ours.
Courtney Naliboff teaches music, theater, and writing at the North Haven Community School and lives on the island with her husband and daughter.