Picking berries connects author to the land

The berry brambles in my little creek bottom are an outdoor world of their own, home to birds and bunnies, and this time of year as summer begins, wild black raspberries.

They are tiny, seedy, sweet and distinctive in taste, and I look forward to my son’s upcoming visit from North Carolina. He makes the jam we all so enjoy.

My schedule – if retirement has a schedule – this summer has allowed me to keep a close eye on the berry patches as they flowered, set fruits, and ripened. I did the first picking, a couple of quarts’ worth, just yesterday. More to come.

Usually, one berry on the outermost tip of a cluster ripens first, and it seems that picking off these first offerings helps the rest of a cluster to ripen more quickly. Maybe it is just my imagination. Like people, fish, trees, flowers, each patch has its own ways, from size of the fruits to ripening schedule. Yesterday I found two patches of canes, which were mother lodes of fully ripe berries. Others have hardly started ripening. I should be busy picking, as time allows, for at least 10 days.

There is much to learn from berry picking. Patience, for one thing. You just cannot rush, for haste makes proverbial waste, as in spilled or dropped fruits; at least those losses feed the wildlife scroungers that muddle through the thickets after dark. You also will end up with heavily thorn-scratched hands if you move too quickly and carelessly. Berry picking slows you down. Wear denim or canvas pants to protect your legs and a long-sleeved shirt to keep scratches, and maybe poison ivy rash, to a minimum.

You have to look hard to find some clusters; some fruity treasures hang hidden under leafy stems. You have to train yourself to look, and really see. The bonus is that it helps sharpen your game eye for the fall.

You have to handle these little fruits carefully. They are ripe-ready if you can roll them gently off the pod with your thumb. If they have to be pulled with any force, leave them be till tomorrow or the next day.

The peace and quiet of a sunny summer creek bottom is soothing, too, and hardly boring if you pay attention and listen. The breeze sighs through the trees and brush, and a host of robins, wrens, and occasionally a cat bird or an oriole carry on avian conversations that I can only guess at. A host of aromas waft on the air currents, including smelly whiffs of the grass carp carcass in the creekbed. (I had to remove the carp, which had outlived its usefulness in my little pond and had become troublesome, so now it was feeding raccoons, skunks, opossums, and other scavengers. Nothing goes to waste in nature.)

Too soon, the season for wild black raspberries will be over, and I will have to wait another year, always hoping for new canes and a bumper crop. But I am not saddened by this; my other wild fruit favorite, blackberries, though less abundant in my creek bottom, will be coming on in two or three weeks. I already can see their hard green fruits developing.

Like the wild raspberries, wild blackberries are smaller than commercially cultivated ones. But big, luscious-looking blackberries that have been air-freighted from factory farms in Chile to the nearby grocery chain do not hold a candle to my creek bottom berries when it comes to flavor. And store-bought berries do not connect me to the land. Berry picking has much to teach us.

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