1. Naturally, the best blackberries are grown near the water, but the stream is often hidden by the runners which are loaded with leaves and fruit during the peak season. So, never stretch to pick, even the juiciest berry, if you haven’t checked that there is solid footing in front of you in case you lose your balance. You need only fall into the creek once to learn this, but I’d like to save you the pain of being hauled out over the prickly boughs as you are extracted from your new position. I knew this, and yet I broke my own cardinal rule. Greed will cause this to happen. I wound up in a “ballerina at the barre” position with one leg on the bank and one in the water.
2. Fortunately, I was not picking alone, which is the second rule. So, I yelled “Ted” for my husband. He kept asking, “Where are you?” and I kept telling him to follow my voice. He did and found me, but I was reluctant to have him pull me out over the thorn-filled branches. I couldn’t even get my elevated leg down to give myself traction, so I was forced to have my rescuer to pull me out by both arms. Apparently, this August, Kathie, a friend, found herself in a similar spot when she and Renee were picking on the tractor bridge near the barn. She landed in the stream on both feet in blackberry vines which covered her so that only her curly little head showed. She was also not raised picking berries as a child.
3. Dress properly for the occasion. The older the clothes the better. Blackberry stains just do not come out that easily. Long sleeves and long pants are a must, even in hot weather. Because of my tendency for “hot flashes” I usually eschew both, and I have the scratches on my arms and legs to show for it. Once, I stepped on a very old and stout vine with one shoe and raked its large thorns across the bare shin of my other leg in the process. It took a long while to heal, and it’s not as elegant as having a ski injury. I’d recommend gloves for the same reason, but I can’t pick properly or fast enough to use them. Therefore, I wind up with scratched and stained fingers on my right hand. Usually the blackish-purple color stays around my cuticles and under my nail tips for a week after the event. Neighbor Nancy assures me that this is why ladies always wore gloves to church. They were never able to get their hands clean after gardening. Once I tried rubber gloves, which gave me the dexterity I needed, but I found my hands sweating inside such an enclosure.
4. A hat is a nice touch too, but you won’t need it if you pick in the shade, which is the fourth rule. Go early in the morning or late in the evening because it is hot work otherwise.
5. Have the correct equipment. I prefer a strainer that is about 12 inches across. It is lightweight. That may not seem important, but when a vessel is filled with berries it is cumbersome. Because there are holes in the bowl, I take along newspaper to set it on and extra aluminum bowls to fill in a shady place.
6. Technique is important too. The abovementioned bowl is cradled in the left arm, resting on the left hip (or in your case the right if you are left handed.) I don’t put the strainer on the ground because I use it as a weapon against the briars. Oftentimes the berries are just out of reach behind a bare limb. In that case I wield my strainer to the rescue. I use the bottom of it to keep the offending branch away from my scratchable picking arm and keep it depressed until I’m finished stripping the vine I’m attacking. It also helps to have the bowl under a cluster of berries to catch the ones that fall because they’re so ripe that a touch sends them to the ground. It is frustrating to pick and lose it in this way or to have a nearby gem get bumped and go to Mother Earth. We have a saying when we harvest the nuts, “No one wants to pick them twice.” Oldtimers used buckets, which were heavy and a strain to carry in the opposite hand. They may have been skilled enough to pick with both hands, but I am extremely right handed so it doesn’t work for me for both reasons. I often step on branches and hold them down to get to choice berries, and I’ve been known to take a long vine by the tenderest of front leaves or by the unripened berries in the front and gently stick it on a nearby branch to keep it out of the way temporarily because the best berries are usually up high or shaded by the new growth. Therefore, a ladder is a good tool if you find a place that you’d like to pick extensively. It can be rested on the springy vines and tested before you climb it. I’ve found wonderful productive places that I’ve left my ladder to be returned to at a later date. One such place was on the far side of the creek in the west field. Paul was keeping sheep there, and I’d go in the evenings when I was here by myself. They’d scamper away when I first arrived, but forget my presence as time went on. I’d be at the top of the ladder as they gradually returned to the foot of it. All I had to do was to whisper, without even turning around, “You’ve forgotten that I’m here, haven’t you?” and they’d panic and run away again. It’s been my observation that animals: deer, squirrels, turkeys, sheep do not really see you if you don’t move or speak.
7. Selecting the berries is really an art passed on from prior generations and honed from experience. The secret is that all berries which have turned dark are not ripe. Usually the ripest one is at the point of the vine. It may be surrounded by others that seem to be the correct color, but they must be checked carefully. The correct one will look fuller, more swollen, than its neighbors. If it comes away from the vine easily, it’s ripe. Never tug on a berry to pick it. If it has to be forced, it’s not ready. If you doubt me, taste the berries you’re picking. You’ll see. Also, tasting while you pick gives you a clue as to their flavor. There is no sense picking watery ones or ones which are too seedy. If the berry mushs in my fingertips, I eat it. Not only do I deserve it for the hard work that I’ve done, but a mushy berry just dissolves when it’s rinsed. If you’re lucky, and you’re in a good spot, you’ll find a cluster of ripe ones, and then you need to place your picking bowl underneath it so that none are lost. I have a small hand, but I can usually collect six ripe berries before I put them into the strainer. Greed coupled with efficiency will strike even me, but I should know better by now. Again a dropped berry is a lost berry, fallen amid the brambles at my feet. So, I have my own number; you will develop yours. I also know about focus. I try not to look for new berries while I’m working on the ones at hand. I have the lost berries and garnered scratches to prove what distraction causes.
8. Finally, enjoy. It is a wonderful time. I let my mind clear of any thought except selecting the perfect berry. As Beowulf was known to have felt about battle, “I joy in the work of my hand.” It is satisfying to think that I didn’t toil to plant or water these blackberries. They are the bounty of nature that I am collecting.