Yesterday set a record in these parts: the 9th consecutive day of over 95° high temperature. Today will be the 10th. I can’t bike comfortably in this heat, even starting early. When it’s 80° before 7 a.m., it’s too hot to get far enough to make it worthwhile before risking excessive heat.
But my last ride reminded me that it’s blackberry season, as some middle-aged woman on a Schwinn with a kickstand had parked her bike (on the trail!) and was foraging along the edge for berries. She was in a slightly different spot when I saw her on the way back. I see other foragers at other seasons, looking for young grape leaves, or nightshade greens, or wild rhubarb, or red sumac. But berry picking is so American (Sal and her mom; Thoreau; Huckleberry Finn; Union soldiers on the way to Manassas [no time for picking on the way back]) and so instantly gratifying that the “season” along the Trail is always of interest.
Back in the day I was something of a forager myself. Inspired by Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962) and the back-to-the-land spirit of the late ‘60s, I became the denizen of the I-66 right-of-way, which lay very near to our house. It had been cleared several years before we moved in, with several houses moved off it, including one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. For over a decade it lay fallow while the courts decided whether to build the road inside the Beltway at all. Informal bridle trails and hiking paths were blazed; domestic and wild berries proliferated; the odd fruit tree survived. (The DC area was quite the anti-development hub in those days, usually but not always to its long-term benefit. It was decided not to build a huge modern span, the “Three Sisters Bridge,” just upstream of the Key Bridge on the Potomac. It would have resulted in a freeway right along the waterfront, cutting off the city from its waterway, as was done in cities from Hartford to Santa Barbara. And it would have vandalized the scenic vistas of the river. But DC also refused to have the north-south interstate, I-395, built through the neighborhoods of its inner city and downtown. The road would have run just west of the Capitol Building, where there is now a huge reflecting pool. Consequently the District of Columbia today has fewer miles of federally-funded interstate highway than any other city of its size in America, and it also has the nation’s worst traffic jams.)
On the I-66 right-of-way I spent may an afternoon picking all kinds of berries: wineberries, blackberries, black raspberries. I learned where to look for the stands, how to spot the good clusters, when to return for another picking. I had a huge territory pretty much all to myself. I became expert at disentangling my clothing untorn from the clutches of the blackberry thorns, which are both tenacious and painful. And of course I knew how to spot and avoid the insidiously ubiquitous poison ivy, being a veteran of an extreme childhood allergy (twice I was bedridden for a week with the danged stuff).
So even today, years after I gave up systematic foraging—my first step was to plant and harvest thornless blackberries from my garden; no pain and the berries were the size of my thumb—the appeal of summertime berry picking is real. And yesterday was my day to do it. Clothed in expendable garb, with headband, eyeglasses lanyard, sun hat, and plastic bowls to pick into, I took the Coda a few blocks to the intersection of the local right-of-way and the W&OD Trail.
“Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun,” Noel Coward wrote. (Everybody, including me, seems to think the words originated with Rudyard Kipling, but I can find no shred of solid evidence that he wrote it or said it. Nor can I find an early source of it as an “old Indian proverb,” and after all the English have only been on the subcontinent for less than 400 years, so how old could it be?) The sun yesterday was not noonday, but it was hot enough for Limbo, if not the 9th Circle of Hell, as observed earlier. The berries had been picked at least once, probably about 4 or so days ago. The good stands are on the southwest-facing side of the trail, and are thoroughly mixed with honeysuckle, wild grapes, poison ivy, jewelweed, and other choice flora. All my foraging strategies came back to me, and within an hour I’d picked a quart of berries. That doesn’t sound like much, but these berries were pretty small though juicy, given the erratic spring weather and rainfall deficiency. My best places were the unpicked spots, usually revealed by bending back vigorous new (non-bearing) canes and/or stripping off the concealing honeysuckle vine. One convenience of wild berries is that breaking and trampling some of the canes makes no difference because (a) they’ll grow back for next year, and (b) it’s not as if they’re in my garden. In the course of manipulating the thorny brambles I got to use a number of my patented moves for freeing myself without shredding my clothes. But those thorns were persistent enough to strip the lanyard right off of my glasses. Luckily I noticed it.
I was surprised at the number of cyclists and joggers who passed me in this hot, sunny hour. Perhaps 12 to 16 cyclists and 8 to 10 runners. How do they manage that extreme heat, especially the runners? I tend to lose track of time, and to be unaware of my physical condition, while I’m picking. Insects buzz around, strangely thwarted by my hat. There’s blood on my hand; from a bug bite or a thorn? The sun beats, but I don’t notice. The concentration, the lure of expectation, the sense that the best patch is just ahead, spur me on. But when I think “enough is enough” that thought comes because I am really hot and tired. I could barely get back on my bike at first, it took such an effort to refocus and reorient myself. I was home in about 90 seconds, however, drenched with sweat, stained with juice, my skin burning with scratches.
The reward, of course, is the big dish of warm Blackberry Cobbler garnished with a slab of Vanilla Bean ice cream. Worth every bead of sweat, every itch, every scratch—at least for one time a year.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.