I’ve just spent an hour or so negotiating with the blackberry tangle in the back yard. My landlord gets all the credit for its growing there in the sun by the back fence, and every time I take out the compost I check on the state of the berries on the way and feel lucky.
Blackberries ripen a few at a time, and ours are starting to come in bursts now, like water rising after the rain. Suddenly a spray of green berries will have five or a dozen or a handful of dark ones.
The larger and juicier and softer, usually, the sweeter — and the sweetest ones always seem to cluster dead center, or at the back against the fence, where they will take most time and careful positioning (and scratches) to get at. It’s reassuring of them to be so consistently metaphorical.
Blackberry picking takes patience and layers of clothing, because blackberry canes are tough, and they have thorns. Serious thorns. We had a blackberry thicket in the backyard growing up, and my brother and sister and old friend from next-door will remember getting off the swings to taste the first getting-dark-but-still-sour berries, risking our bare feet — and the weekend mornings when the whole family would come out to pick in jeans and sweatshirts, even in July.
You want protection, especially if you’re planning to get past the easy outer edge of the bush. Blackberry thorns will cheerfully go right through denim, and I’ve got the marks today to prove it. While you’re easing over and under arching bramble stems, disentangling bind weed, pulling out jewel weed that has shot up taller than you are, and gingerly leaning on and around a spiky jumble of all three — just to reach the handful of berries you’ve been peering at through the leaves from three angles already, always an arm’s length out of reach — sometimes you wonder what the lure is that brings you back. And whether you’re going to get out again with your shirt still on.
But the lure is there, and it only seems to come this way. Once when I was young (but old enough to know better), the young Abbotts and Gar from next door decided to break a path through the middle of our blackberry patch to get to the center. This is not, it turns out, good for the blackberries. When my dad retired a few years ago, we gave him a new generation of baby blackberry bushes and spent a day helping to grub out all of the other things that had taken the chance to root themselves in the places we had cleared.
Whacking that path taught me something. Besides its effect over time, it was a lot less satisfying. There’s something about easing through openings in the bush, losing your bandana, sliding into clearings big enough for cottontails, easing a hand under leaves and around prickers to feel for berries overhead that you can’t see, that livens a sunny afternoon.
I got about a quart in the hour I was out there, not counting the ones I ate out of hand, and many of those came from the deepest patches I was able to reach. Sandy Ryan and I may eat them by the handful, but last year I froze pints of them to bake into muffins in the winter. I put the last cupful into a blueberry pie two weeks ago.