It’s a secret I keep even from my closest friends: I know where wild blackberries grow.
I’m talking about real berries, not the tasteless big-as-ping-pong-balls blackberries grown in faraway lands and offered at exorbitant prices at grocery stores. I’m not talking about the beautiful thornless blackberries grown locally and sold this time of year at farmers markets, either.
Nope. I’m talking about wild blackberries that grow along fencerows and in roadside ditches and on the edges of deep, dark woods. Even when full-grown and ripe, these berries aren’t as big as my thumbnail. They’re irrigated only by rain and flourish only when the tree canopy above them hasn’t become too dense to let plenty of sunshine in.
I once lived on a farm where the hillside near the barn was covered with blackberry thickets. Every July, I filled my stomach with as many berries as it could hold and the freezer with enough berries for one cobbler a week for the whole year. Now that I dwell in the suburbs, I have to be more intentional about finding and not squandering berries. In the spring, during blackberry winter (and, yes, I know the difference between redbud winter and dogwood winter and blackberry winter), I make a mental note of the places where I’ve noticed blackberries blooming.
I visit these spots often, surreptitiously of course, so I can keep up with the berries’ progress. I’m thrilled when the delicate white flowers turn into hard little green knots. I watch the knots grow bigger and turn from green to red. (My granddaddy, gone from this earth now for almost forty years, used to say “Blackberries are red when they’re green,” which made sense only after he explained that red berries were like unripe green bananas.) When the berries begin to show purple, I’m extra-careful that no one notices me checking on them.
Because people will raid your secret blackberry patch given half a chance.
I used to carry a sturdy yellow sand bucket with me once the berries began to ripen. But now that I walk a dog who requires both hands to control her if there’s a rabbit or squirrel within sniffing distance, I’m bucket-free. Meaning that I have to eat every berry I pick, except for low-to-the-ground ones. Those, I’m happy to share with Kamala.
Unlike me, she’s not the least bit wary of ticks or chiggers or poison ivy or even the occasional snake stretched out in the tall weeds. Kamala has no worries about becoming hopelessly ensnared by blackberry brambles should she dare to reach too far between sagging strands of rusted barbed wire for the biggest, juiciest berries. She charges fearlessly into every thicket, living only for instant gratification.
Sadly, our blackberry forays are coming to an end. In late June and early July, we found and ate our fill almost every day. But the world keeps on turning and no party goes on forever. We’re lucky these days to discover even a handful of edible berries. Heat and dry weather and June bugs and stink bugs and Japanese beetles have taken their toll.
Yet I won’t stop looking until I’m sure there’s not a single juicy ripe blackberry left. And I won’t share the secret of where Kamala and I find our berries. When I spot a bicyclist pedaling in my direction or hear the UPS truck chugging up a hill, I hurry to the shoulder of the road and resume dog-walking pose. When neighbors notice me at the edge of the woods with sweat running into my eyes and purple juice running down my chin and ask, in the friendliest possible way, what I’m doing, the answer is always the same.
If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.
(July 17, 2021)