Mama would be so pleased. For the first time in my six summers here, I didn’t miss the trailing blackberry season. Every year she would ask me if I’d been berry picking, and I would roll my eyes and tell her no. She never asked in time, and I never thought about it. They come in mid-summer, unlike the later-bearing Himalayan, and—also unlike their wicked stepsisters—are hard to find.
The gigantic Himalayan grows along the road, in urban Seattle, in my rhododendrons, up into the trees next to the driveway. The canes with bear-claw-size thorns that reach out and grab at everything that passes anywhere close can grow a freakish 20 feet a year. And you can’t kill them.
The trailing sweetheart, though, meanders determinedly along at ground level, snaking across the trails I cleared and cleared again and cleared again. They tangle up at the edge of the meadow with their hairlike briars that unaggressively scratch skin, but not in the garden, they know their place. They only bear fruit where there is light. They love clearings, sprouting up after a logging operation; but when the trees grow back, the vines annoyingly keep growing, they just don’t bear. So finding a good patch of vines doesn’t mean there will be berries, the tricksters.
They don’t grow in clusters, hanging like bunches of grapes as the Himalayan do. With them, you reach for one and your bucket is half full without moving. They are the ones I picked when I was 14 and sold by the pound to a restaurant to make money for a ticket on the Coast Starlight to visit my aunt and uncle in California. The lazy man’s berry. The native variety requires you to take five steps into the middle of a thicket because you spotted one berry from the trail under a leaf. If you are lucky there might be one more you didn’t see hiding near it and maybe a couple more if you really stretch.
The native Western trailing blackberry is known for its intense flavor and kind of blackberry-meets-raspberry color. Well, not really that known. They are not so prolific as the invasive introduced Himalayan, which connoisseurs—such as my mother—say are crap, not even worth eating with their bland non-flavor and giant teeth-sticking-in seeds. Bigger may fill up your bucket faster, but it doesn’t equal better. But it fills up your bucket faster, you see my point.
My mother was a picky picker zealot, every year intrepidly finding the elusive berries for her killer blackberry cobbler that might have been the reason her daughters traveled back home from across the country every summer. She disdained the Himalayan and refused to eat the jelly I made, even though I strained out every seed for her. She had her caregiver buy blackberry jelly at Safeway while my half pints languished on the pantry shelf.
Anyway, I digress. I went out this morning ahead of the heat, hoping I was also ahead of the bear. “Our” bear, which I haven’t seen for two years, but I have seen evidence of in the meadow many times, was spotted in the woods on the Fourth of July, eating berries along the trail. I went out hunting a few days later—after Camp Gigi—but didn’t find any. But this week my neighbor said she’s been picking in her lower 40, so I determined to get out there again.
I grabbed my spare bear whistle and stuck it in my pocket and headed out at 7am. I covered the bottom of the coffee can berry bucket—one of those my dad made back in the day for blackberries in the woods and huckleberries at Mt. St. Helens—which is cause for a small happy dance celebration, before I even left my property. I had to pull out the sticky “bed straw” weed to even get at the vines.
The whistle must have fallen out there because I didn’t have it when I got onto the trails, after nearly tripping over scat in the meadow. Knowing bears have sensitive hearing and because I can’t whistle—more’s the shame—I sang. “I love to go a-wandering, along the mountain trail, and as I go I love to sing, my knapsack on my back. Valderie…” well, you get the idea.
I waded into the stickery patches, stretching for the elusive fruit, turning over leaves, gingerly pulling aside vines. I decided not to walk several feet out the vine-covered log over a small ravine to get the one ripe berry I could see, though I have done so in the past. I’m going hiking tomorrow, I have my limits to what I am willing to risk injury for. Today one berry was not it.
I walked a mile and a half for an hour and a half to get a quarter of a bucket of black gold. I did not see the bear. I cleaned my treasure, spread them on a pan for freezing. Hopefully when I return from a visit to the Littles and a hike in the Snoqualmie region closer to them than to me, I will find more to add to it so I can make a cobbler. I hope Mama would approve.