Let me tell you about the place where we pick berries. I should be careful about the exact location of this place, but it is enough to say, and maybe too much to say, that the berry picking place is near the end of the world.
I have been to this place twice. Both trips came near the end of summer and in separate years.
It is never convenient to reach the end of the world, even if the end is not quite the end. But in summer, there is 24 hours of sunlight, which means there are plenty of hours for looking. You need plenty of hours and sunlight when you go to the end of the world to pick berries. To reach this berry picking place, you will also need to ride in a small boat for two hours, leaving from a village that you will need to reach by way of a larger boat or with a vehicle of some kind. There are no airports. I’m not sure if there is a bus going to this village, though maybe there is. I am often surprised by where buses will carry us. But a bus will not take us to the end.
That’s why you will need a small boat. You will coast in the small boat along the outer peninsula of the mainland, sometimes crashing through dark water. If you are fortunate, seals will swim beside the boat. Then you will come to a bay. There will be a white sand beach and blue water. The berries are up ahead, on shore. They grow in a valley overlooking the sea.
You may be curious at my language of this place, this village, white sand beach and the sea, but I formed this habit of ambiguousness early in my writing. We should not give away so much or so many of our places, least of all their address. I am this way about the sheep barn across the road from where I live and the hillside covered with trees and the ridge between my house and the next valley. These are sacred places, and I must keep their address private.
Sacred is an old word, one that means, among other meanings, “consecrated” or “set apart.” While we may associate these meanings with a church or temple, we can recognize them in some of our shared places. We have Wilderness Areas, National Parks, National Monuments, World Heritage Sites, and other designated lands. These places have been set apart. More than set apart, they are celebrated. All of our ribbon cuttings and formal declarations surrounding these sites are acts of consecration. This is part of who we are as people. Seek Shangri-La or stand in the valley of the Little Big Horn, and the earth and what has happened on the earth will touch us.
Each of us harbors sacred places. There may be a wood or field where we played as children or a sidewalk where we lingered with someone and felt loved. There may be a canyon we found on our own, but also where an ancient people had etched their symbols into stone. There may be a bookshelf or a cabinet dressed in tokens of our dead. There may be a clearing beside a river where, we have convinced ourselves, no one else has stood or waited.
We might consecrate any of these places with a thousand rituals of the heart. We might sit quietly in them. We might stack a handful of stones. We might leave offerings of flowers or sticks configured into prayers. We might, like some fishermen I know, dip our hands into every new river. We might slip another stone into our pocket and later set it in a bowl filled with other stones gathered from places we have loved. With each trip, with each stone, we give pause to remind ourselves of our beginnings and to reaffirm our future. This is what a sacred place and our rituals grant us. We enter a space of our fullest presence.
The language of sacred places leads me to consider that our relationship with such places is analogous to our relationship with windows, albeit a reductive one. Windows allow us to see what is outside, and frames invite us to look. A good window, after all, does not simply limit our view. It permits us to see beyond the world. And the berry picking place is such a window.
On my most recent trip there, I snapped a photo from the head of the valley, just above where the berries grow. I wanted the photograph for my memory.
What the photograph does not show is how moments before I took the picture, I felt the place shifting between the seen and unseen. Each of us knows such a juncture. Take the moment before the sun goes down or the look in someone’s eyes before they leave or the expression of a child before he runs down a hill or attempts to jump over anything!
Or consider the hesitation before we push open a door on the other side of which we smell baking bread or the scent of a long-ago love—the list is infinite. But if we begin to explain what has happened, then we have moved away from what the moment has given us. We have been touched. We have been made aware of a before and after, and perhaps we have encountered the sacred. Afterward, if we choose to do so, we can arrange flowers or stack stones. We can rub dirt into our hands, say our prayers or listen for the echoes of our encounter.
But what berries did we pick? We picked multebær. In English, they are called cloudberries. They grow in the northernmost parts of the world. They are rich in Vitamin C and taste a little like apricot wine. When they are stored with other berries, like the blåbær (blueberry) and tyttebær (lingonberry), they preserve those berries and allow them to be stored longer. I do not know what preservatives are organic to multebær that allows for this process, but multebær are rare and beautiful berries to pick. People here will keep secret where the best patches of multebær grow. If you walk in the fjell or beside a myr, you may come upon multe, but the places where they grow in abundance are not to be shared outside of families or the dearest of friends. Even within families there are secrets. There are mothers who know where to pick the berries but do not tell their sons.
The day I took the photo, my friend Tore and I had walked up from our basecamp to fish and to search for berries at the upper end of the valley. The fishing was poor, but the berry picking was agreeable and became better as the day went on. This happened because the weather cleared. After the sun came out, the berries began to ripen almost in our hands. We picked through a line of berries and at the end of the line, we returned to where we began, where unpicked berries had already ripened.
It is an ordinary fact that none of us can know if we will return to a place. I am not comfortable with this fact, but it is ordinary somehow. Like the fact that today I am older. But unlike the fact that today I am older, a return, as such, seems possible. And I cannot let go of wanting returns, in spite of knowing that a lifetime can vanish in seeking them. We should be aware of what we seek. If we seek to repeat what has happened, then we will fail. There is too much “I” in such seeking. But if we seek a place—a sacred place or the place where we picked berries—then we should seek that place until we vanish, until the “I” vanishes. Then the place and what more is there will do the rest.
Click the play button to listen to Damon read from his essay “The Place Where We Pick Berries.”