I grew up in a house with a very large garden run by my grandparents, a retired farming couple, so I was well used to talk of good and bad growing years and planting, watering, weeding, picking and storing was part of the rhythm of everyday life but this year has taught me a new word. This year, 2013, is a mast year, a year in which trees and shrubs produce an abundance of fruit and seed allowing the wild creatures who feed on them to feed, store and thrive. It isn’t certain exactly why this happens, it can be part of the natural growth cycle of a tree, but it is also thought to be linked to a warm dry summer which follows a poor, damp summer in the previous year with a lot of growth and little fruit and this is exactly what we have just experienced. Everything is ready to shoot forth when it gets the chance and during a mast year small mammals like rats, stoats, shrews, squirrels and weasels will all enjoy the benefit of this and raise more young. They are not the only ones.
This September the dogs and I are already taking advantage of a bumper crop of blackberries each day on our cliff top walk and picking blackberries to make into tarts, pies, crumbles and jam, and there are many more to come. When they are large, plentiful and juicy this takes little time and we have been picking from bushes that I never picked from before even though I have been walking past them every autumn for years. The biggest blackberry bushes, the ones I go to every year, are nowhere near ripe yet. Sadly the blackberries that the dogs pick never quite reach the bag but they know how to find the ripe ones and get their lips around them for a fresh treat. It is a great way to notice the tiny scraps of insect life that are all around us and as mast years are also good for butterflies we have had plenty of colourful company.
These days picking blackberries seems strange behaviour to some people who see me along the track. I have been told that it isn’t worth getting scratched to bits, giggled at, and been informed more times than I can remember now that I am “picking blackberries” as though it is a strange aberration that I ought to get over. That would never have happened when I was young. Picking brambles ( they would never have been called blackberries back then) was something everyday, something ordinary. It was a common sense way of getting some free fruit just as the red garden fruit was starting to run out. Lots of jam was made every year- enough to get us through the winter- and it was fun. Picking soft fruit was always my favourite job at home, it was a chance to get out of the house and get messy without being in trouble for it and picking brambles was the most fun of all because I had to leave the garden to get them and sometimes I was allowed out on my own to do it. So long as I watched out for creepy crawlies, kept the fruit dry and didn’t squash it in my fingers as I picked it the grown ups at home would be pleased with me. Keeping it dry was important as we didn’t have a fridge, just a larder cupboard with a metal mesh window that allowed cool air in. Damp, squashy brambles would go mouldy “as soon as you would look at them” and be wasted and sometimes if you tipped the fruit into a bowl and left it on the side when you came back half an hour later strange things would have crawled out.
Seasonal activities which don’t change are a good way to rekindle memories and maintain a connection with your younger self. Picking blackberries reminds me who I was and it shows me who I am now as I spend time away from life hidden away amongst the undergrowth. Simple repetitive activities give me time to think, or just be, and I have the pleasure of bringing home something delicious which has cost me nothing but a few scratches.
I will never be embarrassed to get out there and pick blackberries, how could I be after the upbringing that I had? Buying them in a supermarket for two pounds a small punnet, now THAT’S embarrassing!
I thought about writing a poem about blackberry picking but if ever a subject for a poem has been done to perfection it’s this..……..