It is my custom to pick blackberries in the heat of the day. Perhaps I relish discomfort: the heat, the muggy late-June or early July weather, the thorny canes interspersed with other thorny canes and exuberant vines, poison ivy among these. I always end up scratched, sweaty, sunburned, and itchy; but I end up with blackberries.
Picking at midday means I encounter fewer mosquitoes, for one thing. And in midday I am likely to be the only berry-gatherer in the thickets. Everyone seems to love blackberries and mulberries—which ripen about a week earlier, so these berry seasons overlap. Everyone! Birds, squirrels, deer, foxes, groundhogs, raccoons, possums, bears…
Blackberry fruiting gives way to blueberries, and blueberries to wineberries and elderberries, so that bellies get filled and seeds get dispersed all over the place. I hear rustlings in the hedgerows and at the edge of the woods at night, so yes, I would rather loot my fruit when only “mad dogs and Englishmen” are outside.
Tonight, we’ll have berry cobbler.
I’m still not writing very much new work, but blackberry picking brought to mind this poem from quite some time ago. The poem’s speaker is hiking, not berrying, but I thought of it just the same.
Bear & Cloudburst Blue Ridge, 4200 feet: we start our ascent, sweet cicely going fast to seed trailside goldenrod in bloom. Bees hover and hum, we walk one by one by one by one summer-heat left behind smothered in pipe vine. Track and blaze. Trail climbs through laurel—twisted, dry from two years’ drought, sky overcast, color of thin whey but the ranger doubts rain, has hoped too long, in vain. As we file by, he waves. Further up. Dense shrubs thickets of berries slubbed like raw silk, leaves daubed with stippled insect eggs or lichen, fungus, swags of spider webbing, sacs and bags and butterflies, brute gnats undeterred by repellent. We swat stobs, are scratched. The scat along trailside I recognize as bear but say nothing, though a fear threads my ribs tightly where instinct thumps. Our feet tramp soil, each step sounds the tamp of soles ascending; camp’s four hundred meters’ altitude below. Skeletal crane-fly skewed dry in a web. We walk through woods, a clearing up ahead when a pungency attests to recent presence, and Alice says “There’s a funny smell.” Her voice seems oddly small. We summon our collective will, engage in loud conversation. Bears aren’t known for discussion, are likely to flee in disgust. Then, thunder. Air, though thin, grows humid. Under the din the tree-line begins to go, our path exposed as a blade of lightning explodes ahead, just to the north. Pick up the pace. Slouch back to the undergrowth, the touch of brambles like a scutch on skin. We scuff the leaves in the musky, bracing odor, pleased to be off-summit, our speed faster than before and louder as we plunge downhill and wonder where the bear has wandered and if it’s found shelter. We’ve half a mile to weather in the rain. I slip. I’d rather climb into some outcropped sweep hidden beneath a sweetgum tree, nuzzle the berry-breathed bear, and sleep.