The perils and perks of picking blackberries

Summertime in the Inland Empire means days so hot the moisture evaporates leaving behind oven-like breezes. Back in the 70s, it also meant my mom would load my sister and I up in the back of our ’66 Dodge Dart and point it into the countryside to look for blackberries.

Blackberry picking takes grit. The brambles scratch your arms and thorns prick your fingers as you grasp at the fruit. The sun beats down from on high, making every clothed inch of your body sweat and the parts that aren’t covered feel burnt in seconds. You must watch out for bees, which also love blackberries, for sometimes they alight on a ripe one and, heavy and drunk from its juice, have trouble flying away as your fingers descend. Birds may dive bomb from the bright blue cloudless sky as you plunder their favorite snack.

Once when picking blackberries in Arkansas, I returned home to find a platoon of chiggers had attacked my legs, leaving behind angry, itchy, red welts in perverse polka dots across my calves. I spent a week rubbing salve on my shins.

Blackberry picking also takes patience, something a youngster eager to taste the fruits of her labor sometimes lacks. You can’t judge the ripeness of a blackberry merely by its color, although if there is any red left at all it is not ripe. To find a truly ripe, melt-in-your-mouth blackberry, you must invite it to drop into your fingers with a gentle tug. If it does not willingly fall into your palm, it is not ripe, and you should move on.

At first I did not grasp this concept, and so I grasped the berries to eagerly. If I popped one of the unripe specimens into my mouth, I would get an unexpected crunch and a sour taste that let me know it wasn’t ready. I’d pucker my lips and move on.

But when I found the ripest, most luscious berry and bit into it, a sweet-tart taste like I had never experienced burst on my tongue. The smell of it, the feel of its warm softness in my mouth and the flavor combined to make the moment unforgettable. I wanted more.

I began to pick my target berries with more care, and to pull them more tentatively. Soon I also learned that the gentle grasp worked best with the ripe berries — if I grabbed with too much force, they would disintegrate between my fingers, leaving nothing behind but liquid and seeds.

As I continued to learn from bitter experience and loss, I began to develop a gathering rhythm. I could spot a dark orb beneath a leaf and guess its ripeness with one look, or pick out the ripe berry from a nest of dark ones. My fingers began to sense the right amount of pressure and pull. More and more, I heard the satisfying “plunk” of berries as they landed in my bucket.

Pretty soon, or perhaps a few hours later, we would return to the Dart, rubbing the sweat off our faces with purple-stained fingers and aching, scratched arms. I seem to recall that my sister and I would fall asleep on the way home, lulled by the car tires on the highway.

Although all these years later I still love blackberries and occasionally get them at the store, the experience leaves a lot to be desired. Blackberries taste best when eaten within a few hours of their plucking from the bush.

So I’m thrilled to live along a trail that has rows of blackberries. A few weeks ago, the bushes sported a white veil of flowers, and now light green globes sit in bunches atop the dark green leaves.

I can’t wait to get out there under the hot sun once more.

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