While I do not know what form this will take, I am embarking on a biographical research project. The subject is Elizabeth Coleman White (d. 1954), an amateur botanist and serious farmer who brought the cultivated blueberry to New Jersey in the 1920s.
Why do we do the things we do? Why do we make the choices we make?
I’ve been thinking about those questions in the last month or two, after I made the commitment to myself to work on this and then started going public by testing the idea in conversations with friends as well as strangers.
No one assigned me to this subject. There is no writing contest of which I’m aware that has to do with blueberries or women farmers. I like blueberries, but I don’t grow them or even live near a patch of them.
I first got the idea to research Elizabeth White back in the summer of 2000, when I read a long article in the New York Times on New Jersey and its blueberries. In a 26-paragraph, three-recipe story, Elizabeth White appeared in a mere three sentences. Still, her story interested me enough that I saved that section of the newspaper. I dug it out several weeks ago, when I was sorting through some boxed clutter.
At the time, I was thinking that this might make a good subject for a children’s book, like Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian’s Snowflake Bentley. I even imagined a drawing of a woman, walking through fields in a white summer work dress that is stained indigo in places from squashed blueberries. In fact, I imagined that drawing so much that it started to seem like fact to me: a woman, rows and rows of blueberry bushes, hot sun, white dress, stains.
I read The Pine Barrens by John McPhee. That’s where blueberries and cranberries grow, in that 1,875 square mile swatch of New Jersey.
I tried and tried to find for my mother a facsimile of a recipe that was her mother’s, for a blueberry single-layer cake that’s topped with meringue. The recipe is lost. My mother made the cake all through my childhood, and we’d like to bake and eat it again.
My son Eli, like me, loves blueberries. Perhaps when I read the NYT article on the New Jersey berry nine years ago, I thought of Eli as a young reader and, immersed then in parenting young children, I considered writing a children’s book on blueberries as a way to connect the spheres of my life.
Last summer I made my friend Lee’s blueberry sour cream pie for the very first time; he posted the recipe after I asked him for it. Yes, it is delicious, as he promises.
When I was a very young child, there were wild blueberry bushes growing next to the stream behind our house. It seemed magical to walk across the grass, step over the stream, and eat something from the edge of the woods, something we didn’t plant, as though we foraged for treasure and found it. When I was an older child, the town’s department of public works laid corrugated pipe in the stream and covered it over, channeling all the water, which was run-off from the golf course and a local highway, into a swampy area in the woods. Although the swamp was still a desirable place to explore, those berry bushes disappeared.
It’s not just the blueberry aspect of Elizabeth White’s story that attracts me. She was born after the Civil War, into a newly industrialized United States to a family of well-to-do farmers. She went to Drexel University in the 1890s at a time when only 2% of all American women attended college. Although not a scientist, she collaborated with one, Frederick Coville, who was investigating the huckleberry.
She spent her whole adult life on one thing, or at least, that’s the story. Not being an obsessive personality, I’m fascinated by the obsessed. (Jimmy speculates that *I* will become obsessed by this project.)
I can visit her home. This research will no doubt involve archives. (I love archives.)
July is blueberry season. Currently you can buy them for 99 cents a pint at the market and eat as many as you want to.
No doubt there are many more reasons, some unconscious, for my interest in this subject.