Anybody from the northwest who likes a little sour in their fruits or is a sucker for anything that ends in “berry,” (thimbleberry, salmonberry, huckleberry, Marionberry and cloudberry, among others on a long list) will vouch for the blackberry’s true standing in the ranks. For one thing, they actually know what a ripe blackberry (not the kind you get at the grocery store) tastes like. They probably know how good they are for you. And, as a bonus, they know how special any fruit or vegetable is that is so deep in color, it can stain your hands, your face, your clothes, your Easter eggs or even your wool, if you want to go that route.
When we moved into our big house on Lake Washington in Seattle in 1965, we had remedial work to do from three years worth of renters’ lack of care, and pretty much an overhaul of the back yard — about a quarter acre — which was 90 percent blackberry patch at the time. They were brambles (defined as impenetrable thickets), a near jungle of thorns as far as the eye could see, cascading down from the house to Lake Washington Boulevard. My mother, who was to become an incredible gardener and knower of plants, probably felt disheartened by what seemed an impossible prospect.
For my dad, it was all simply a matter of motivating the troops (his children) to get out there and help him remove the nasty invaders (6-to-8 feet tall) so that order could be restored. So that Phase 2 could commence. So that a Plan for the Garden could be executed. Meanwhile, one of things we kids did with all the blackberries was to fill plastic bags with them and mush them around with a little sugar and sour cream, then snip off the end and squeeze it into our mouths. Yeah. A delicious jumble of sweet and sour and creaminess.
Fast forward a thousand scratches and a billion machete hacks later (mostly by my dad) and lo and behold we uncover what early photos of the house — built in 1911 — must have hinted at: a rock garden, completely intact, and, midway, a pond and set of waterfalls below it. Fast forward a few more years and hundreds of plantings later, and the garden truly is something to behold, thanks in large part to my mom, her green thumb, her growing expertise, and her willingness to get out there and weed for days. We’d put down the rebellion of Rubus ursinus and restored order!
In the meantime, in spite of a large vegetable garden in the way back and dwarf fruit trees irrigated by the pond falls, Dad would occasionally announce that it was time to go to the u-pick places for their raspberries and strawberries. Not blackberries. Nope. He wanted the more refined of the berries — the commercially cultivated ones, the dumbed-down-but-beefed-up ones, hahahaha!
At that point, it was just my mom and I at home, and, above and beyond the irony of driving to someone else’s bramble, we’d inwardly moan and groan. It meant picking for hours, for me. It meant processing for days, for her. I do remember the smell of warm fresh-out-of-the-trunk berries, the inebriation of what felt like berry fumes filling my head and fume-y essence of syrup in my throat. I don’t really recall what she did with all those berries, because we didn’t make jam back then, but I’m thinking she made some kind of Dad-authorized fruit purée for use on oatmeal and toast.
Sometime later, after I’d left home, I got a call from my mother, up in arms because my dad, her husband, had, without asking her, dug up the 30-square foot patch of her precious small white strawberries that had been part of the original garden. That were taking over, he said. That weren’t serving any purpose. In the same way he’d pruned the precious lilac tree to a shadow of its former self, he’d made another executive decision. In case it’s not evident, you can’t take the command out of the commander, even given a battalion of a motley two.
Since my move to Colorado 35 years ago, I’ve planted raspberries and strawberries, as well as sought out their natural bramble-born varieties. In order to connect to the past and to a particular berry I love so well, however, we drive to our favorite u-pick place in Paonia, where the blackberry brambles are well-behaved enough (but not too well behaved) and we pick. You can still eat one for every five you put in the basket there and feel all the goodness of big fat berries with giant drupelets popping in your mouth, still warm from the sun. Then the sweet, staining, purple-black juice dripping down your throat, quenching the wild thirst within.
More of Michelle’s work can be found on her website, michellecurrywright.com.