A coworker once related a conversation he’d had with his significant other who, like me, had moved here from out-of-state and was unfamiliar with the local flora. They’d been discussing plans for their yard – landscaping, flowers, a garden, perhaps – and he had asked her what she wanted to plant.”Mmm. I think some blackberry bushes would be nice.”Those who have lived here for any length of time smiled, even snorted, at this point in his story, for blackberries grow wild in this county and there’s no stopping them once they’ve taken root. Walk along any path, venture near any stream or pond or lake as the summer begins to wane and you will find them there, ripe and luscious and ready for the picking.
Ripe and luscious and ready for the picking they are, and so for the last few weeks I’ve carried a bucket on our daily walks. Euclid, poor puppy, hasn’t understood why I stop so frequently, why I stand in one spot for so long. He’s watched me as I’ve picked, his ears cocked, his head to one side, and I’ve been reminded of the horse in Robert Frost’s poem, the one who finds it so strange to stop in the woods. We humans and our behavior are so inexplicable to the animals in our care.But I know what comes from this labor. I know why I am willing to take the time, to brave the thorns to gather this fruit: smoothies and tarts and pies and, best of all, jars of sweet jam, stored for the months ahead when there will be no fresh berries to be had, canned with love and care for sharing with others.
An aside.If you are a baby-wearing mama who wants to pick wild berries, a word of advice: do not overreach, no matter how beautifully plump the fruit just beyond your grasp may be, or you might misjudge the distance and brush that sweet, soft skin against a thorn and she might start awake with a whimper and you might feel like the worst mother in the world.
Picking berries – this slow, methodical work of reaching between branches, of looking under leaves, this art of finding the ripe fruit that comes loose with the barest bit of encouragement, of applying just the right amount of pressure – takes me back in time.
She lived just a quarter-mile up the road from my childhood home in the desert of northern Nevada, and her yard was full of raspberry bushes. I don’t know what it took to keep them growing there, in that climate, what kind of water and tending was necessary. I don’t know why she had so many bushes (or even if there were as many as I remember: I saw her yard through young eyes), or how my parents learned of them. All I know is that, when the time was right, we would traipse down there together – Dad, Mom, and three little girls with our dark hair in braids – and we would pick berries.
It was a long time ago. I don’t remember how old I was, and my memories are more snapshots than anything else, moments in time centered around the senses. The anticipation, the excitement of going to pick “rasp-berries”. The walk from our house to hers, which seemed an eternity in the summer sun. Knocking on her door, being welcomed inside, seeing her smile. The sharp prick of thorns. The burst of sweetness on my tongue when a berry somehow made it into my mouth instead of my basket. The smell of the jam on the stove. Watching mom or dad slowly stirring as the scent of ripe fruit filled the house.
Though the fruit is different, though I am different, though the location and the climate and the weather are different, though everything about this situation is, in fact, different, the act of picking berries brings these memories flooding back.
I said “she lived”, when I should, perhaps, say “she lives”. Curious, after remembering her and her berries, I searched for her name online. If the people-finder websites are to be believed, she is still there in her old house some twenty-odd years later, still writing essays for the local historical society, still active in the community. She’s in her mid-eighties. I wonder who picks her raspberries for her now.
What do the blackberry bushes smell like this time of year? They smell like the end of summer, like innocence, like childhood memories. They smell like fresh-baked pies and sweet homemade jam. They smell like planning for tomorrow, like canning jars full for sharing with friends. They smell like the good things in life. They smell like love.