Thorns that Thwart Sweetness

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d ke
ep, knew they would not.
~Seamus Heaney “Blackberry Picking”

…Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you
Ezekiel 2:6

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.
~John Stott
from The Cross

Today I will make wild blackberry cobbler, facing down the brambles and briers that thwart my reach for the elusive fruit – in this heat, it is important to harvest blackberries before they shrivel up and rot on the vine. I aim to gather more berries than scratches to prove that thorns and rot must never win and I will not yield to them.

Painful thorns and decay have always been part of life. They barricade us from all that is sweet and good and precious. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry out in pain and grief, cause a stink, and deepen our fear that we may never overcome such a sorrowful destiny.

Yet even the most brutal crown of thorns or the rot of the grave did not stop the loving sacrifice, can never thwart the sweetness of redemption, will not spoil the goodness, nor destroy the promise of salvation to come.

We simply wait to be fed the loving gift that comes only from bloodied hands.

Flesh will fail and bones will break
thieves will steal, the earth will shake
Night will fall, the light will fade
The Lord will give and take away

Put no trust in the earth
in the sod you stand upon
Flowers fade into dust
The Lord will make a place for us

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

Have no fear for your life
Turn your cheek, turn your cheek
Bear the yoke of love and death
The Lord will give all life and breath

Because of His great Love
We are not overcome
Because of His great Love
We are not overcome

(from Bifrost Arts)

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Bright Drupelets

I eat these
wild red raspberries
still warm from the sun
and smelling faintly of jewelweed
in memory of my father

tucking the napkin
under his chin and bending
over an ironstone bowl
of the bright drupelets
awash in cream

my father
with the sigh of a man
who has seen all and been redeemed
said time after time
as he lifted his spoon

men kill for this.
~Maxine Kumin “Appetite” from Selected Poems: 1960-1990.

I’ve always wondered if there was a name for the small round globe that is part of the whole aggregate berry like a thimbleberry, raspberry or blackberry – they are so smooth and perfectly formed, each a uniquely homogenous part of the whole. Yet if separated and by itself, nearly invisible.

So I found out each individual is called a drupe, or more familiar and lovingly, a drupelet. Despite such a plain name, each little drupelet bears its own beauty, and a special flavor to be savored and unforgotten, only made sweeter by being part of the whole – – even sweeter when redeemed and consumed.

Kind of like us, willing to die for just such a taste of eternity.

Kind of like us.

photo by Nate Gibson

The Full Ripe of Berrytime

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

~Galway Kinnell “Blackberry Eating”

“In that year, 1914, we lived on the farm
And the relatives lived with us.
A banner year for wild blackberries
Dad was crazy about wild blackberries
No berries like that now.

You know Kitsap County was logged before
The turn of the century—it was easiest of all,
Close to water, virgin timber,

When I was a kid walking about in the
Stumpland, wherever you’d go a skidroad
Puncheon, all overgrown.
We went up one like that, fighting our way through
To its end near the top of a hill:
For some reason wild blackberries
Grew best there. We took off one morning
Right after milking: rode the horses
To a valley we’d been to once before
Hunting berries, and hitched the horses.
About a quarter mile up the old road
We found the full ripe of berrytime—
And with only two pails—so we
Went back home, got Mother and Ruth,
And filled lots of pails. Mother sent letters
To all the relatives in Seattle:
Effie, Aunt Lucy, Bill Moore,
Forrest, Edna, six or eight, they all came
Out to the farm, and we didn’t take pails
Then: we took copper clothes-boilers,
Wash-tubs, buckets, and all went picking.
We were canning for three days.”
~ Gary Snyder “6” from Myths and Texts.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries~
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Aurora Leigh”

All I wanted was a few blackberries.

I admit my objective was just to pick enough for cobbler for today’s noon dinner after church, oblivious to God burning in the bushes towering over me, around me, snagging me at every opportunity.  If I had given it more thought, I would have realized the reaching vines hooking my arms and legs were hardly subtle.  The thorns ripped at my skin, leaving me bloody and smarting.  The fruit itself stained my hands purple, making them look freshly bruised.  I crushed fat vines underfoot, trampling and stomping with my muck boots in order to dive deeper into the bushes.  Webs were everywhere, with spiders crawling up my arms and dropping down into my hair.  I managed to kick up one hornet’s nest so I called it quits.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, so blinded to all the clues crammed in every nook and cranny of every bush.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, trampling on holy ground with well-protected feet, unwilling to be barefoot and tenderly vulnerable.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, the lure of black gold plucked at the cost of rips and scratches and tears.

What I got was burned by a bush…

and a few blackberries for today’s crammed-with-heaven cobbler.

Seen All and Been Redeemed

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I eat these
wild red raspberries
still warm from the sun
and smelling faintly of jewelweed
in memory of my father

tucking the napkin
under his chin and bending
over an ironstone bowl
of the bright drupelets
awash in cream

my father
with the sigh of a man
who has seen all and been redeemed
said time after time
as he lifted his spoon

men kill for this.
~Maxine Kumin, “Appetite” from Selected Poems: 1960-1990.

 

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We’ve exhausted the strawberries with only a few “everbearing” continuing to produce through the remaining hot days of summer.  The raspberries too are drying up with leaves curling.  The mountain huckleberries have had their hey-day.  The blueberries continue strong and juicy.

And now blackberries, free for the picking, hang in mouth-watering clusters from every fence line, long roads and ditches, just begging to be eaten.  Blackberry vines seem like trouble 90% of the year–growing where they are not welcome;  their thorns reach out to grab passersby without discriminating between human, dog or horse. But for about 3 weeks in August, they yield black gold–bursting unimaginably sweet fruit that is worth the hassle borne the rest of the weeks of the year.

Thorns are indeed part of our everyday life. They stand in front of much that is sweet and good and precious to us. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry, make us beg for mercy.  In fact, man has died by thorns and been killed for the sweetness.

Yet thorns did not stop salvation, did not stop goodness, did not stop the promise of redemption to come. We don’t even need to wait to be fed and no one need die: such a gift as this was dropped from heaven itself.

 

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Berries as Big as the End of Your Thumb

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Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe!  You ought to have seen!

I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
~Robert Frost from “Blueberries”

 

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We live in the middle of a county with bountiful berries this time of year, both wild and farmed.

Just as sweet cherries are disappearing from the orchards and strawberry harvest finished a few weeks ago, now raspberries are going strong for almost three weeks and blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief.  Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the wild evergreen and Himalaya wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting.  Local currants are shiny and glistening.  There are only a few cranberry bogs left in our area, hampered by marketing issues that favor New England’s crop.

It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with many of them growing wild in our own back yards and woodlands.

There are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little roundish-shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more savory than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry.  Thimble berries hang from wild bushes – salmon colored, red and black varieties.  Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers.  Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that are ripening on gentle winding vines right now at the edges of the woods and fences, as well as in roadside ditches or around tree stumps.  They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with both wild and domesticated berry vines and bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it.  I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it.  I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound.  For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.

I preferred blueberry picking most of all.  When I now put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighbor’s berry field with pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands.  The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July  sun.  The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail.  They didn’t smush, or bruise, and didn’t harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs.  They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order.   I wasn’t even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells.   In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.

There are now so many raspberry and blueberry fields in our county,  the price per pound has dropped and the market is shaky.  A few years ago one farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick his ripe blueberries at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes.  I stopped by another farm’s roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries.  He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and he hoped the bushes would yield blue gold for his family for a very long time, even if some years are low price years.

Some raspberry farmers aren’t feeling so optimistic this year as their primary corporate buyer backed out at the last minute, and the fragile berries are just falling off the bushes for lack of a place to be processed.  Sadly, it is possible some berry fields will be torn out and converted to some other crop with more certain market potential.

As a fellow farmer, I am aware of how one’s carefully tended crops can go to waste, whether it is due to weather or pests or the vagaries of the market.  I hope our berry farmers can persist through the hard times so the exquisite perfection of a local berry bounty can continue in such variety of colors, shapes and sizes, even some as big as the end of your thumb.

 

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Keeping Watch

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I will try.
I will step from the house to see what I see and hear and I will praise it…

But this too, I believe, is a place
where God is keeping watch
until we rise, and step forth again…
~Mary Oliver from “Red Bird”

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Wandering Over Huckleberry Hills

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Lying back in the soft hay,
I folded my hands behind my head,
closed my eyes, and let my mind wander…

I thought of the blackberry patches, and the huckleberry hills.
I thought of the prayer I had said
when I asked God to help me get two hound pups.

I knew He had surely helped,
for He had given me the heart, courage, and determination.

~Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows

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A Bramble of Blackberry

mountainblackberry…the notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies…

There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
~Robert Haas from “Meditation at Lagunitas”

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