Friday, August 15, 2014

in the bramble

There is a lot of activity going on down in the riverbank bramble these days.  We are having the old stairs down to the river reseated and rebuilt.  The old ones had rotted and bucked in the frost heaves so severely that it was really no longer safe for us to use them anymore, though honestly we still did.

The new ones are going to be far more beautiful than we could have imagined.  We can't wait to use them for beaver watching, kayak launching, treasure searching, epic hide and seek games, and in the winter, for accessing the river to skate.

But there is also something else equally exciting going on there.  This morning, when the builders arrived to begin their work for the day, they came upon what must have been a rather hilarious sight.  Jonathan was standing next to the path that leads to the river, facing into the bramble, with no one else in sight.  He had his iPhone in his hand and he was reading from it in overly loud voice.  The only response?  A periodic rustling of the bramble leaves coming from where I was nearly completely hidden in the patch.  Camouflaged and quietly picking.

This was the poem he was reciting.
"Blackberry Picking"
Seamus Heaney
for Phillip Hobsbaum
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
Why was he reading it?  Well, because he loves to recommend poems that relate to my writing.  And because he needed a break from the morning's activity, begun early, long before the builders arrived.  The blackberries in the bramble, full of fruit thanks to pollination by our bees, are ripening beautifully.  But Jonathan had not taken me seriously enough when I told him to dress in layers, including a hat and gloves, in order to be able to pick without coming out scratched and bleeding.

My personal poetry picker, the former English teacher, will admit that his choices are often -- well -- odd.  But this poem strikes me as absolutely perfect.  These berries are not in any way an easy crop to harvest.  And we have nothing to do with their growing here, though our bees this season have made the yield far better than last year.  Each summer I wait for the berries to ripen.  And each year, when it finally happens, I suit up in my protective clothing to shield me from the canes and I grab all the colanders I can find and head out there to get picking.  Each year I struggle in the canes, scratching, tripping, getting caught, fighting the bugs and the wasps as I harvest.  I think to myself that this is the year we are going to cut paths through the bramble to make it easier to get to the berries.  Yet each year we do not do this due both to time issues and to my reluctance, once the berries are growing, to lose any of the crop to pruning.  So the bramble stays as it is.

Being left to its own devices, the canes are almost as abundant as our burdock and dandelions and they produce what is by far our most successful crop.  Which is funny.  Because we did not plant it.  And we do not tend it.  Yet it flourishes in its neglect.

Maybe neglect is just what berries need.  A few weeks ago, we were visiting my family's camp and saw a sign for fresh raspberries.  We turned in and drove for a good long time down the dirt driveway.  After several discussions of whether to turn back, we suddenly emerged at a beautiful lakeside farm.  There was an older gentleman out in a huge patch of raspberry canes, a hat on his head and bright red suspenders flashing in the evening light.  It was not until he approached us that we realized that the suspenders were attached to his trousers in the back, but to his picking bucket in the front.  Clever.  I noticed the red staining on his thumb and index finger pads, sure signs of a fresh crop.  He retreated to his kitchen and retrieved for us two enormous cartons of berries then charged us a whopping $12.  He handed them in through the window because we had obediently stayed in the car.  A large sign read: Police guard on premises.  Stay in car.

We talked for a bit about his crop this year and that likely this was going to be one of his last harvests of the season.  And he told me that he had the rows of raspberries we could see, planted and tended in straight lines, thoroughly weeded, with each pruned cane supported on handmade trellising.  And that just over the hill there, beyond where we could see, he also had a bramble which he let grow freely, picking from it but not tending it or trying to contain it.  He laughed about what a mess it was down there and how difficult it was to pick them, but then leaned in close and conspiratorially shared his secret.  

I think the wild patch does much better than my tended patch.

I thought of our canes at home and smiled.  I knew just what he meant.

When we could pick no longer, we headed up to the house and made a few items using the blackberries.  Pancakes, with the freshly picked berries and our honey, drizzled over the top.  And blackberry shrub.  Amazing food that shrub is; the best description we have heard of it thus far is that it is Colonial Gatorade and we make ours following this recipe.

We couldn't resist putting together a tray to take down to the builders, our bramble tamers.  They are doing a great deal of work down there, struggling with the endless mud created by the six inches of rain that fell the other day.  And the bugs.  And the thorns.  They deserved a bramble breakfast.

We can hardly wait for them to finish so that we can get down there and watch and search and kayak and skate and just enjoy the river.

Hard to believe all this can emerge from the wild bramble of our river bank.

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