The Last Chokecherry Picking
While making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our picnic lunch, I heard the happy voices of my two little boys through the open kitchen window. It was almost autumn. The tall prairie grass surrounding our Jones County farm near Okaton was turning brown and the chokecherries were ripe: The kids and I were going to pick some with a friend, Fran, and her two little girls.
As we traveled to Fran’s house up and down the roller-coaster hills (we called the road passage “Tipperary” after the famous bucking horse), the meadowlarks greeted us with songs. Goldenrods nodded as if to say, “All is well this happy day.” We watched an old eagle rise lazily from his lookout on a high corner fence post and soar into the blue sky. A snake slithered across the road, reminding me that danger was always near. If someone got bit by a rattlesnake, could I slash the skin with a razor blade and suck out blood before starting the 70 miles to a doctor?
Our car rattled over the planks of the old wooden bridge and Fran’s big shaggy dog, hearing us approaching, announced our arrival. Fran tucked her two small girls into her car and led me across the prairie toward the corner of the school section where she knew chokecherries abounded.
We followed as her car bounced over crisscrossed car tracks on the prairie. We came upon a prairie dog town and watched the little creatures pop out of their mounds and stand on hind legs to peer at us. They would bark and scold, then scurry down their holes.
A few miles further and we had reached an isolated and sheltered draw, devoid of vegetation except for wild chokecherry that bordered the bank of a dry creek on the further side.
The children scrambled from the cars, eager to pick the tiny berries. Soon their faces were smeared with the purple juice and their lips puckered from the astringent taste of the wild fruit, and they were off to play. I had spread a blanket on the ground in the sheltered cove and Fran and I took turns calling the youngsters back from the tall grass that surrounded this sheltered little spot. Here was a small world all our own with only our little ones and the songs of birds and the chirping of crickets to keep us company.
Then the solitude was broken by the sound of an airplane overhead. We recognized it as that of a rancher who lived farther on up the creek. He was making a routine trip to town. The children shouted and waved their straw hats and sunbonnets as the pilot tipped the plane’s wings in response.
After we had filled our pails with the cherries and had our picnic lunch, we gathered our little ones and returned to our homes. I prepared the chokecherry juice and made a beautiful, clear jelly. The day was such a success, I considered writing a message on the jar’s labels about our fun outing.
As I was contemplating, my husband arrived from town with the mail. He spread the “Weekly” in front of me and pointed to the headline: “Rattlesnake Den Discovered.” I read on, “When Mr. Lynn Lyman was flying home to his ranch yesterday afternoon, he saw a gleaming patch beneath him as he flew over the dry creek bed in the corner of the school section where wild chokecherries grow. Closer scrutiny revealed a glistening, moving mass. To his astonishment he saw it was a mass of rattlesnakes. Instead of continuing to his ranch, he returned to town and summoned the state rattlesnake eradicator, and together they killed the snakes, numbering eighty in all. Rattlesnakes come from afar and gather into a den to hibernate in the fall, and it was not previously known that this thicket was their winter rendezvous.”
We saved the jelly for special occasions, for we did not venture out again to pick chokecherries.
EDITOR'S NOTE – The author, Margaret Bowder Roghair, was a native of Timber Lake who later moved to Oregon. She died in 2012. Her chokecherry picking memories appeared in the July/Aug 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order this back issue or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.