IT HAS been a good blackberry season in our part of the world. The annual blackberry-picking season is, for me, one of the highlights of the year, and this year has been a particularly rewarding one. On several days recently, I have taken an empty pot from the house, gone out to harvest the hedgerows, and returned with a container full of fruit — plus sweet-tasting, purple-stained fingers.
We have been eating stewed blackberry with apple, and blackberry crumble, and have stored a good supply of fruit in the freezer for the winter. Bramble jelly is delicious, and one year I made a very drinkable blackberry wine, although, when I repeated the recipe the next year, it was a disaster; so I have never tried again. But I always enjoy blackberries in their many other forms as the season comes round.
GOING blackberrying with family or a group of friends is great fun. Picking blackberries alone, however, is a different kind of experience. I find it a meditative, almost prayerful, occupation. It is a personal encounter with creation — and, therefore, the Creator — like few others.
First, there is the realisation that the fruit is there as a free gift. No seeds have been sown by human hands, no plants have been nurtured or tilled, and yet there they are, in abundance, for all to enjoy.
Second, I become aware of the transformation, and the possibility of redemption. The brambles that, for most of the year, are the “enemy” — a savage nightmare when accidentally encountered, and a thorny obstacle to walkers — are now a “friend”: the source of one of the sweetest and most delightful tastes that the palate can enjoy. Similarly, they are a sign of renewal: brambles are one of the first plants to return to land that has been left derelict by industrialisation.
Third, the slow, steady motion of selecting the right fruit and picking each berry, one by one, is a kind of metaphor for life and its choices. There are individual fruits that look ripe and attractive but which, on picking, are found to be too ripe and turn instantly to pulp. Some look good on one side, but turn them round and there is a patch of mould, or a bug. There are times, too, when, having picked a perfect berry, I drop it before I can put it in the pot. And picking the best fruit comes at a price. Without warning, your hand brushes a stinging nettle, or the bramble thorns seize your hand and pin-pricks of blood appear on the skin.
LIFE is a series of choices. Every day, new decisions — both practical and ethical — have to be taken. Some are easy, others carry risk. It is only after a length of time, perhaps not until the end of a life, that those choices add up and come together as achievement. So it is with blackberrying. One by one, the fruits add up to a pot full. Some of the berries are good; others are a bit below par, but adequate. Some, on reflection, need to be discarded.
At the height of a good season, blackberrying is easy. Near the end of a poor season, the crop can be meagre, but the picker makes the best of what is available. Whatever the season and conditions, however, there is an unwritten rule to blackberrying. You don’t strip a bush of all the fruit. Some must be left for other people, some for birds and wildlife, and some to ripen further.
Although it is satisfying to return to the kitchen with a pot of fruit, in some ways the real value of blackberrying is not in the harvest. It is in the process: in setting aside time to do something different; in the listening to the countryside as one picks; and in the companionship of nature. Not long ago, I was slowly picking fruit on a bush when I saw, from the corner of my eye, that I was being watched. A robin was sitting on a fence, looking at me as if curious to know what I was up to. When I moved to another bush, the robin followed.
I cannot, I admit, pick fruit for the pot without eating a few as I go. A few? Well, quite a few actually. Each one is a new treat. Chocolates, I find, follow a law of diminishing pleasure: the first from the box is always the best, the second not quite such a delight, and, after a few more, the pleasure has almost dissipated. Not so with blackberries. Each is a new experience. Some are soft, damp, and sweet; others are tart, but deeply and subtly flavoursome. They might look much the same as each other, but every berry is unique — as each of us is to our Creator. If our forebears were hunter-gatherers, maybe it was through the gathering that they first speculated on matters theological and sacred.
This brings me back to the idea of blackberrying as a metaphor for life, and each blackberry as a new encounter. Going blackberrying isn’t simply gathering food for the table: it provides much food for thought, as well.
Ted Harrison is a writer and artist.