In Eugene the mission was to harvest the blackberries. Parts of Matthew’s yard are grown up into blackberry patches, thanks to the vigorous, ubiquitous wild vines that seem to thrive especially well in the weather and soil of the Pacific Northwest. From the June blossoming through summer fruit-set and growth, the vines keep throwing out stocky new shoots, which serve to protect the maturing fruit with arched branches of sharp, tenacious thorns.
There’s something unique about wild blackberry thorns. They aren’t long and spiky, like pyracantha thorns, which if the Romans didn’t use them for the Crown of Thorns they were missing a bet. They aren’t small and stubby like rose thorns, which are easily avoided or handled with a bit of care. The long tendrils of the blackberry drape many linear feet of thorn branches all around the berries. You can’t reach in or walk into the briars without their sticking to your skin, entangling themselves in your hair (so they tell me), or grabbing your clothing in a veritable death-grip. They are not barbed, but disentangling one’s hair, skin, and clothing from them is not easy. A big part of the picking process is avoiding, removing, setting aside, and otherwise creating relatively thorn-free access to the boughs of berries.
I was an avid berry-picker when Matthew was a child. Inspired by Euell Gibbons’ ‘60s classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I was a food forager, especially in the old I-66 right-of-way, which was cleared of houses (including one by Frank Lloyd Wright) and roads, and left to lie fallow during a ten-year court battle over whether to build the road inside the Beltway. They finally built it, but not before our family had many servings of wineberries, blackberries, black and red raspberries, apples, crabapples, poke, rhubarb, sumac, watercress, and (yes) wild asparagus from nature’s bounty.
Matthew remembers our garden, where I later grew raspberries and blackberries. But those blackberries were the thornless variety. I was no fool; I was not going to bring into my garden the malice of blackberry thorns. The thornless berries were big as your thumb and very tasty, but they lacked by just an ineffable bit that uniquely rich, complex flavor that made foraging the wild berries worth the bleeding hands and snagged clothes. And all the old tricks came back when the patches in Eugene insisted by their fragrance and glistening black clusters of fruit that they must be picked the other day.
Three generations of Bradfords advanced on the brambles, since granddaughter Winnie—now almost 12 (!)—was in on it too. Her job was to pick the easy stuff, with Matthew’s help, and eat all she wanted. Matthew, armed with stainless steel bowl and clippers, did some serious picking as well as trimming, and I was a relentless picker, using my instinctively recalled tactics to avoid the thorns and strip the abundant clusters of their ripe fruit.
The good thing about having your own backyard patches is that nobody else picks them. Blackberry clusters do not ripen all at once. The ones at the tips of the fronds are ready first, followed closely by about half the berries. The others remain in various stages of green-pink on down to black. They’re ripe not when they get glossy black, but when that gloss is accompanied by a bit of softness, and a gentle tug is enough to pull them off the stem. The seemingly-ripe but still-firm berries need more time, because their sugar levels are not high enough. That’s where Winnie becomes invaluable; by sampling them now and again she can confirm we’re getting the ripe ones. Even gentle tugs can cause slightly overripe berries to fall to the ground. When you have the abundance we did you can let them go. Or you can pick the ones that just dropped. And you can pick clusters down to the ground, without worrying about “salutations” from pets, which is a problem with trail-side berry patches. There’s also no poison ivy to look out for, another occupational hazard.
In a short time we had well over a gallon of blackberries. Our first picking, a couple of days earlier, had yielded a delicious cobbler. But this lot was for the long haul. Matthew made almost three quarts of jam. Next winter the aromas and flavors of that jam will remind us of the rich abundance of nature in the Northwest, the warmth of a summer’s day, the joy of a family together.
© Arnold J. Bradford, 2018