“Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice. Shame on me.”
That is all I have to say to the blackberry bush!
It’s that time of year. The blackberries are starting to turn. Time to plan some serious picking.
I went out this morning on the four wheeler with Neva on a pre-picking excursion. I had this brilliant idea to bring my loppers to cut down some of the awful pricker plants that are growing with the blackberries. These killer weeds make harvesting a painful experience, so I was determined to remove those stalks now, early in the season, so we could approach the wild bushes with less danger the rest of the season. I was convinced the thorny stalks were unnecessary, some kind of blackberry sidekick, probably opposite sexed bushes, the kind of plant that exists for cross pollination purposes but doesn’t bear fruit. In other words, I imagined they were lowly boy blackberry bushes, while the girls were out there producing the baby berries we all cherish.
I must have cut down a hundred big stalks in one of our prime blackberry spots. Then, my neighbor informed me that I was cutting down all of next year’s crop, because the year before they bear fruit, the wild blackberry bush begins as one of those deadly blank stalks. Blackberry bushes have no sexual orientation, you see. Duh.
NOW you tell me? Dammit.
Well, I’ve only done damage to one small blackberry picking area. I have the other hundred bushes still intact and thorny as all get-out. Another learning curve highlight in the ongoing reality series, Hendry’s on the Farm.
Neva and I sampled a few berries, then picked a bowl full of random dark, sweet fruits. Unfortunately, most of the fruits on the vine are still red – a week or two away from peaking and turning plump and purple . Nevertheless, I will begin my daily foraging now, because I can’t bear to miss a single free, wild berry even if they are currently spaced randomly on the vine.
While picking, you always encounter bees. Last year, I swatted them away with a curse, thinking the last thing I needed on top of scratches was bee stings.
This year I paused to say, “Oh, hello there, buddy.” (After all, my beehive is not far away, so it is a pretty good guess that these are my bees. “Take what you need and leave the rest,” I said, thinking that while I am very greedy regarding blackberries, I covet honey as well. A mutually beneficial aspect like that makes sharing easy, and everyone knows the surest way to overcome prejudice is to really get to know the one you fear. I understand and respect the bees now. We’re buds.
Honey aside, I have big berry plans this year. Just this week we finished all of the jam I made last summer. Granted, I gave jars and jars of the stuff away, so we certainly didn’t run short, but this season Georgia had an unexpected late frost that killed all the state’s blueberry and peach crops. As much as I was in denial all of April, the fact is, I am not going to get a single blueberry off of my huge, beloved bush this year. (Been in mourning over that since early march, but I’ve avoided writing about it – to protect my friend Chuck from the painful truth that he ain’t getting any blueberry jam this year.) The great blueberry loss causes my blackberries to take on mythic importance this season, because they will be my only homegrown staple with which to create specialty desserts and such. They will be the prime source for my jam. And don’t forget, I am now also on a quest to make the perfect wild blackberry wine. In fact, I have more than one recipe of blackberry wine awaiting experimentation, and each recipe requires pounds and pounds of fruit.
Not that I have to worry about locating the glut of berries I need. I only have to fret about harvesting the lot. I discovered a huge thicket of wild blackberries in an abandoned lot at the entrance to our land. Somehow, I missed that windfall last year, but of course, we didn’t live here then, and only visited to feed the horses. I guess I drove by it everyday, totally unaware of the bounty nestled in a ditch a stones throw away. And I kept plenty busy picking on our roads and around our cabin on the mountain as it was. This particular wild berry discovery is located in a thorny maze of overgrown weeds in a marshy dip of land. There is at least an acre of overgrown, fruited wild blackberry bushes taunting me. It is like blackberry heaven – only with hellish thorns.
One day, while passing this area on a walk with Denver and Mark, I stood admiring the white blossoms that are the forerunner to the fruit to come. I paused and said, “It will soon be time. When these bushes bloom, I’m going in.”
Denver said, “Forget it, Mom. You will be torn to shreds. You can’t get in there.”
“I have been formulating a plan,” I explained, as if I was sharing a great conspiracy just between family members. “I think I can suit up to withstand the thorns. I was thinking I could wear my bee suit and cowboy boots. That will protect me.”
“Well, don’t forget to wear your four wheeler helmet to round off the outfit, as long as you are planning to make a fashion statement . . .” She rolled her eyes. “People will see you in that getup and finally know you are nuts. The family secret will be out.”
“Remind me not to share any of my blackberry wine with you, even if you are of age,” I said with a sniff.
Of course, Denver doesn’t understand the limits some people will go to attain a bucket of wild blackberries. She thinks blackberry picking is something you do for an hour as a lazy pastime, the prime purpose being to have a nice conversation with your mom, while dining on the berry bucket. She doesn’t understand the obsessive need to plow through thorns to get to the very back to get those plump juicy perfect specimens hiding in the rear. She can’t comprehend anything eatable worth getting scratched and having pricks burrowed into your skin for the rest of the evening. The cobbler made the next day is nice and all, but hey, you can buy frozen blackberries in the grocery store for a few bucks. Why knock yourself out?
And that, my friends, is proof that the world today has disconnected with the glory of nature and an intimate relationship with our food sources. Don’t believe me? Read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She will convince you.
I’m getting sidetracked. Where was I? Oh yeah.
Mark stared at the blackberry thicket. “You might be able to drive in on the four wheeler. You’d plow down some of the bushes, but there are so many it wouldn’t hurt and at least that would allow you to get close. You could even pick without getting off the ATV.” (Men are always so practical and methodical about conquering nature.)
I happen to be a real sissy on a four wheeler. I ride it all over the land on the roads, but I don’t like going off-road where ditches and holes and bumps create an obstacle course that can upturn even a cautious gal like me. Ride it blindly through the murky ditch into a forest of thorns? “I’ll just dress for the challenge and make it work,” I said.
When I get back from Boston, I have every intention of doing just that. But first, I will concentrate on those berries on our own land. I will settle for a scant bowl each day until the season gets up and running. Then, I will suck it up and go to war with the thorns for the big kill.
I plan to freeze my early pickings, because I will use these early berries for wine. When you melt sugar and hot water it is smart to add frozen (though fresh) fruit to the mix to help bring the temperature down to activate the yeast. (I am ever so scientific when cooking now.) Just a helpful tip from a winemaker teacher I know.
Anyway, my blackberry picking frenzy is beginning. I can feel the obsessive need to go outside and forage stirring in my gut. For all of June and half of July, it is like I am enchanted by the fruit – under some spell that keeps me at it day and night. I can’t stop. I want my freezer bursting at the seams with blackberries, carefully proportioned out for future cobblers. I want jars and jars of homemade jam cluttering the shelves. I expect at least two 6 gallon jugs of wine to be fermenting in my mud room for the next few months. (60 bottles.) I will rack them by Christmas, ready as gifts for my brave friends with strong stomachs.
I am already bemoaning the fact that I must go to Boston for eight days next Wednesday. Do you know how many berries I will miss? The birds will fly off with them, or they will shrivel like ugly raisins on the vine because I’m not here to snatch them up at that prime moment when they are ready. Kills me. But I will make up for it by putting in double picking time when I get back. I’ll be a graduate then, so I will come home smarter, right? I’ll probably lift one finger and come up with some brilliant plan to harvest all those berries with nary a scratch, just like the scarecrow started reciting brilliant formulas in the Wizard of Oz moments after the wizard presented him with a diploma. Yeah, it could happen.
Anyway, today we began blackberry picking. I am in the throws of finishing preparations for my senior seminar next week, working on a full scale business plan and doing reading and research for our future enterprise, writing as always, and concentrating on other grown-up responsibilities. But dang, if I don’t have to put it all aside each day to adhere to the sirens call of the wild blackberry. Guess we all have our weaknesses. Mine is a tart, morsel that shouts, “I dare you to come in here to get me!”
I never could resist a dare.