I'm fairly certain this is my father's favorite poem. At the very least, it's one I heard him quote multiple times in sermons. It's actually a fragment of a much larger work: Aurora Leigh, an epic poem/novel that deals frequently with the intersections of nature, art, and spirituality. I have a suspicion that my father was fond of this passage because it mentions plucking blackberries, an activity he always loved and recruited all of his sons to share with him. Blackberrying was an outdoor pursuit with a tangible reward, so it appealed to both his naturalist impulses and his Puritan work ethic. All of these qualities actually put it in opposition to the Browning poem, and most likely of my father's sermons, in that the ones plucking blackberries are the dunderheaded ignorami who have no sense of immediacy of the sacred. "Lovely day, isn't it?" "A bit warm for me. Let's have some more blackberries."
It's curious, perhaps even ironic, that Browning chose blackberries to symbolize either the life ease or the immanence of heaven, since of all the fruits to be found in the wild, blackberries are the least suited to relaxation, and the most likely to induce swearing on the part of the harvester. Top it all off with the nature of blackberry vines for the 51 weeks a year that their one redeeming role of fruit production is not in evidence, and they are, instead, as virulent and aggressive an invasive weed as could be imagined by any fantasist, and the irony becomes overwhelming: there's nothing pastoral or heavenly about the things.
And yet...and yet...
I picked two quarts of blackberries this afternoon. I over-optimistically took four pitchers with me--three more than I was able to fill in the time allotted--a gardening glove, and clippers. I wore shorts, a t-shirt, and close-toed shoes. I drove over to the powerline park where the path is lined with great thickets of blackberry vines, plugged my ears into a podcast, and gingerly waded in. Ninety minutes later I emerged, enough berries for a full recipe of jam plus two or three days of breakfast yogurt, as well as (if I'm feeling ambitious) a cobbler. I also came back with purple-stained fingers, scratches and punctures (at least one of which drew blood not easily distinguishable from berry juice), and blackberry seeds sticking to much of my body. I at least managed to choose a cloudy day for the harvest, sparing myself the additional indignities of a forehead rendered purple by sweat-removal and a bright red sunburn on my neck and arms. I was, of course, elated.
Why on earth, you're asking, would this horribly uncomfortable pastime make me happy? Why not just pick up a flat of cultivated berries at the fruit stand, and spare yourself the pain and suffering?j
First, because those cultivated berries just don't taste right. They're too perfect, too big, and they sacrifice much of the flavor that can only be found in wild berries to the convenience of having someone else do the work.
Second, because doing the work myself makes the final reward that much sweeter. However delicious the berries I buy from a fruit stand may be--and in Oregon, we have some of the best berries I've found anywhere--they still can't compare to those I pick myself, especially in the wild. Backpacking in the Olympics last month, we found ourselves pausing frequently to pick tiny wild strawberries, exponentially smaller than their cultivated cousins but packing a flavor punch that is hard to believe. I'm a blueberry lover, and I go through nearly my weight in them every summer, but again, they just can't compare to a wild huckleberry I've harvested on the trail. And as much as I love raspberries, I'd still rather have a wild thimbleberry any day. It's hard to find enough of these wild berries to make into a meal--they're neither big enough nor plentiful enough, unless one is going to make a whole day of it. Blackberries, however, especially those that can be found growing anywhere in western Oregon they haven't been poisoned and rooted out, are plentiful enough that they have sustained me through many a long summer run.
But back to the work: blackberries really are harvested by the sweat of one's brow. Coming back from a blackberry expedition, I'm always a mess, stained, bloody, covered in grass seeds and burrs. I've earned these berries, and like my father, I feel like celebrating this victory.
And third--and this is the part where I plug back into Ms. Browning's poem--picking blackberries does, in fact, put me in tune with the spiritual. For however uncooperative the vines are, however painful the thorns, the reward is always worth the struggle. While I'm at it, I find myself in tune with the ecosystem that is a blackberry thicket: the many insects that make their home there (and some of them, however careful I may be, always make it back to the kitchen with me, only to be washed down the drain), the other plants--some of them even more vicious--that make their homes among blackberries (think thistles and stinging nettles), the mice and rabbits and birds who make of these thorns a fortress against predators. I find myself meditating on the interdependence of nature, the symbiosis that binds all life together in the grand sweep of creation. I get into a rhythm of pulling back vines, cutting away those that are not fruit-bearing, stamping some down, reaching through gaps in the foliage to carefully extract two or three perfect berries from a tiny hollow, scratching myself in the process. It's a treasure hunt through a treacherous environment inhospitable to humans but powerfully rewarding in the end.
I emerge from this adventure relieved that it's over, disappointed that I don't have more berries to show for it, eagerly anticipating consuming those I do have, knowing that the harvest of blackberries also poignantly symbolizes the fading of summer. We may be less than halfway through the season on the calendar, but we are also just weeks away from the resumption of school. The days are already shortening, the nights growing cooler. As a child, then a young adult, I was intimately aware of the melancholy that is integral to blackberrying, the sure and certain knowledge that once these berries are gone, we will be back in the classroom, and the lazy days of summer will be gone for another nine months. During my pastoral career, this poignancy faded, but once I was back in the saddle as a teacher, it came rushing back. I can't help feeling as I pick that this summer, the most intentional I have ever had, has entered its final act.
In all these ways, blackberries are the most spiritual of summer fruits, the most crammed with heaven, the most capable of nudging me into a state of being vitally, absolutely present, intimately aware of my surroundings, utterly focused on the task of locating and plucking these tiny bundles of holiness.
Don't just take my word for it. Put on some heavy gloves, boots, perhaps a pair of jeans--my minimalist choices are not recommended for those unused to working with blackberry vines--and pick yourself a quart or two of heaven-crammed ambrosia. Take them home and put them in everything, and you'll find yourself agreeing with me: you're closer to heaven in a blackberry patch than anywhere else on earth.
However holy the ground, though, I strongly recommend leaving your shoes on. Those suckers and prickly.