It doesn’t take a lot of effort to grow blackberries here. They sprout up and creep out wherever any bird has dropped a seed. The ditches are full of them, as are the hedgerows. People spray them with weed killer and hire goats to eat them, but the blackberries can’t be beat. They line every road and eat up tamed property until it’s turned wild again with thorny brambles and stone-hard green fruits.
But if the summer is warm and the fall dry, the berries on all these wild vines begin to swell and ripen until they drip down in inky clusters. Everywhere, the air is heavy with the scent of sweet fruit and blackberry wine, and people come out with Tupperware bowls and empty ice cream buckets to forage for the makings of a pie.
My husband loves a good blackberry pie. He starts thinking of blackberry pie around June when the brambles are in bloom and the neighbors are in full blackberry attack mode. Mr. Greenlee is out in his yard with clippers and napalm, but Jeff is up on a ladder wearing leather gloves, carefully redirecting the willful vines through the evergreens so they’ll grow where the sun shines the brightest. He cranes his neck when we drive past berry-laden ditches and silently makes a plan for September.
When the berries start to soften in the sun, I know there will be buckets stowed between the seats of the minivan “just in case,” and extra trips out to Jeff’s favorite berry-picking spot. It’s right along a walking trail that follows a river past an eagle’s nest. People come there every day to run or ride horses and to watch the osprey swoop down into the water for fish. Sometimes there are otters or delightfully lazy snakes that slither slowly over the rocks and a boy who must remember that his mother doesn’t want him to pick blackberries with hands that stink of snake.
But rarely, very rarely, are there any other berry pickers. We live in a place where “organic” is practically a religion and people pride themselves on eating local and composting the leftovers. But berries? Well, berries are just a pain to pick.
I thought about this one afternoon when Jeff led us on a berry-picking mission down the gravel path along the river. The days had been particularly beautiful, warming the blackberries until they tasted like they’d been dipped in sugar. But we’d already been out picking several times, and I had other things on my mind. I did not feel like fighting the brambles and letting them claw through my jeans while I filled my bucket little by little with those frustratingly small berries. It seemed like a waste of time, and I still had a few splinters from the last time we did it.
“It’s such a short season, Kristie,” Jeff said when he noticed my lack of enthusiasm. “It could rain tomorrow and then it will all be over.”
It happened every year. When the clouds in the forecast resulted in actual precipitation, the berries turned snowy with mold in a matter of hours, and that was the end of the blackberry picking. We needed to take advantage of every sunny day that stretched into fall to fill up the buckets and gather in the harvest.
So I was silent and focused my attention on the task at hand. Birds flew overhead, swooping bugs into their beaks, fattening up for the long flight south. The kids chattered and hummed and filled themselves full of what was left of summer. It was lovely, really.
Faith stood next to me, slowly picking berries, turning each one over and checking for bugs before putting it in her bucket. “She is getting tall,” I thought. Her tenth birthday was coming up, and I was having trouble getting my mind around it. It’s such a short season, Kristie, I heard Jeff say, but he was far down the path with Jonathan, hacking down vines with a machete so the kids could pick the berries hiding underneath.
It’s such a short season. It seemed to me he had said the same thing much earlier in my life, at a time when I thought my talents were better used on something other than parenting. Foolishly, I thought God’s will for me was a little less…ordinary. I had failed to see the shortness of the season and the richness of the fruit all around me.
I looked at Faith. Her eyes are green, a little lighter than mine. She smiled. “You’re really good at picking berries, Mom,” she said.
I glanced down. Without even realizing it, I had filled the better part of my bucket.
“I think that’s the best way to do it,” she continued. “Just find a spot and start picking. If you keep walking, looking for a better spot, well, first of all, you might get lost, and second of all, you won’t get very many berries.”
“I think you’re exactly right,” I said, wondering how my life would have been different if I applied that advice to other areas of my life.
“So I think it’s just best to sit right down, and don’t even worry about the ones you can’t reach. If you can’t reach them, they’re not for you.” She shrugged at the simplicity of the thought.
It was a hard truth to swallow. The biggest and best berries were always just out of my reach, it seemed. Other paths were more interesting and less full of briars and that’s why more people walked there. That’s why I wanted to walk there.
It was foolish to sit down when the path kept on going, foolish to waste time picking berries and fighting brambles, foolish to embrace a task most people don’t want to do. It was foolish, but it was also brave and wonderful and perfectly delightful. Long after the vines have withered and the berries have gone, I will be enjoying the fruits of my labors. Rich pies, cobblers and jams, and a freezer full of fruit to carry us through the winter and beyond—all because we stayed faithful to the task. Long into winter and beyond, we will be enjoying the deep and satisfying harvest of a job well-done.
The season is short. The work is hard. But the result is worth it all.
Thank you for joining us for this series. It has been a (busy) joy!