On blackberries

A clump of blackberries, some ripe, some not.

How can you not want to eat these?

It’s summer in Seattle, and that means that those asshole bushes with all the prickers that grow everywhere in Seattle are finally doing what they were made to do, which is producing blackberries.

Whenever I go by blackberry vines, I think of Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker:

To the King, during tea, Bernard had advocated the planting of blackberries on every building top in Seattle. They would require no care, aside from encouraging them, arborlike, to crisscross the streets, roof to roof; to arch, forming canopies, natural arcades, as it were. In no time at all, people could walk through the city in the downpouringest of winter and feel not a splat. Every shopper, every theatre-goer, every cop on the beat, every snoozing bum would be snug and dry. The pale green illumination that filtered down through the dome of vines could inspire a whole new school of painting: centuries from now, art critics might speak, as of chiaroscuro, of “blackberry light.” The vine would attract birds. Woodpeckers might not bother, but many birds would. The birds would sing. A bird full of berry pulp is like an Italian full of pathos. Small animals might move into the arches. “Look, Billy, up there, over the Dental building. A badger!” And the fruit, mustn’t forget the fruit. It would nourish the hungry, stabilize the poor. The more enterprising winos could distill their own spirits. Seattle could become the Blackberry Brandy Capital of the World. Tourists would spend millions annually on Seattle blackberry pies, the discerning toast of the nation would demand to be spread with Seattle blackberry jam. The chefs at the French restaurants would dish up duck in purplish sauces, fill once rained-on noses with the baking aromas of gâteau mûre de ronce. The whores might become known, affectionately, as blackberry tarts. The Teamsters could try to organize the berry pickers. And in late summer, when the brambles were proliferating madly, growing faster than the human eye can see, the energy of their furious growth could be hooked up to generators that, spinning with blackberry power, could supply electrical current for the entire metropolis. A vegetative utopia, that’s what it would be. Seattle, Berry Town, encapsulated, self-sufficient, thriving under a living ceiling, blossoms in its hair, juice on its chin, more blackberries–and more!–in its future. Consider the protection offered. What enemy paratroopers could get through the briars?

The King’s heart had rattled like spook chains in a horror show. Trembling, he had changed the subject to basketball.

Walking through some districts of Seattle, you start to think the idea’s not so crazy after all.

My roommate and I were walking down the Olive Way hill the other day, and I darted to the side of the pavement when I spotted some of those shining little blue-black clumps. The ripe ones popped off into my palm with a little pull, and I offered some to my roommate. She declined.

Picking fruit from bushes growing by the side of the highway requires plugging your ears against all the wisdom your mother and your teachers ever gave you, because for some reason it feels like eating something you picked up off the sidewalk. “Don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been!” And while it’s probably true that the berries by the I-5 overpass have had exhaust blown over them, been buffeted by birds and bees,  they’re not likely to have enough of anything on them to make you sick if you pop three or six off the bush and into your mouth. It rains too much in Seattle for the dirt to stick to them.

The berries now, just coming to ripeness, hit your tongue with tartness, and the seeds crunch lightly between your teeth. On el Camino de Santiago, we picked blackberries all the way through Northern Spain; it was later in the season there, and the bushes were loaded, and the berries were sweet. Picking berries next to vineyards and orchards always made me a little nervous, apprehensive that some Spanish farmer would chase off us peregrinos for stealing his fruit. No one ever did. The berries were my morning supplement to my breakfasts of coffee and bread, a bit of much needed variety for a vegetarian in jamón country.

My parents and I joked that we were taking bits of Spain with us as we walked. We were in communion with the country itself; it fed our bodies as the walk was supposed to feed our souls and minds. I pictured the peregrinos of the Middle Ages stopping, as we stopped, to fill their hands with fruit, reliant on the charity of strangers and the provisions of God. In many ways, picking berries from the side of the road made me feel more connected to the history and the spirituality of the pilgrimage than the cathedrals.

The Burke-Gilman trail isn’t exactly a Roman road, but it has just as many blackberries. And they’re delicious.

If you get a handful of blackberries, shake them like you would a handful of dice. It gets rid of most of the little bits of plant matter clinging to them.

Your hands might end up looking a little purple. There are worse things in the summer in Seattle.

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2 thoughts on “On blackberries

  1. I don’t recall your mother telling you to “don’t put that in your mouth,” but I might not have been there at the time. Love the Tom Robbins concept, and we recall the peregrino communion with pleasure.

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