You can’t win a wrestling match against a Himalayan blackberry vine. Some of the creepers are as thick as my finger, with spines the shape of shark’s teeth. If they want you, they’ll get you – and they’ll hold on.
The only way out is to dance.
A vine snags my left sleeve or, worse, my actual arm. I slowly turn to the left, my body describing a stately arc, to disengage the thorns. This is followed by a couple of quick but measured steps to get myself away from the vine as it swings back into place. There might have been a ripping sound as the teeth let go. Usually it sounds worse than it is.
Even so, when I hit the shower my arms begin to sting. Upon inspection it looks like I tried to neuter a panther without anesthetic. I didn’t feel the scratches at the time because I was so focused on those plump black ovals. It’s only later that I feel what happened.
Totally worth it. All this wonderful fruit, for free. The ripest berries are so soft that they dissolve like meringue when your tongue pushes them against the roof of your mouth. As they melt they emit an intoxicating, nearly wine-like flavor.
I eat almost as many as I pick. But I pick a lot. Hence the scars.
A wicked yet beloved vine
I make jam, for myself and to give as frugal gifts. I freeze countless pints to enjoy in my breakfast oatmeal, to turn into shortcakes or cobblers, and to throw into the blender with a little sugar and 2% milk – the result thickens up like sorbet and tastes better than ice cream.
My sister says that blackberries taste like summer. They do. But they also taste like a miracle: The miracle of growing food, a seed the size of a pencil point turning into a wicked vine that some say can grow 40 feet tall and strangle trees. I’ve seen them climb at least 20 feet up, dark berries dangling incongruously amid plum leaves or fir needles.
Homeowners hate them because they’re so fiendishly invasive, growing anywhere there’s a patch of dirt. Sometimes you’ll see blackberry vines sprouting in downtown Seattle sidewalks. I spotted one coming up between a couple of loosened bricks on a University of Washington pathway. The blackberries you will always have with you, despite all attempts at chemical or biological controls.
Yes, biological: Goat-renting is a cottage industry in the region. You can hire a guy to bring billies and nannies over to chow down on the vines in your yard. Those creatures must have mouths like granite.
The best berries always seem to be just out of reach (insert your own metaphor here). They’re either woven into deathtraps of spiny vines that even I’m not stupid enough to reach through, or they’re hung up in a hedge or tree, a maddening six inches from your fingertips.
But the low-hanging fruit is good, too. Witness the purple stains under my fingernails, my stuffed freezer and array of jam jars, and, yes, the striations on my arms and hands. John Steinbeck once wrote that he considered his hangovers to be a consequence, not a punishment. I feel the same way about blackberrying. Every year my arms hurt. But every year I get all the blackberries I want, for free. I consider that a fair trade.
Some cold and sleety winter evening I’ll pull a cobbler from the oven, scenting my apartment with a smell like cinnamon and wine. The warmth and fragrance will be that of a sunny August afternoon. I’ll have unscratched arms but the same purple smile. Blackberries taste like summer. Miraculous summer.