Blowin’ In: Blackberry Time
By Susan Mangan
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen . . .
You ate that first one and the flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking . . .
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
(“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney)
I will always think of fall as blackberry time. My mother died a year ago in October. We shared a love of autumn: trees displaying a riotous show of flame red and sunset orange; sumac gleaming with vermillion light amid the dimming sun; curls of steam rising from mugs of fragrant spiced coffee as the mist settles on Crooked Lake at sunrise.
I will never think of autumn again without remembering my mother’s last words to me, unspoken, but texted, “I was just thinking about your blackberry column. So interesting to me. Remind me to tell you about the blackberries that grew in the red clay of southern Missouri.” My mother sent me those words before she took her last breath.
I will never hear her retelling of Missouri blackberries, but her words will weave their way into my fiction, my non-fiction, into the telling of my life. In September of 2018, I wrote of the dichotomy of the blackberry, how the sweetness of life is often armored by the thrust of painful thorns. I wrote of human longing and the inability to control nature, human or otherwise.
Little did I know, my words would prove prophetic. On that night, one year ago, my mother died, comforted by my father’s last kiss, but thinking of blackberries and her native soil.
The first berry that I ever picked was not a blackberry, but rather, a plump strawberry. Despite the unrelenting heat of the Ozark sun, my mother and aunt piled the car with the children and matching tin pails. For hours we picked strawberries, ripe and fragrant from squat bushes.
With fingers as fat as the ruby fruit, I would place one berry in the bucket and three into my mouth. Greedy with the sun-warmed sweetness of the berries, I could not get enough of the fruit.
Just as my gluttony was getting the best of me, I reached out for that last strawberry, ignoring the first waves of abdominal pain, when I drew my hand back, startled by the sight. A black and yellow spider stared at me through blank, bulbous eyes. She was so large and so protective, that I still remember her fur clinging to the wild vines of the strawberry plant, daring me to take one more of her treasures. Despite this moment of fear, I always longed to grow fresh berries, and so, a year ago I wrote the story of my husband’s blackberries.
When my husband began his garden, he wanted to try his hand, or burgeoning green thumb, at raising berries. Sentimental about late summer fruit, I was insistent that we grow blackberries. Surely, the trestle tables at the local farmer’s markets were stacked with jams and preserves, syrups and fruit butters, all made from these enticing dark berries. How hard could it be to raise our own?
After the first two years, the berry brambles rose to magnificent heights, and we witnessed the metamorphosis of white flowers into tightly packed green balls, and then at last into miniscule, though succulent, black nubs. Even though there were barely enough berries to squish beneath your thumbnail, the sparrows and finch found them irresistible. And so, the berry harvest was complete.
The following years, we tried trimming the branches, improving the soil, and still the brambles proved near fruitless. Bumpy skinned toads currently seek shelter from my rooting Springer Spaniel Lucy beneath the cacophony of thorny brambles. Curiously, toads are important to a productive garden as they eat slugs and snails, but their efforts are proving futile for our blackberry bushes.
How curious it was when in previous summers I walked down country lanes in Ireland to see tangled brambles of blackberries, still green, growing against ancient stone fences and clusters of fuchsia. Without the help of human hand, spade, or toad, the blackberries knew what to do and how to thrive.
Truly, each time I witness the ever-growing hedges of blackberries lining every road in Ireland, I am in awe of the bounty. I can only imagine how beautiful the blackberries must be in mid-fall after they arrive to fruition in all their plump, deep purple glory. Before I die, I will see the blackberry bushes in full bloom and eat with abandon of their luscious fruit.
This story is not so much about gardening, but rather about cultivation, establishing dreams, and then putting your vision into action. We do not know when we will eat our last berry or how many scars life’s thorns will tattoo upon our vulnerable flesh. We do not know when we will draw our last breath, and for this reason, we must relish the first tart fruits of life and appreciate the glory of our dreams in full bloom, no matter how great or simple they may be.
Perhaps the blackberry is not meant to be harnessed, pruned, and nurtured according to the demands of the greedy gardener. Much like the apple in Eve’s Eden, maybe the blackberry is born to grow wild, primal, with rebellious thorny brambles, tempting the human with its deep purple juice, reminding us of our limitations and failings.
Perhaps this is what my mother meant to tell me as she reflected upon her blackberry years. Even the harshest of soil can bear fruit if we open our eyes to its promise and accept the tangled chaos of life, in realization that fulfillment may lie just below a surface seemingly covered with thorns.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected].