Huckleberry hunting

Food for Thought

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"That is a great smell," I slowly and deliberately whisper to my wife while deeply engulfing my first whiff of huckleberry as we hike to our secret huckleberry garden. I'm not sure why I whisper. As most huckleberry pickers know, the safe and sane method of huckleberry picking is to make as much noise possible to alert the potential bear searching for the same delicious berry I crave. I suppose and consciously understand that my granddaughter's, amazed and loudly expressive of every bug, flower and scat on the trail leading to my secret huckleberry sanctuary will scare any creature from within a mile of our hike.

Speaking of bears, evidence of Americanus is everywhere. Bark ripped from stumps, huckleberry plants torn from the ground and large piles of stinky poop are evidence a bear is near. Our family begins to pick the berries while making enough noise to scare any creature that might think our berries are worth fighting for.

Rory, my 6-year-old granddaughter, stands on a thimbleberry bush, looks into the forested valley, smells the air deeply and declares, "Grandpa, did you fart?" I giggle and smile, "No Rory, look down." Her gaze turns toward her feet as she quickly jumps backward with a look of disgust on her face. "Yuck, that's gross," she yells as she shakes the poop from her right Nike. "It's not gross, it's life," I offer. As the famously insightful children's book by Taro Gomi declares, "Everybody Poops," even bears. Now things get interesting.

Rory is intrigued. "A bear stood right here," she asks with the wide-eyed excitement of a child learning and exploring her world. "Yes Rory, right where you are standing now," I answer as her inquisitiveness, excitement, spirit and fear begin to heighten. "Gramps, do you think it is a nice bear or a mean bear?" I struggle to find an answer to explain a bear's personality. "Bears are neither nice nor mean, their personality is to survive - not just live but survive. Sometimes they need to be aggressive and act mean to survive."

After minutes of thought Rory offers, "So, bears are mean if you take away what they need to survive, like these huckleberries, and are nice if we leave what they need to live, right?" Surprised at my granddaughter's insightfulness, I offer, "Exactly."

Rory sprinkles a few berries on the ground and interrupts my picking, "OK gramps, I left some berries for the bears. They should be happy now." I accept her gift to the bears of North Idaho and continue to fill my bucket. It's a good day!

This day of lifelong memory would have never happened if not for our traditional late July journey to hunt berries. Family tradition creates memories and meaning.

Tradition is psychologically necessary for a purposeful life. First, Idaho is huckleberry country. Hunting for huckleberries, preparing huckleberry jam, huckleberry pancake festivals and enjoying this wonderful wild mountain fruit, as a family is as traditional in North Idaho as the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. Creating positive family traditions creates psychologically healthy families.

To establish biological, psychological and philosophical roots in this fast-paced world one must reconnect with the Earth. Walking mountain dirt roads with children, dogs, the people we love and people we wish to love, creates lifelong traditions and memories seldom forgotten.

Picking huckleberries with my family is not just filling a bucket with berries but delivers a punch of mental wellness - I regain my roots. The insightful discussions of life without the corrupt and insidious disruption of a cell phone, watching a child explore her world by examining beetles, smelling wild flowers and listening to the wind blow through pine trees grounds a person. People often lecture - you work too much, you're too busy and don't you ever relax? A small break in the backcountry of North Idaho revives my internal vigor and revitalizing me for a week of work.

What is tradition? Families, friends, countries and communities create events bringing people together. Bringing people together for a common experience exemplifies tradition. Christmas, Thanksgiving, hunting season, Fourth of July, birthdays and our yearly huckleberry-picking trip all create tradition, supporting family, the sense of belonging, milestones in people's lives and togetherness.

Tradition is important for family health. How does one change negative memories of past tradition? By creating new traditions. Christmas does not have to coincide with going deeply into debt to fulfill the traditional overabundant gift-giving American tradition of overconsumption. Christmas can simply mean celebrating the true meaning of the season and include a hike in the snowy mountains with family and friends. Changing past history and negative experiences to positive, present and future memories creates positive family tradition - your tradition.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please email him at

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