My husband considers me a bit "loony." Why, when the temperature is in the 90s, would anyone in her right mind choose to bundle up in a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, spend the day fighting brambles, gnats, and possibly snakes, and then return home stained red with blood and berry juice? Sometimes I wonder myself, especially when I probe for a stubborn thorn or try to disguise my scratched hands.
Despite these hindrances, when July rolls around, I find myself wondering what the berry crop is like this summer. Finally I succumb, don my protective clothing, douse myself with insect repellent, round up my bucket and a sturdy stick, and head for the berry patch.
But before this, in late spring, I scout mountain roads and along the fences around pastures. When I spot arching spans of new canes filled with white blossoms, I make a mental note: Return in July.
I learned this strategy as a child and still find it exciting. During the Depression, children contributed to the family economy by gathering berries and nuts. From the first wild strawberries in late May until October, when winds showered the ground with walnuts and hickory nuts, we spent hours reaping harvests we did not sow, contemplating the delicious pies, cakes, and jams they would provide.
I suppose nostalgia plays a part in my quest for the wild fruits. But it's more than that. For me, berry picking is a spiritual experience. Berries often grow in abandoned, remote areas, away from the noise of traffic and the busyness of modern life. The sheer silence is soothing. Silence that's punctuated only by the lyrical warbling of a mockingbird or the occasional rustle of a rabbit startled by this invasion of his briar patch. I find my body relaxing and my mind freed from anxiety, contemplating deeper and more meaningful matters.
The abundance of dark, ripe fruit and clusters of bright-red berries – with a promise of more to come – speak to me of God's goodness in providing for his creatures. I meditate on a few words from Psalm 67: "The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God shall bless us...."
Each cane is covered with berries, and each berry is loaded with seeds. New berries will appear not just in this spot but wherever the birds fly and drop the seeds. The very place where berries grow – abandoned areas, where storms have broken trees – reminds me of goodness appearing in an apparently hopeless situation.
Abundant rain has produced the nicest blackberries I've picked in years. Most are as large as the first joint of my thumb, covered with clusters of tiny purplish spheres.
My fingers slide beneath each one and separate it from the branch. Plunk, plunk! They drop into the bucket. Soon the bottom is covered and no sound is heard as the berries accumulate.
There's more to these berries than just food for me and wildlife. They also combine delicious taste and beauty.
And although they are available for only a short period of time, if I time my picking day right, I also find red raspberries that ripen before the peak of the blackberry season. Each one is like a ruby, glistening in the sunlight.
I try to gather them carefully, placing my bucket beneath the clusters to catch the berries as they drop.
If they fall to the ground amid the tangle of poison ivy and dead branches, they can't be retrieved. Sometimes my carelessness causes me to lose them. Sometimes their loss cannot be prevented – merely pulling the vine toward me can cause them to fall.
So it is with life, I think. We make mistakes and things just happen. No need to fret. I move on and soon locate another loaded cane.
My stick is a simple but crucial piece of equipment. I probe the area ahead before stepping into a thicket to avoid surprising a snake or other critter. If I should hear a warning rattle I can retreat.
I also use the stick to spread the branches, revealing the fruit hidden beneath the leaves, or to pull a cane nearer. Occasionally a long cane will snag my shirt. I become entangled, unable to pull free. I imagine a scene from a science-fiction movie, where the briars snare a human and devour her on the spot.
But my trusty stick pushes the cane away and I step aside, free again. Another metaphor: Tangled and snared by temptation, "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4).
It begins to rain, a light, summer shower. Soon my shirt and hat are soaked, but I want to fill my bucket. Just as I am about to head for my car, I spot a patch of the reddest, ripest raspberries I've seen all day. They are deep inside a thicket, far from the path, hovering above a pile of broken tree limbs.
Common sense says I would be foolish to go after them. I recall lines from Robert Browning, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Reluctantly, though, I turn away and head for the car, hoping a bird will drop the seeds of those superior berries in a more accessible spot.
Once I've gotten home and cleaned up, I am ready to enjoy the spoils of my picking. No amount of money could purchase a single one of these precious berries.
Like the Little Red Hen, I will share them with my own little chicks – city-bred grandchildren who might otherwise never know the taste of hot blackberry cobbler, homemade blackberry jam, or fresh blackberries with cream.