Back to the Bush

Plump, juicy blackberries, available at a roadside near you. (Photo/Tom Poland)

Last month I was on assignment in a remote place; the kind of place where you see trucks and tractors but few cars. Farm territory. I parked along a weedy, poorly maintained road and as I stepped from the car I saw a sight from childhood. A tangled thicket of briars with succulent, shiny blackberries glistening like onyx pendants. Red berries, hard and yet to ripen, waited their turn for sunshine to do its magic.

Seeing this explosion of blackberries brought back childhood memories. Pickin’ berries was great fun, a tradition. I imagine country kids still look for blackberry patches. We sure did. A bucket: that’s all we needed. The juice stained my clothes but I didn’t care. All those memories and more came rushing back when I parked along the tangle of berries you see pictured here. My timing was perfect. In the South, blackberries peak during June. I just happened to have a container in the car and I set out picking berries. The best berries were hiding deep in the “nettles,” as the British call briars.

I sprinkled them onto my shredded wheat the next morning. Not once did I get sick. I read that anyone picking blackberries today in wild places should contact the landowner and ask if he’s sprayed anything toxic on them. Why does everything we did as kids have to seem so dangerous now? You know, if your child rides a bike he must wear a helmet. That kind of thing. I swear we live in the era of pending disaster at every turn. Now I’m supposed to look up the landowner and ask him if he’s sprayed the wild blackberries? Surely not. I’d sure hate to see picking blackberries go the way snow ice cream went. Ruined by chemicals.

Today it’s advisable to pick blackberries at “agritourism” farms. That’s better than not picking them at all, but I prefer to discover blackberries along a forgotten country lane. It revives the sense of adventure I had as a kid growing up.

Another source of fun and food were plum trees. We had a plum tree down by our driveway. As the days grew warmer, the plums turned from green to yellow and red. We’d pick ’em, eat ’em and spit out the pulp. Didn’t take long to learn that the sweetest plums often had fallen to the ground.

When I was a boy I didn’t keep a bag of gummy bears or skittles around. Such things were foreign to me. I picked and ate wild plums, wild black cherries and blackberries, and not once did I get sick. You knew you were in for a mess of chiggers but that was the price you paid.

I know you fine Southern ladies reading this column have taken kids blackberry picking. As for you young girls recently married or planning a wedding, when you have kids take them into the countryside and let them pick blackberries. It’ll come natural to them and they’ll thank you. Make ’em a pie, and they’ll never forget this day trip I assure you.

If You Go …

Drive out into the countryside and look for read-and-black berries, complete with briars. Free. Chiggers included.

Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]