Huey with blackberries and jam
For the past couple of weeks I’ve played my gigs through wincing pain. The pads of the fingers on my right hand are covered with puncture wounds and splinters of tiny thorns; they’re also stained the color of Barney the dinosaur. I’m a bit embarrassed at the unsightly chigger bites covering my wrists, the backs of my hands, my ankles. And to be perfectly truthful, I’ve been sneaking onto someone else’s property in the evenings about two hours before the sun goes down. It’s slightly cooler then, which matters a lot since I’m wearing heavy gauge long pants, a long sleeved shirt, boots, and a hat. It’s not what you think. Wait, maybe it is. Blackberries.
I take for granted the ubiquitous wild fruit that grows on cut-over land in my region. But last summer was cool and wet, and there were no blackberries to be had. The fruit itself is too seedy and tart for me. But when made into syrup, jam, sherbet, and vinegar it’s one of my very favorite flavors. Midwinter I ran out of blackberry syrup (which is my topping of choice for yogurt) and I’ve had a mighty craving ever since.
Two years ago, blackberries grew everywhere on our farm. Since then the trees have gotten taller and shaded them out. But a fifteen-minute walk through the woods gets me to a large parcel of recently lumbered land with acres and acres of brambles, seedling loblollies and poplars, and yes…blackberries. Any experienced blackberry forager knows that to get to the sweetest, plumpest berries, you have to fight through the fierce new growth vines that surround the old, berry-laden vines that hide in the back, usually near the edge of the woods. I called my dad after my first time out this year, complaining bitterly about my bleeding hands. Full of practical wisdom, he said, (insert WV accent) “you know what you need is a heavy leather glove on your left hand and a rope to tie your bucket around your neck at waist length.” Genius! After implementing his advice I could pick a gallon per hour.
There’s a thrill to finding abundant food that I didn’t cultivate myself. I’m sure this is what foragers of wild mushrooms must feel. I work so hard on my garden beds, planting most of what I grow from seeds that I’ve saved myself. I wait. I weed. I weed some more. But in July I suit up in protective gear and head to lands of red clay thorny torture. I return with buckets of pure blackish-purple heaven.
For the past two years I’ve been writing about this great community activity in Southside VA. It has transformed my methods of gardening and preserving knowing that I can buy certain crops in bulk that were grown just down the road from me. I no longer bother with the plants that either take up too much room (squash) or that don’t do well in my garden (broccoli). That makes room for the fun crops like peppers and beans and tomatoes. I added a whole row of sunflowers this year for the bees.
I’ve never been much for flower gardens. Beautiful wildflowers grow everywhere out here, so I’ve always concentrated on vegetables and fruit. You can imagine my surprise when I heard my number called…”sold to #580.” I turned to see Pat bidding on flowers. And bidding. And bidding. When we got home he tilled up a big section of the yard and planted the loveliest annual flower garden. I admit, it’s very pretty. The bees agree. A couple of nights ago I watched a hummingbird moth drinking from all the petunias; a thrilling sight if you’ve never seen one of these amazing moths.
One more thing that you can’t see in this picture: I bought an entire flat of watermelon plants. They looked so healthy and strong, and no one else was bidding on them. So I brought them home and admitted to Pat that there was no room in my garden to plant them. He suggested that we put them in flower beds all over over the front yard and see what happens. That was 3 weeks ago. Not one plant has died and they’re vining everywhere. I hope you guys like watermelons.
Over the winter, a new friend showed up outside our cabin. At the time, we just called her “The Fox.” She’d make her rounds just before sunset and kept her distance from the porch. I was immediately charmed by her pretty face and lustrous coat, and started putting meat scraps out for her. Lo and behold, she came closer and closer, until one day I noticed her sitting outside waiting for her evening snack. I present her with cat food, cat treats, pork cracklins, and spoons of bacon grease (good for a shiny coat). She doesn’t mind us talking to her, or even shining the flash light on her after dark, but if we make a sharp movement her skittishness has her many yards away in an instant. Although I doubt I’ll ever get her to eat from my hand or be able to pet her beautiful fur, it’s enough to see such a lovely creature up close. Earlier this week, I told Pat that I think she needs a name. He said, “It’s Lily.”