The highs and lows, trials and tribulations of a professional berry picker!

When I was probably 4 years old, my gramma lived on a mountain in a heavily wooded area about an hour from where I have my farm now.  This was in Elco, Pennsylvania, a very small and rural town. She lived with my grandfather and aunt and her kids and they lived rather primitively.  For at least a while when my father drove and deposited the trailer on the land they purchased, there was no indoor plumbing from what I remember.  Until the trailer was dropped, there was an OLD outhouse for doing your business near an old shed and a nearby spring to gather water.  My cousins and I would fill gallons of plastic jugs with the water and carry it back to her trailer.  We made a lot of trips back and forth.    

At that time, I remember going to the general store in town and she purchased a bunch of peeps.  Looking back on it now, I don’t understand why they weren’t put into a fenced in area at that time, but I remember chasing around a little peep trying to catch her and it having a heart attack and dying.  In my memory, it sort of exploded which was traumatic and my first memory of chickens. but this story is about berries, so we won’t have any more dying chickens here. It is just a memory I have of the same time period I am describing so wanted to share that.

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On that mountain I was taught to pick blackberries with both hands and carried a container that must have been tied to me.  I just loved picking the warm, ripe berries and after we were done with the picking, we would get a bowl of berries topped with sugar and milk.  It was the most delicious treat. 

I would watch my gramma make pie crust from butter and flour and she baked many blackberry pies and made jam and jelly. 

On this mountain there were probably more than a hundred acres of beautiful land and the woods were filled with blackberry bushes. We could wander anywhere we wanted.  There were no neighbors, only a gun club at the top of the hill, but no one there ever seemed to notice or be bothered by us as we were playing on the rocks and picking berries.

Because blackberries have very harsh thorns, or jaggers as we call them in our part of Pennsylvania, we had to be fully covered with long sleeves and pants while picking despite the humid summer temperatures.  I would always get a lot of scratches on my hands and face but I never remember suffering from poison ivy as a child. That change to my tolerance happened in my late 20s.  I had moved to Ben Avon and found a walking trail where I took my dogs and I was delighted to find blackberries. 

The heat, mosquito bites, poison ivy and scratches are a small price to pay for all this free food though and to this day I feel that exact same way. Despite having to get Prednisone every year at least once, if I see ripe, wild berries growing somewhere, I WILL submerge myself into the thicket come what may!

I have been known to get out of the car while waiting in traffic to get into Star Lake Amphitheater in Burgettstown and yes, I know it isn’t called that any more.  If you are local to Pittsburgh and over 35, you know where I am writing about!!!!

Anyway, along route 50, the back way into that place, I have left the car, grabbed a plastic bag that inevitably would be under the seat for potential dog poop needs and go pick berries until we were moving again.  I have been golfing a few times too and inevitably there are wild blackberries growing along the wooded areas and I have stopped and pick some then too.  I just can’t help myself.   

Don’t even get me started about visiting my family in Bellingham Washington.  They have bike trails EVERYWHERE and bordering all those MILES and MILES of trails are the most giant blackberries I have ever seen.  They are a different varietal than we have here in PA and apparently are a nuisance there because they are so prolific, can you believe it?  The first time I saw them I thought, I need pickers!  I need to move here and hire pickers.  No one wants for blackberries in that beautiful place and probably never has to buy one single berry.

I am pretty sure I blogged about the yellowjackets that I stepped on while picking berries on my grandma’s mountain when I was about 9 years old.  I didn’t know they lived in the ground and as I stepped on them, they attacked me and I panicked and kept jumping up and down on their nest and aggravating them.  30 stings later I enjoyed my bowl of berries, milk and sugar once I calmed down and didn’t die from all those stings. Today, I carry an EpiPen with me as I am also now allergic to bees, yellowjackets and mixed vespids.  I’m still picking berries and keeping bees though.  Those are some of the more severe and dangerous trials and tribulations that I meant in the title! 

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Over the years I have picked millions of blackberries, tens of thousands of black raspberries and now I am on a huge elderberry kick.

Back on that mountain there were some elderberries, but I don’t remember there being a plethora of them.  I remember grandma making some elderberry pies and jams but not too much.  The taste was different than a blackberry for sure and they were so rich and PURPLE.  I did like them but largely I forgot about them for decades. 

Anytime I am hiking the dogs in a new place, I am always looking for more blackberries and was thrilled to see so many wild dormant berry bushes when we first looked at the farm.  I could certainly recognize those bushes even in winter.  The previous owner also showed me the berries he had planted.  In addition to a row of dilapidated grapes, there was one elderberry bush, two gooseberries and some honeyberries.  I had never heard of, seen nor tasted gooseberries or honeyberries but I was thrilled to be the new owner of such interesting and unique berries.  Turns out, honeyberries are similar to a small blueberry and the gooseberries are unlike anything I had ever experienced.  I will say when you pluck them from the bush, they come off with a small stem that needs removed before you do anything with them so those are a bit of a pain to actually use in any capacity, but I still enjoy them.

Last fall, I was visiting a friend up near our cabin.  This woman and her husband are true lovers of everything green.  They have a nursery at their home and sell tons of starter plants of all kinds.

I told them I was looking for more elderberry as my Mother Earth News magazine and the annual fair we attend had gotten me interested in making healing elderberry wellness syrup.  I decided to do that, I needed more bushes.  Why buy berries when you can grow your own, right?

They sold me one small plant and told me about a wild bush about 5 miles away right on the main road.  I was excited and immediately got my berry picking gear and went searching.  After some scouting, I did see them and the bush was COVERED with clusters of wild elderberries but they were probably 8 to 10 feet high and a few feet into the woods with no clear path to get to them.  I knew it would be impossible to get them so left them for the birds. 

Back in my younger days, I would have considered somehow catapulting myself to get to the center of the berries, but I am over 50 now and decided I better not.  If you have ever been deep into the woods where I find myself pretty much daily, you’ll know it is tricky getting through all those ‘jaggers” and all kinds of old thorny trees to get to the good stuff.  Nowadays, I also have to diligently look for poison ivy too and there are ticks EVERYWHERE and all matter of tangled trees, vines and whatnot grabbing at you.  Picking wild berries is definitely not for the faint of heart and you better not be afraid of spiders or their webs.  So many varieties of nature’s beings are trying to trip you up and the birds do not like you stealing their sustenance, so 40 + years of berry picking has resulted in all kinds of injuries, stings, bites and various booboos.  As I said earlier though, these are FREE and gifts from God, so I just plow through literally, to get to those giant luscious berries, but I TRY to be careful!!!!  I’m tough or crazy or a little of both!

Anyway, seeing those wild elderberries lit a fire in my belly and I decided I needed to stop focusing on blackberries and see if I could find some wild elderberry bushes near the farm.  I mean, there must be some.  So, back home I took a really good gander and found 3 or 4.  I was excited.  I have no idea how I hadn’t seen them before.  One was smack dab in the middle of a really good blackberry patch and 3 were planted around this old pony barn that is falling down.  The whole thing needs torn down and eventually we will get to that but for now, I could see some decent bushes and I was so excited. 

Then as I started to really recognize what the bark and the leaves looked like, I found one more.  This one was near the pond and covered on all sides by some really thick thorny bushes, but I figured, I could cut my way to it to harvest. I was motivated.

I showed Mitch all of these telling him that as he is clearing some old crap around the farm, he is never to touch these.  To me, these were like the fabled unicorn, something magical and I was beyond blessed to have found these.

Well, 3 weeks ago, Mitch went up to the pony barn to tear down the one part that was really falling down and while I did momentarily think I should remind him about the elderberries, I honestly never thought he would touch them.  I knew where he was going to be working with the backhoe and thought, only one was in the way and I was pretty emphatic when I gave the instruction to leave them.  Spoiler alert!  My next blog is going to be called Can You Hear Me Now and deal with Mitch’s significant hearing loss.  But suffice it to say, when I went up the hill to see what he had done, I almost cried.  I could not believe he had mowed down 3 beautiful bushes.  I went running back down to tell him what he did and I knew he felt terrible but I was so MAD and hurt that those things that were so important to me, he just didn’t see them.  Metaphor for larger things?  Maybe, but maybe not.  I took my snips and went back up to try and salvage pieces.  I was going to attempt to root them and make a whole slew of new bushes from those.  I was also able to pull the old roots out of two of them and Mitch helped me pot all the pieces and parts.  They are now in various stages of either dying or surviving and I told them that I will keep them in those pots until next spring and keep them under the grow lights and tend to them every day through winter if they will just PLEASE DON’T DIE.  We will see how all that goes.  I read a bunch of articles online and am hopeful at least some of them will take.

In the meantime, I started clearing a big area opposite our house.  It is still early spring and it will be easier to do this now than in summer and I needed something to do while the seedlings grow.  Outside work is still my favorite and though it has been largely chilly, we have had some decent weather days.

As I was clearing, I was struck by a few long stems with leaves that were emerging and looked so familiar.  Could it be?  Was this an elderberry?  I went up to the one planted in the grape field and compared them.  My heart started beating fast.  I thought YES.  So, I then opened my eyes and kept clearing and low and behold, I uncovered more than a dozen elderberry bushes in this area from a few feet to taller and with many shoots like they had been here for YEARS!!!!  At this early spring stage, there is not much growing yet so they truly stood out like a sore thumb.  Now that I WAS LOOKING for them, I could see what I had been missing.  I put little fluorescent flags at the base of each one and Mitch cleared out several old and gnarly trees that were blocking the sun from them and over the past two weeks, we have really cleaned up Elderberry Grove.  Mitch is forgiven and I told him maybe everything does happen for a reason.  If he hadn’t chopped those ones down by the pony barn, I wouldn’t have really looked at those plants in early spring and known what to look for.  Now, I am finding some more small ones here and there in the woods and marking each one so I can measure their growth and planning my new elderberry business.  I can’t wait to blog about the mountains of berries I will be picking.  Good times are coming!!! #berrypicker #farmlady #wildforallberries

My Elusive Friend Sleep and My Enemy Anxiety

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

I have had sleeping problems since I was a young girl.  As my parents were getting divorced, my mother moved us to Squirrel Hill from Ambridge. We shared a one bedroom apartment in a place that wouldn’t accept children, but they made an exception for me if I would be quiet. 

This was in the middle of first grade.  I was in a strange place. I didn’t know anyone and felt completely insecure about everything. I was having separation anxiety at school and at night I started sleepwalking. When I awoke, I was going through some sort of emotional and mental breakdown that I can’t even accurately explain except my mind was racing and I had this oppressive feeling that I was so far behind and had to start over again which felt daunting.  I couldn’t even explain what I had to start over, but it was the worst feeling in the world and it happened night after night after night.  I didn’t even want to go to sleep.  IT WAS HORRIBLE and really frightening and I was 7 years old. 

Eventually, I settled in to my new life and more or less normal sleep resumed.

As I grew though, in times of turmoil and great stress, I would experience problems sleeping and excess worry which I now know as anxiety.  I believe I was conditioned to worry by my mother.  She had a lot of coping problems.   Internalizing stress just became my natural response.   To this day, I still let things bother me and can really work myself up into a tizzy.  I have always been this way.

In my early 30s, I had undiagnosed health issues and this triggered a lot of anxiety and insomnia.  I called this the Circle of YUCK and this period was a very dark time.  I felt physically horrible, couldn’t eat or sleep, dropped pounds and mentally felt generally full of gloom and doom. 

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Doctor visits and testing didn’t seem to be coming up with anything wrong. I ended up seeing an endocrinologist who did a bunch of hormone tests on me and decided I had REALLY high levels of cortisol in my body.  I remember sitting in her office and crying.  I was so exhausted and just felt horrible.  She gave me a script for 30 MG of Temazepam and told me to take it before bed.  This was prior to GOOGLE so I couldn’t do what I would do now and research the heck out of Cortisol and the medicine.  I filled the script, took it before bed and slept like I maybe had never in my whole life.  It was AMAZING.  I thought see what ample sleep will do for you?   I was a new woman!!!!!

She had given me a form of VALIUM, so no wonder I felt rejuvenated and was able to sleep.  My whole mind and body just relaxed so I slept. 

On my next visit to her she asked how I was sleeping.  I stupidly told her that my husband could pick me up and move me into a whole other room and I wouldn’t wake up and she said well, that’s not good and immediately dropped the refill to 15 mg.  NOOOOOOOOOOOOO. 

To this day, I don’t know what if anything was wrong with me physically at that time, but my mental status of heightened anxiety had totally affected by body and I was making myself sick with worry.  I wasn’t particularly happy in my life and it affected my body and soul.

Some years later I was experiencing a bunch of changes at once or in quick succession.  My mother was causing severe problems for me which again I am not ready to write about, but it was a very stressful period.  My husband and I had borrowed money from everyone we could and mortgaged everything we owned to buy our own business and had been successfully running that for a few years.   I had given up my career to help run the business.  We were working pretty much nonstop.

Our dog Carly had died, (see previous blog about Wo”Man’s Best Friend) and soon after, the cats that I had for 16 and 17 years also crossed the rainbow bridge.  All those losses affected me.

We had moved to The Cork Factory (not my idea), which was the very first high-end rental apartment complex project in the Strip District.  That top floor 1000 square foot loft apartment with 17-foot-high ceilings of useless vertical space, one closet and an electric cooking stove cost as much as our first and second mortgage on our house that we still had not sold.   I was VERY concerned about money or the lack of it.  All of that sent me into what can only be termed as close to a nervous breakdown.   

I was freaking out.  I had a very heightened sense of anxiety 24 hours a day.  I could never come down to a feeling of normal.  I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at night and I could barely function.  This went on for 6 months.  I thought my adrenal glands might overwork and I wasn’t sure what that could lead to.  I worried about having a stroke or heart attack. I WAS A MESS. If I could manage to fall asleep, I would wake up minutes later with what I describe as heart rushes.  I guess they are panic attacks.  Whatever they are, they prohibited me getting any rest.  I was a walking nervous zombie who was a mere shell of myself. 

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My PC physician was not helpful and eventually I ended up seeing a psychiatrist.  Filling out that paperwork to just see him sent me into feeling panic.  It talked about involuntary hospitalizations and such which added a new level to the anxiety I constantly felt but thankfully, he knew what he was doing and after a bunch of written tests and a 60-minute appointment, he quickly diagnosed me as suffering from General Anxiety Disorder with slight depression.  In the beginning, he put me back on that magical Temazepam that I mentioned had helped me sleep years before and prescribed a little 10 MG pill named Celexa or generically, Citalopram. 

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At the same time, Anna Nicole Smith died and I read her list of medications and immediately became worried that I would end up that way.  I know, that is completely irrational but that is where I was mentally.  I was assured by my therapist, that would not happen to me. She instructed me to take my medication, see her at therapy weekly and check in personally on how I was feeling and promised within a few weeks, I would feel like me again.  And I DID and it was the STRONG, CAPABLE me, not the weak, frightened and anxious me.  It was such a huge relief and after I felt normal again, I made some real changes in my life. 

Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

Fast forward to more than 13 years later.

In the COVID-19 environment that we are collectively as a world living in, perhaps we are all experiencing real anxiety and the news is full of stories about just that.

I have been talking with my friends and everyone agrees we ARE feeling way more stress and frequent anxiety.  We have absolutely no control over this situation that worldwide we find ourselves in.  How long will everyone be staying home, perhaps not working at all or certainly not working out in the world, not attending gyms and dance classes, school, social gatherings of any sort, religious events, graduations, weddings, funerals or anything?

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

In this time of social isolation, I have looked into meditations and most recently brain reprogramming because as the psychiatrist said years ago, it will happen again and it is.  Now, I am not feeling even 1/4 of the level of anxiety I was back then, but I can recognize the signs and symptoms and do NOT want to return to that place.   

My sleep has been affected for the last several years but now again it seems to becoming a real problem.  The heart rushes are back which make it impossible to take naps or sleep deeply and I’m feeling more worried than usual.   So,  I made an appointment to see my good PC and will most likely ask for meds.  It is going to take a while to see her though and with the added risk of going TO a doctor’s office amidst the virus, I’m seeking ways to help myself. 

I truly am interested in reprogramming my brain to function better so once and for all I can deal with stressful situations in a way that won’t send me into a panic.  I have a friend who had brain damage caused by Lyme’s Disease and she recommended I check out  On quick glance this looks like a really cool site.  I have been doing some guided meditations and working on changing my mindset to think positively that this situation will end and a new normal life will come sooner rather than later. 

My husband has taken this “down” time to delve deeper into his guitar practice and came across  The man who came up with this is also apparently touting reprogramming of the brain and I am learning some really cool ideas about increasing brain myelin which should help in all sorts of ways. Seriously Google myelin.  

Checking out those new learning strategies led my husband to researching The Vagus nerve and this is REALLY interesting stuff.  He brought it to me thinking learning about it and changing my breathing could help. I had never heard of this until he mentioned it a few days ago and then boom, on the TODAY Show, they had a whole segment about it. See, EVERYONE is feeling anxious and looking for relief.

We have all heard that a certain type of breathing can slow the heart rate and calm us, well it is true and you can train your sympathetic nervous system to work differently to diffuse anxiety and promote a more relaxed state.

So, I have many new ideas to learn about and test on myself while I am staying home like we all should and I really hope we come out of this on the other side, survivors and more healthy in mind, spirit and soul.  I’m certainly going to try!!! #conqueranxiety #learnnewthings #calmyourselfdown