Jeannie

Picking Blackberries

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Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the summers spent in the small Arkansas farming community many of my relatives still call home. Swimming in DeGray Lake. Searching the fields for quartz crystals. Riding my cousin's horses.

And picking blackberries.

Like all the best childhood traditions, blackberry picking had a routine to it that was almost ceremonial. First all the kids lined up to be sprayed with “Off” to discourage ticks, mosquitoes, and, most importantly, chiggers. Then our clothes were inspected to ensure we all had long sleeves, heavy duty jeans, and good shoes. Then we were gone—one or two moms to drive and act as chaperones—with the admonition to watch for rattlesnakes ringing in our ears.

Picking blackberries isn’t without other dangers besides snakes. The canes are heavily barbed and don’t give up their bounty easily. The biggest and juiciest fruit always seem to be in the heaviest part of the thicket along with the biggest, sharpest thorns. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to get tangled in the midst of those tiny daggers, clothing held fast by vicious claws, skin pricked with a thousand small wounds. Sometimes that someone was me. And yet despite the hazards of flora and fauna, the boiling sun and the angry bees, we never lacked for small volunteer field hands. We also never had enough buckets to go around. What we did have were doled out to the oldest grandchildren. The younger ones had to make do with forming bowls from the fronts of their shirts to collect the tart/sweet berries. Once filled, shirt fronts got dumped into an older cousin’s pail and the process started all over.

Eventually even the most enthusiastic of us would have enough and we’d wind our dirty, sweaty way back to Grandma’s with full pails and sunburned faces. She’d been a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife on the same small plot of land nearly her entire life and she made the best cobbler in five counties. It tasted like summer and along with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream made all the scratches, chigger bites and sunburned cheeks magically disappear.

You don’t find blackberries the way you used to. I don’t know why. Scientists study the disappearance of frogs and develop theory after theory about their absence, but no one seems to care much about blackberries. I haven’t been blackberry picking in 35 years.

Until now.

A few years ago my husband and I bought a place in the country with nearly 14 acres. Not sure why we didn’t notice then—too busy settling in I guess—but we have blackberry canes on a good portion of the 14. So recently I took a pail and headed out to the pasture behind our house. I walked alone, but I could almost swear I saw a cousin or two and maybe one of my brothers out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t have any “Off” and yet somehow I could feel it sticky on my skin. I found myself watching for rattlesnakes even though they’ve largely disappeared from this part of the state.

The day was perfect for the task at hand. Hot enough to remind me I’m a Southerner, but with a nice breeze off the nearby river to cool the sweat and carry to me another childhood memory: the fermented grass smell of my neighbor’s cows. As I picked, I brushed against a dandelion and the fluff drifted into my bucket to settle on the gleaming berries like unborn wishes. The sounds of cars on the highway slowly faded as I slipped 35 years into the past. My fingers turned purple. My skin collected scratches faster than my pail collected berries. But eventually it did fill and I returned to the house with enough berries to make cobbler my grandmother might be proud of.

And when I took that first bite? I could have sworn I tasted summer.

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Jeannie

Updated Aug 19, 2015 at 05:53 PM by Jeannie

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  1. OTGabe's Avatar
    I ate countless pounds of blackberries picked from bushes near my childhood home in Georgia, and I've grown my own as an adult. They even have thornless varieties you can cultivate now, but somehow the berries are not nearly as sweet without the scars on your forearms. Suburban sprawl has certainly reduced the wild berry population around here, but they do still grow abundantly in the countryside. My children have fond memories of our trips to the mountains, where we just may pull the car off the side of a winding mountain road at any time when a lush thicket is seen nearby. Cobbler is divine and just some berries with a dollop of whipped cream and a sponge cake goes well with any meal. But it's hard to beat the flavor of a blackberry right off the bush, plucked by small, stained fingers.
  2. Samanator's Avatar
    We had a large crop of these growing wild behind our yard when we lived outside of Pittsburg PA. Now the only ones we get in South Florida come in plastic containers from the store. They are no where as sweat as the ones from when I was a kid.
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