Most of us are familiar with the idea of hunter-gatherers and can relate it to modern day forms of making money to support our families (often known as “the rat race!”) But some of us who have been rural folks for more than a couple generations are much closer to literal hunter-gatherers than you might think. My grandfather told a story that makes the point. He was from a large family and his mother died when he was a young boy. Life was not easy up by the border at any time, and keeping everything together after his mother died was even harder. They had to pull together and scrimp and make do, even the children. Any way of getting food or gaining a little money was worth attempting.

This story takes place in latish summer, when some of the boys were out berry picking. This was not your leisurely taste, eat, and throw one in the bucket excursion. The berries were an important adjutant to the garden and the farm. In Gram’s side of the family berries were canned and jammed, and, according to Aunt Mattie, dried like currants or raisins. I was especially fond of Gram’s seedless blackberry jam (the jam was seedless, not the blackberries.) Berry patches were wild and good ones were kept secret to protect the crop from others. It worked pretty well for the human neighbors, but was not at all effective for nature’s best harvesters – the bears.

So Grampy and one or more of his brothers were busily gathering berries, when they ran into a mother bear with two young ones. Everyone, both ursine and human, was surprised. The mother bear, in whatever language bears use, sent her offspring up a nearby tree. Gramp’s older brother saw opportunity and shinnied up the tree after them. His thought was to capture them and sell them to a traveling show as an exhibit. He thought to take a heavy stick with him, which was just as well, because Mama started climbing right up after him. He is now up the tree with bears both above and below him, using the stick to drive the cubs up and shove the mother down. It got decidedly exciting and he had no stunt double. “Harvey! Go get the gun!” he yelled to Gramp, who took off for the house running. Because she didn’t want to leave her young, the mother did not pursue him but redoubled her attempts to snag his brother from among the branches.

Gramp reached the house at top speed. How far away was the house? I don’t know, but he got there as fast as possible, rushed in, and grabbed the long gun. He ran all the way back, not at all sure of what he would find.

Things were pretty much as he had left them, except all of the participants were getting tired. The next part played out somehow, but my grasp of the details is murky. Did Gramp hand the gun up to big brother while mama was up the tree? Did he steady himself to shoot in a way that took care of the bear but spared his brother? Was another brother on the scene to help? At any rate, the afternoon ended with meat for the coming seasons, a living brother, and the little bears to sell for cash. Always there were things that needed cash – shoes, barb wire, something. They all had to be tough. I hope Grampy got a penny for some candy, but probably not. I don’t know if the berries got home too, but if they did, maybe he got some extra jam on his bread.