The blackberries ripen again, luscious and tempting, begging me to venture out into the hot summer sun and to pick them while the picking is good. I was, perhaps, a bit territorial this week; Jonathan told me the neighbor kids down the road, the ones who don’t really live here but whose parents come two or three times a week to farm the vacant lot, had been in the bushes with buckets. He shared this information with me so that I could watch for them while driving, but I took it as a warning. “They’re stealing MY berries!” I thought, a thought which, while being strictly true (the brambles are on our side of the road, on the edge of our property), was not exactly neighborly.
Nor was it necessary. Despite the dry winter and the epic drought, despite the warmer-than-average temperatures and the lack of water that have caused them to turn a few weeks early, there are plenty of berries for the taking, if you are willing to work for them, to brave the thorns and the heat and the twisted vines to gather them.
So gather we do.
It’s a highly sensory experience, picking blackberries is. The feel of the sun, the sweat trickling down my back. The scent of them, ripe and rich. The sweetness, or, on occasion, the tart bite of them on the tongue. The prick of thorns, of the sharp edges of leaves as I hunt. The sight of them there, dark and shiny and black against the forest green of the leaves. The sound, when we’re lucky, of the breeze in the trees, of a bird overhead, the steady plunk, plunk, plunk of ripe fruit hitting the bottom of my bucket.
It’s a highly sensory experience, and so is one that is a prime candidate for becoming lodged in the memory, for sticking itself there and staying. Katie is too young this year to hold on to this exact time, the details of our berry-picking excursions, but perhaps the senses will retain something. Perhaps someday, she’ll taste blackberry jam and have a feeling of security, of happiness, of love. Perhaps she’ll smell the berries as they ripen on the bush and be taken back to childhood memories, childhood traditions.
We traipse down our road, the three of us, on Saturday. Katie in her stroller, kicking her bare feet against the canvas, Jonathan pushing her, I with my bucket and my gloves and my competitive spirit, ready to find the largest, sweetest fruit. There at the bottom of the hill, where the tiny and thankfully still-running creek flows under the road, the bushes are green and full, and so we do not stray farther than that. Jonathan and I reach under and over branches, scratching our arms and our legs, catching our gloves on thorns as we work to fill our baskets faster than Katie can empty them.
This is an entirely different experience than it was last year, when she was barely four months old, content to snuggle against me in the baby carrier and let me do what needed doing. Now, she is an active and curious toddler (not really a baby anymore, this girl of mine, and I wonder how the time passed so quickly, even as I struggle to remember a time when she was not a part of our lives), and snuggling is rarely, if ever, a part of her repertoire of skills. She cannot walk yet, though she’s close, and the ground is hot, full of weeds and burrs and sharp rocks, unsuitable for crawling, so we park her in her stroller and buy her patience with berries.
She’s tasted the fruit once before – earlier this week, when I ventured down to this spot during the workday with just her and Euclid – and found it quite to her liking. So much to her liking, in fact, that she consumed more than I thought her small belly could hold and still wanted more, so much to her liking that she was rather unhappy to learn that berries were not on the menu for dinner that night. She’s tasted the fruit once before, and it’s a recent memory, so she knows enough to be excited about this excursion, about the opportunities it provides her, even if it means she must sit in her stroller, unable to explore.
She has no words yet, none beyond an excited “dadadada” uttered when Jonathan comes home from work, but we taught her the sign for “more” a few months ago. When I say “we”, I mean “Jonathan”, who worked with her one evening after dinner, using Cheerios as a reward, demonstrating the sign with his own hands, helping her mimic with hers, then handing her one piece of cereal, over and over again until she could do it on her own, and when I say “the sign for more”, I mean “clapping”, which we deemed good enough for our purposes.
She claps now all the time, a general-purpose way of communicating that she wants something, anything, even if she herself is unsure of what it is she wants. And so, she sits there, in her stroller, imperial, clapping, pointing at the bucket of berries in my hand, adding grunting pleas for emphasis. Like most people her age, she is only interested in one form of government, but she is a mostly benevolent dictator, granting pleased grins to us, her subjects, every time we place the fruit on her tongue.
Jonathan: What are you writing about?
Me: Picking blackberries.
Jonathan, chuckling: Is this your yearly summer blog topic now?
It is my yearly summer blog topic now, picking blackberries. It occurs to me, as I pull the ripe fruit from the stems, as I wash it and lay it out on a cookie sheet to freeze, as I string the words and sentences together to describe this activity, that noting this season of ripening fruit is a wonderful way of marking the passage of time. Long before the advent of smartphones, eager to let us know the exact date and time whenever we power them on, long before desk calendars or wall calendars or, indeed, any kind of calendars at all, men and women tracked the seasons, counted the cycles of life by the courses of nature, by the phases of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun, the coming and going of each of the four seasons in turn.
Picking berries has all the elements of good ritual, good tradition: the methodical, repeated motions, the engagement of the senses, the significance that goes beyond the actual physical act, the prick of the thorns followed by the sweet reward of cobblers and jams and smoothies. It recalls times past, moments past, brings to mind the cycle of life, the falling from one season into the next, the flow of years. It is a miniature holiday, of sorts.
As I do on other holidays, I take a moment to think about previous years, to wonder about years to come. Last year, she was an infant, snuggled against my chest, not really aware of her surroundings, content to let me pick berries as long as she was kept warm against me. Now, she sits in her stroller, demanding that I share the fruit of my labor, kicking her legs, babbling and interacting and watching the birds, the llamas, the trees, only willing to be confined for so long before it’s time to be on the move, on the go. What will next year bring? She will be walking then, perhaps able to find and pick berries on her own, with some words, some desire to help, I imagine. In future years, she might have a sibling or two. She might decline to come with me, preferring to stay home and read a book or draw or play with Euclid. She might pick more than me, might make pies and tarts of her own. I hope she will grow tall (though with her mother’s genes, that might be a stretch) and strong and self-confident, ready to forge her own path. Before I know it, in a future that seems so far away, she will start life on her own, perhaps have a family of her own, establish small rituals and traditions of her own, and these berry picking sessions will be a time of the past, a “remember when?”, a nostalgia.
That is tomorrow, however, and not today. Today, she is still mine to cherish, mine to hold when she lets me, mine to tickle and hug and cuddle. Today, the rituals, the traditions, the things that make our family unique, are still being established, still being formed. Today, she claps, asking, and I am all too happy to oblige, buying her smiles with love and with berries, ripe and warm from the summer sun.