Picking Berries

On Picking Wild Blackberries

Three Kinds
Here on the Long Beach Peninsula in SW Washington State we have three main varieties. Only one is native. It is a small trailing plant to be found on the roadside or clearcuts, or climbing over other vegetation, including the other berries. It is the smallest and tastiest of the berries.
Himalayan blackberries have a cut-leaf pattern and a sprawling habit.
The ones Luther Burbank is responsible for make huge mountains of themselves, covering other piles of shell, stumps, cars or junk in a season. It bears the most and largest fruit, and has the meanest stickers. If you’re going for quantity, this is your berry.

What to Wear
Since the wild ones cohabit with the big ones, you can sometimes find a patch where they both mature at once. The new growth blocks access to the older branches with all the berries on them, so go prepared. Take clippers to get the obstructing branches out of the way. Wear a glove on your left hand (if you are right handed) so you can hold up a branch and with your right hand you can pick the dangling berries. I wear Carhart Overalls, knee boots, a thick shirt and a hat. That way i can just walk straight into the thicket, leaning always further on the young stickers, until I can reach the mature berries without puncturing my flesh. Wear a plastic bucket on a string around your neck. it should hold about a gallon; more than that and it will hurt your neck. It should hang down below your waist. Your right hand delivers berries to the bucket, usually after picking 8 – 10 berries per handful.

Finding the Berries
The berries are on top and underneath. Go both places, lift the branches, even the ones you are crushing under your feet. The berries like the calcium of the big oyster shell piles, and places where water is abundant late in the summer, like drainage ditches and along fresh waterways.

How to Pick
Cup your hand under the berries and coax them with your fingers and thumb. If they fall into your hand, they are ripe. If you bruise them trying to part them from the vine, you’re jumping the gun. Those will be ready in a few days. When you touch berries, you’ll get to know how turgid a ripe berry feels; an immature berry is cold, feels hard, and holds fast to the vine. Use your gloved left hand to hold the branches, and use both hands to guide the berries into your right hand. Taste frequently.

Primate as Harvester

After a few hours of picking berries I briefly closed my eyes and was startled by what I saw: a perfect sprig of ripe blackberries in clear and vivid detail. These images show up unbidden after a few hours of harvesting beans, too, so it must be some primate vision circuitry which improves our likelihood of survival. I’ve been pondering it for years, and was finally able to make up a possible answer: it’s an aid to image completion. when picking berries you’re often looking through branches and patches of light and shade. To be able to assemble the information to the extent of seeing the berry is what helps you find it. Your brain keeps all the previous images and helps you complete the picture, a visual archetype. The image inside my eyelid is always of perfect berries or beans, never bruised, moldy or overripe ones.

Sky full of Berries

The silhouette was of two overlapping hilltops:  one a pile of oyster shells, the other a gigantic wild blackberry patch. Climbing on the razor sharp white shells picking the berries where the hills intersect, I spotted a pathway leading down the shell hillside into the berries. It was dark and so steep that one step was sure to send me all the way down the slope, and I dared!  Reaching the bottom and looking up I was in a dome of blackberry brambles, all the berries hanging down in the shade and within reach. The hollow mountain of bramble was roomy and cool. The path was no doubt made by another specie of berry lover, and the most common one around was bear, as evidenced by their scat.  Having named the source of my foreboding, I wouldn’t have been surprised to meet a bear there, but the berries were so abundant, neither of us would have felt moved to protect our solitary access.

Limits to Gathering

The first berries of the season are singles at the point of a cluster of green ones. Tantalizing in their promise, one must visit a lot of branches to fill the bucket hanging around the neck.  As more mature together, finding them means lifting up the vines like a petticoat to peek underneath. Left hand gloved against the thorns, right hand cupped to pick 8-10 per handful to carry to the bucket.  There are ripe ones that release from the stem unambiguously willing. Those that don’t release are either immature, or later in the year, mush in the fingers, once again clinging. If the succession of rain and sun is just perfect, those ripe ones take on a double load of juice, huge hernias. Late in the season, weather permitting, all the remaining berries are big and puffy, and the vines have stopped maintaining the leaves, so the berries are stark temptations and you can pick with both hands as fast as you can in the knowledge that the end is near for another year.  This year we made 50 gallons of blackberry wine. We can afford to have many guests in the coming year.

Aunt Mary’s Hand

I reach for the berry and see not just mine, but also Aunt Mary’s tanned hand with weeks’ worth of berry vine scratches.  Her hand informs my own, and I find more berries hiding.


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