Posted by: atowhee | August 26, 2019


“We cultivate imported shrubs in our front yards for the beauty of their berries, while at least equally beautiful berries grow unregarded by us in the surrounding fields… They [imported fruits] are especially for aldermen and epicures.  They do not feed the imagination as these wild fruits do, but it would starve on them.  The bitter-sweet of a white-oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pine-apple… The value of these wild fruits is not in the mere possession or eating of them, but in the sight and enjoyment of them.  The very derivation of the word ‘fruit’ would suggest this.   It is from the Latin fructus, meaning “that which is used or enjoyed.”  If it were not so, then going a-berrying and going to the market would be nearly synonymous experiences…” The value of any experience is measured, of course, not by the amount of money, but the amount of development we get out of it.”
Wild Fruits,
Henry David Thoreau, c.1855blackberriezz


This is the blackberry season in western Oregon.  The berries here come from an introduced species, the Himalayan blackberry.  With enough water in the soil, but not too much, it can form thickets up to fifteen feet high. They can be impenetrable to anything larger than a rabbit or robin. And most years they produce a heavy crop of berries unless the ground dries out. This introduced species has done so well here it is treated as just another weed by nearly everyone, though a tasty one.

This week for the first time I caught robins gulping down ripe berries.  Nora the dog and I have been eating the ripe ones of a month now.  Early in the season pick the center one of the cluster of three.  It ripens first.  It’s the only fruit I have seen Nora eat.  She ignores the apples beneath our trees, never touches blueberries or cherries after they fall, won’t touch melon and leaves the room when citrus is around, sniffs and shakes off the scent of banana.  Blackberries she inhales.

My memories of blackberries, blackberry jam, blackberry thorns, blackberry briers, blackberry thickets go back nearly seven decades.  In the Missouri Ozarks early August was blackberry season.  Our whole family picked.  You could eat as many as you wished but couldn’t quit until you’d picked the required two quarts or gallon or whatever.  The berries we picked were from native plants.  There are more than one species of native blackberry in the Ozarks.  My mother turned them into jam (with seeds) or sometimes strained the juice to make jelly.
The picking required some suffering, naturally.  The weather in August was at its hottest and most humid so we would begin at dawn.  It might be only 75 and not 95 degrees that it would be by 2PM.  Long sleeves and heavy jeans were required because of the thorns waiting for your flesh.  Bib overalls preferred because they added a layer to your chest as you leaned into the stubborn canes to reach that large, luscious cluster just eight inches from easy reach.  Boots also, so you could tromp on canes or kick them out of the way.  Sometimes a pocket knife was needed to cut away that one cane that protected a whole layer of berries awaiting your bucket.  But the blackberry brambles themselves were not the worst enemy. They were more of a puzzle to be solved.  Sometimes your trail blazed into the heart of the thicket could be seen from one year to the next.

You could expect bees buzzing about if the berries had started to burst open from fermentation.  Never try to pick a berry with a bee or hornet on it.  Ticks, naturally, infested the berry thickets.  There they found fawns and cottontails and numerous other hosts until the berry pickers came along.  Those you had to pick off afterwards.

Before you dressed for the berry expedition there was a ritualized anointing of precious ointment.  It was my mother’s concoction—old nurse that she was—of bacon grease and powdered sulphur.  This noxious glop was spread around your ankles, where pants would be tucked into boots, around your waist where tiny seedlings might find entrance to your soft skin.  All over your arms, especially near the end of the long sleeves you could not roll regardless of heat and sweet and itching.  And then about your neck and ears and chin and chest down below where your shirt would open.  All this because those dread seedlings were chiggers. Actually they were chigger larvae.  Chiggers are a mite, related to ticks,  Eight legs as adult, six as larva.  Tiny.

When I was a kid we thought they burrowed into your skin and that caused the itch.  Nope.  They bite you and inject a bit of their saliva and that causes the itch.  By the time you itch the biter has dropped off your body.  Bite and run.  One wit says it is easy to avoid them, just stay out of tall grass and brush. Tell that to berry pickers, or a birder chasing a flycatcher in the Ecuadoran lowlands (the place I most recently fed chiggers).

If you do give in to the itch it can last weeks, the bite become infected or simply raw and scabbed and…oh, seems like a seven-year itch at times.

Click here for all you ever wanted to know about chiggers.

Ah, btw, we have volcanoes and forest fires and earthquakes and loggers and open carry here in Oregon.  We don’t have chiggers.

This from a recent TLS:blackberry poem

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