Berry bliss: when family goes picking

July 03, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

One in a weekly series about foods that define summer. In a far corner of Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, a pickup truck pulls off a two-lane highway and stops at the mouth of a hollow.

With the engine running and the door ajar, the man who was driving steps around to the back and releases the chains that hold the tailgate so the boys waiting in the bed can then sit on the gate and hold sticks, like fishing poles, out over the dirt road.

It is an early morning in late summer. The hills are quiet; the weeds in the ditch - Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod, purple thistle - are still damp with dew. When the man is certain the boys are settled, he climbs back into the truck and begins up the mountain, toward the place where wild blackberries grow.

I was one of those boys, and this was something we used to do.

As we made our way up the hollow, toward the farmhouse where my mother was born and raised, the sticks we dragged behind us spun plumes of dust in the furrows. My sister and a cousin sat on the wheel humps over our shoulders, and in the cab beyond them sat my father behind the wheel, my mother beside him, one of my aunts beside her. On their laps and at their feet sat stacks of buckets, pails and plastic ice-cream containers, empty for the time being.

This was July, and we in the back had heard those in the front talking about the progress of the fruit that awaited us. My dad had said in May that the roadside brambles he saw on his way to and from the coal mines where he worked were aflutter with white blossoms. In June, the uncles who lived nearest to my mom's homeplace had said the berries they saw outside the barbed-wire fence of the family cemetery had begun to ripen.

This was how they knew it was time to go picking, and this was a skill that came to them naturally, without any effort on their part, the gift of being born where they were.

When my grandmother was alive, our first stop up the mountain was a single-wide trailer where she lived after she moved out of the lonely homeplace. Her religion prevented her from wearing pants, shorts, makeup or jewelry, so she appeared on her porch unadorned in a cotton dress, her gray hair twirled in a braided crown atop her head, carrying her own buckets. Later, we would chase lightning bugs around wisps of smoke from a pile of rags lighted to keep mosquitoes away, and she would roll out dough for blackberry dumplings, never measuring the flour or salt.

In the truck that morning, we did not slow again until we came to a hairpin curve where a mining company had made a short-lived attempt to get more coal from a mountain whose belly had been emptied and whose head, after the introduction of surface mining, had been shaved. Our first real stop came later, at a dip in the road.

There, the canopy of trees had been cleared by the power company to make way for the steel poles that marched up from the valley and across our path toting miles of electric wires. Even at this early hour, the hillside beneath those poles glowed with sunlight. The seeds deposited there by long-gone blackbirds had grown into mounds of vines that were now heavy and alive.

The adults held the branches back for us as if those thorny arms were heavy drapes, and we were being escorted backstage. Inside the brambles, berries were as abundant as stars. We picked the nearest and plumpest, the darkest ones we knew to be sweet. Our fingers raked whole limbs, and the berries tumbled into our open palms as fat as bumblebees. Their ink stained our fingers and left our tongues a color richer than wine.

In our mouths, some berries tasted sour and gritty; others decadent and overripe. It was not our responsibility to fill the pails that would make jam or cobblers, so we kids were fickle consumers, and by the time the sun came through the trees in dappled streams, our appetites were sated and our attention fading.

We stopped a few more times before ending up near the family cemetery, in a wide place where joe-pye weed and blue cornflowers grew amid the vines. By then, the sun was high, the dew evaporated, and we kids scratched our legs where tiny red chiggers burrowed. We eyed welts on our shins and serrated cuts on our forearms, and we feared the ravenous ticks that might have crawled unnoticed up our socks and across our scalps. We left the blackberry-picking to grown-ups.

They waded into the briars and came back carrying full pails and one story, of a clever black snake, that has stayed with me since.

I imagine the snake's chasing my mother and aunt out of his kingdom. I imagine their standing in the shade of a nearby crabapple tree, wiping the sweat from their bangs with the back of their hands and laughing about their fears later. I imagine the snake's laughing, too, in his own way, slithering back among the buckets they'd abandoned, circling the berries they'd spilled onto the ground.

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