In Search of the Toxic Berry Patch

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtilloides). Photo by Janelle Baker.

By Janelle Baker, McGill University §

In Memory of the late “Cibomb” Clement Auger

Cibomb. Photo by Janelle Baker.

Rattling down a dusty oil field road
in his little aqua truck
headlights on as company safety protocols mandate
Me, 8 months pregnant
nervously remembering
his accident last winter on the South Wabasca Lake ice
in which he lost sight in one eye
but I had been asking for weeks
to try and find the place with the sign
we visited years ago
the perfect camping spot
bushy jack pines
bright fine sand
thumb-sized iridescent blueberries
across from an oil and gas site
the bold white sign that told the grandchildren
these berries ARE NOT SAFE TO EAT

A few days earlier
Beth Ann kindly packed sandwiches
and set out to help me find the same berry patch from her Sandy Lake childhood
as we drove she told me that the young white female teachers loved Cibomb
but the ruts were too high and we had to turn back

Now on a different route
I set out with Cibombosis[1]
down the CNRL road to his trapline
first we needed to visit the Frog’s Pants (Sarracenia purpurea)
the extra weight of the baby and amniotic fluid
made me sink down in the muskeg to my knees
I paused in the shade of some black spruce
mosquitos and black flies swarmed
and he disappeared down a cut line
in the quiet buzzing and I looked down and recognized their fleshy veins
edges crunchy too early from the hot dry summer of fires

We returned to a lifeless truck
he checked a nearby oil site for a battery
A worker pulled up wearing nothing but coveralls
sweaty bare chest and tobacco-orange teeth
against the rules to tow or boost
so we pushed and popped the clutch

To search for the contaminated
ancestral berry patch and campsite
instead we found
compressor stations
silver pipelines
groomed earth openings
the berry patch cleared
whispers that the sign we had seen
telling people not to eat the berries
was put there prematurely to justify
its destruction

He folded back the dusty edges
rummaged in the forage
there they peeked and glistened
some blueberries
between the chain of clearings
sliced by the road
no signs anymore
warning people not to consume from these bushes
perhaps too obvious

What else could we do now
but go to the lake and pick some mint?
It turns out that this long day
was my last
adventure with Cibomb
I went home south to give birth
to my own Huckleberry
and just a week before he came into my world
Cibomb left this one with a moose.

Cibomb. Photograph by Janelle Baker.


[1] Clement Auger’s Sakaw Nehiyawewin (Northern Bush Cree) name is Cibombosis, which refers to a little owl, possibly the Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus), but he was most often referred to as “Cibomb”

Janelle Marie Baker is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at McGill University studying Cree perspectives on wild food contamination in Alberta’s oil sands region in collaboration with Bigstone Cree Nation and Fort McKay First Nation. Baker is an instructor in anthropology at Athabasca University and was recently a visiting PhD scholar on Professor Anna Tsing’s Niels Bohr Professorship project, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene: Discovering the Potential of Unintentional Design on Anthropogenic Landscapes. Baker is a past Warren Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, a Vanier Scholar, the 2013-2014 Canadian Federation for University Women CHEA Fellow, a 2014-2015 International Society of Ethnobiology Darrell Posey Fellow, and a current Canadian Northern Studies Trust Scholarship recipient.

This post is part of our thematic series: Toxic Bodies.