Western Washington’s moist, mild weather makes it an easy target for invasive species. Himalayan blackberry is a notable example. Local legend has it that Luther Burbank introduced it to this area, and that afterward he was very sorry.
Himalayan blackberry looks like, and in fact is like, green barbed wire with thorn-studded leaves and, come August, clusters of berries. It loves to hang its spiky tendrils down from steep slopes, driving away passersby and dropping berries to capture more territory. Those berries can be a lush, fruity pleasure, whether eaten fresh, baked in pies or made into preserves. Or they can be a stain, or rotten, or harbor a worm or two.
I’d been eying a patch of blackberries that lines one of Seattle’s many public stairways. Late in August, we got some rain, which makes blackberries ripen very fast. I decided I’d better go and see what I could pick before it was too late. As it turned out, not very much; and Pat rejected about ten percent of those when she cleaned them. But, while standing in the drizzle and hazarding my work clothes and soft, tender hands in the thorns, I realized what a great philosophical metaphor blackberry picking is.
- Something to put blackberries in, like a milk jug whose top a kindly friend has cut off. Your mouth will do, but this method makes it hard to share them with your friend.
- Something with which to push vines out of the way or pull clumps of berries within reach, like a stick. Your hand will do if you’re really careful or perhaps intoxicated. The thorns are fearfully long and sharp, and the vines have a way of draping themselves over a struggling victim.
- Clothes that are impervious to thorns, and that you don’t care about getting stained. For example, a medieval suit of armor; but that’s not a smart fashion statement for August. So, “don’t care about” may be as close as it’s practical to get on this one.
When selecting where to begin, you’ll want to avoid private property unless it looks really abandoned. And blackberries that grow along busy roads, near septic tanks, etc. probably aren’t good for you. Patches that are in plain sight and in reach of pedestrians, such as one lining a public stairway, are going to be too picked-over to bother with.
Now you’re as deep into your chosen patch as you dare wade. All around you, between the massive alien-looking vines, you see clumps of berries dangling just out of reach. They’re swaying gently up and down, or perhaps less gently, depending on how many thorns are embedded in your flesh and clothing and how you’re dealing with that. Study each opportunity before you reach for it. A clump consists of:
- Hard little red berries; come back for them later.
- Big berries that are mostly black but have one or two red bumps. These might be worth a try, depending on how desperate you are.
- Big berries that are all black and will pop off the vine in response to a gentle tug.
- Big berries that are all black and will not pop off the vine for any money. This kind is impossible to tell from the other kind without trying to pick them. You might be tempted to convert them to the other kind with a really hard tug; but then you’ll get part of the berry and a stain for your trouble.
- Small black berries that pop off the vine. Unfortunately, this kind is rotten.
- Little wisps of crumbling black where berries used to be. Too late!
Start picking at the bottom of the clump. Often, your jostling loosens ripe berries. They prefer to fall out of sight in the tangle of spiky vines so you can never get them. But if your hand is below them and cupped upward, you at least have a chance.
This is the point where optimists and pessimists go their separate ways. The optimist will strain and stretch his tender flesh thru a fanged green labyrinth for a dubious-looking berry, and probably get only a jab for his trouble. The pessimist will forgo berries that present any difficulty at all, and afterward be haunted by regret.
Give a promising berry a gentle tug. If that doesn’t work, you might try it again from a different angle. If it’s still not coming, let it go; it’s not for you.