It’s summer now, but just imagine it is the middle of winter. Outside, the wind screams to get into the house, spring is too far off to even be a promise in the air, and summer is a myth. What you need is a taste of summer, and you can get it without buying tickets to the Caribbean or surrendering your last shred of dignity to the penetrating glare of airport security.
How? Just unseal a jar of hand-picked, home-canned Himalayan blackberries, the free-for-the-taking berry that grows in wild snarls of briar along ditches and over abandoned lots. One spoonful is all it takes – eat it straight from the spoon or have it over ice cream – and instantly you are transported to sun-bleached August.
But – and there is always a but, as you know – before you can enjoy these berries in the winter, you have to pick them in the summer. If you are lucky, you are a loner, a hermit who lives down a long, abandoned country road well lined with briars. Your nearest neighbour is beyond a distant hill, and strangers never venture down your road. The booty is all yours.
Here in Richmond, BC, access to that most delectable taste of summer is not so simple. Construction is everywhere. New buildings mushroom out of ground once blessed with waist-high grasses, rust-and-emerald pheasants, and sprawls of Himalayan blackberry vines. Three times over the last five years, I have lost prime picking patches to the scourge of those who must tidy wild things. Improvement, they call it.
As more good patches vanish, competition for the remaining blackberries rears its thorny little head. On the happy side, most people can’t be bothered to leave their ceiling-fanned couches or their air-conditioned autos to pick this crop. On the unhappy side, those who are willing to take on the August heat are ferociously keen.
Accessible blackberry patches grow on public land for all to see, so there’s no way to claim ownership of a good patch. You either get to the fruit before everyone else, or you get no fruit. Every year, as the season approaches, I plot my strategy, and check the progress of the ripening. My specialty is getting to the patch when it first ripens – before anyone else has noticed the vanguard fruits have turned from red to black.
Come with me as I head to my neighbourhood briar patch. It’s early in the morning, and I’m ready to glare down any intruders in my patch. Clearly, I have perfected my glare; this morning the brambles are mine alone. Because I’m no fool, I wear thick boots, thick sweatpants, and a long-sleeved shirt. Yes, the weather is too hot for such clothing, but I would rather melt into my boots than be eviscerated by the thorns. As a nod to beating the heat, I wear a broad-brimmed hat to shade my eyes from the rising, scalding sun.
At first, I coyly stand out of harm’s way and pick ripe berries at the edges of the briar patch. I delicately reach one hand around the vicious thorns and pluck out the berries, taking care to extract my hand without contacting the many curved sabers on the vines. I’m too clever to get scratched. Yet.
Naturally, the best fruit, the plumpest, ripest, juiciest prizes, hang just out of reach of my safe zone. Naturally, I cannot resist temptation. I venture into the brambles, step over one vine, and duck under another. Standing on tiptoe, I snake one arm through a maze of vines and pluck big fat, black fruits that fall into my cupped palm, then tumble from palm to picking bucket.
As I pick, the vines I have walked over spring back into position. One of them smacks me across the back. My shirt protects me, mostly, from its lash. Another vine snuggles across the back of my left calf. Both of them gently grasp the fabric and tickle the skin beneath. No problem. I will extricate myself with care when I have gleaned all this amazing fruit. I pick on.
Then a hint of movement catches my eye. My eye notices, but my brain ignores. Bad brain. Bad, bad brain.
Suddenly, a fiery sword is thrust into my forearm. I look down and see a wasp the size of a 747 on my sleeve, its stinger buried in my arm. Even as I focus on my attacker, it is already moving further up my arm and getting ready to stab me again. Below my arm, I see a rising swarm of 747s. Unknowingly, I have intruded on the territory of a wasp nest hidden somewhere nearby in the brambles.
Retreat! my brain screams.
Fat chance! say the vines on my back and leg.
Wham! The wasp stings me again.
Then my body jolts into survival mode, and I twist, turn, dodge, bend, contort, rend, and thrash my way out of the blackberry patch and to a safe distance from my attackers, now moodily sinking back into the briars. My silent screaming (it is silent, isn’t it?) makes my ears ring. My back and my legs are thorn-clawed and throbbing. It feels like someone used a sledgehammer to drive two red-hot spikes into my arm.
Having fun yet? asks my inner cynic.
Wasps are scary. Can we go home now? asks my inner wimp.
I look down at my picking bucket and sigh with relief. Not one fruit has been lost in my flailing escape from the wasps. Although instinct demanded all speed, my inner miser refused to allow the loss of any berries. They are mine. All mine.
Unfortunately, having just begun, I haven’t picked enough berries yet. A car slows nearby, and I can sense the driver’s eyes measuring the fruitfulness of my blackberry patch. I move further down the briars, out of the territory of the wasps. Gingerly, I start picking again, eyes alert to any movement among the vines, keen to spot any new nest of stingers before they strike.
The sun bakes down on my shirted back, and winter looms on the horizon.