I grew up on an acre of country land, not near neighbors, in the middle of western Pennsylvania. The tops of mountains had already been peeled away to harvest coal; but the Interstate had yet to snake through. Thus, I remember things seldom spoken.
For example, travelling to see my mom’s sister and family in Ohio we drove 2 lane roads that wound from town to town. Tractor trailers with their oily diesel exhaust traveled the same roads. In a lower gear we descended into the river valley at Emlenton with its population of nearly 850, drove through Main Street with its small decaying storefronts and nickel parking meters, turned a sharp left at the light and crossed an old iron bridge that spanned the Allegheny River, then turned 90 degrees to the right immediately at the other end to climb back out the valley. There the road widened to an extra lane. Trucks in the right lane were in low-axle and low gear to power up that grade. In our station wagon we traveled a bit faster, also in a lower gear, in the inside lane. Often the windows were cranked down due to the summer heat and the AM radio was fixed on KDKA to drown out the noise of the wind and traffic. An added benefit of the radio was that it reduced the childhood bickering.
The strip miners cut gashes in mountains to harvest coal, piles of shale and scree pushed aside. Nothing was replanted, but wild things grew in those hard-used lands. One thing that grew well was milkweed with its sticky pods. Peel back the outer skin of the pod and you are rewarded with a ton of immature seeds and silk. The second “reward” was the milky substance that coated your fingers with a sticky goo. The seeds and silk formed what looked like white fish scales.
The other plentiful growth, planted by birds, were wild thorny Allegheny Blackberry “bushes.” About two years after a bird seeding, they would start reproducing. Its berries (some call them drupes) were the sweetest (or sourest) morsels you have ever tasted. Sure! You can buy blackberries at the store, but I find they taste like modern-day blackberry flavored water…only with seeds, a wholly unsatisfying version of the real thing.
Modern writers who have studied both versions of the fruit tell us that wild Allegheny berries have between 25 and 80% more free-radical benefit than cultivated. My taste buds did not care about that.
We did not have to travel to my aunt’s house to pick berries (that was just to describe the general era and area). There were plenty of strip mines nearby. We knew we were going “blackberrying” the night before. So, early the next day we would dress in old pants and long-sleeved shirts to protect against the thorns. (Only fools go in shorts or short-sleeves.) Small coffee cans had been saved for months which would be punctured with a nail on each side and strung with pieces of copper electrical wire and thereby attached to our belts so we would not have to hold them while walking and climbing. It kept little tikes, like me, from spilling what we had harvested.
The berries which made it as far as the coffee can were taken home, cleaned, and saved for the special treat…blackberry pie with ice cream. I can tell you that for our family this was a celebration-event not unlike Independence Day in excitement. After the wonderful aroma of baking them it was seldom that we ate the pies at room temperature. Purple stains surrounded our lips, too, which was a badge of honor for all the scratches from the thorns.
It is good that the government eventually created funds to re-claim those lands. The piles of shale were leveled and topsoil added. Trees and grasses were planted. Most out-of-state visitors to those old digs would never know how horribly the land was used, nor how sweet the berries they produced.
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Living In High Horse Country ~ The Dying Generation ~