Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Berry Grail (How I Became an Urban Forager)

A few springs back, I took to riding my bicycle along a riverside path generously provided and maintained by my adopted city. It stretched on for miles, all the way out to a national historic site in the suburbs, and my trips covered progressively more of its length as cherry trees threw off their pink confetti for a callow chartreuse and then a deep, sedate green. The path traversed woods in places; on its shoulders grew underbrush that was cleared in a regular effort to prevent the woods from claiming it back.

Along about July, just in time for my birthday, speckles of bright ruby – the color of my birthstone, no less – began appearing in this underbrush. Now, there are many cyclists who would never dream of interrupting their training to examine a trailside burst of color. These people generally have svelte road bikes handcrafted of some miracle alloy that marries the sturdiness of cast iron with the weight of meringue. Their expensive, high-tech cycling apparel swathes bodies so bereft of fat that their poor calves appear flayed, with every gristly contour immodestly revealed. I, untroubled by the sort of athletic ambition that drives such people, had the leisure to slow to a halt; my trusty overalls, though sweat-sodden, protected my legs against minor insults offered by the brush. I looked closer, and I saw berries!

By god, they looked like raspberries. I reached out and gingerly plucked one; it nearly jumped into my hand, so easily was it harvested. Like a raspberry, it was hollow -- a tiny red cup. It left its little core, an orangeish, truncated cone with a smeary red bull's-eye at the center, to sit among its pointy sepals like an antique cartoon star. Okay, it was a brighter red than raspberries I had bought, and translucent, without their dusty bloom: stained glass to their sueded silk. But the form was so similar. And somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious was the memory of a summer day of my childhood spent on our ancestral farm in the Tennessee hills with an older cousin and a horse. The horse was so thoroughly lathered with foam that we had guiltily given up riding it, and our eyes were reddened and irritated by the sweat that kept dripping into them. Our hands were not free to wipe the sweat off our foreheads, you see, because we were picking berries.

Those were blackberries, not raspberries. And it's not as if I were thinking of that day as I held the little red gem I'd picked on the bike path and contemplated popping it into my mouth, but perhaps I had some deep knowledge that a landscape similar to this one – next to a fence row between two disused tobacco fields, a liminal middle ground bridging clearing and trees – was a hospitable environment for brambles of the genus Rubus. Really, it's not even accurate to characterize what I did as contemplation: I scarcely hesitated. Although I am often catastrophically indecisive in other arenas, I am rarely plagued by diffidence when it comes to the question of whether or not to eat.

Blessed instinct! That berry just exploded in my mouth. Its flavor perfectly matched its color – bright, startling, infinitely gratifying. Well, not infinitely, I guess, or I wouldn't have needed to gobble up every ripe berry I could see, or to return a few days later with a girlfriend and a bucket. What's infinite, perhaps, is the desire to discover more berries. For a month or so out of every year, it makes me something of a menace on the road: although looking at the shoulder of the road can roughly approximate the effect of looking at the road itself, it's not precisely the same thing.

A couple of weeks or so after I discovered the bike-trail berries, I spent a steamy morning collecting scratches, mosquito bites, ticks and berries along a tree-lined street in the northwestern reaches of the city. At one point, a nearly overgrown driveway caught my eye. I braved the muddy ruts and a moderate herbaceous barrier to penetrate a bit further, and I found myself in a clearing abutting some railroad tracks that were about to go through an underpass. It was a brightly lit, roughly semicircular space concealed from the street by a border of trees and shrubs that dappled the noonday sun, and the place was just lousy with berries. I collected about a gallon of them, honest to god.

In Tennessee, blackberry brambles volunteered along our backyard fence row, and you didn't have to look so hard to find them. Blackberries, good old-timey fruit, were everywhere. But raspberries – for some reason, they didn't seem to do so well down there. We couldn't even buy fresh raspberries in my town, for most of my childhood; it wasn't until I was in high school that our supermarkets became that sophisticated. To me, raspberries were an expensive delicacy, on the order of smoked oysters or champagne or professional ballet, and when I saw this stand of raspberry canes with its profusion of plump, juicy berries waiting for me to harvest them, I felt as if I'd found a hundred-dollar bill lying on the ground.

This is the Berry Grail. You risk a trespassing citation, a boggy misstep, some scratches and stings and poison ivy, perhaps a bit of West Nile virus or Lyme disease, to go further into a promising copse. A few steps in, you find a sunny clearing whose edges are crowded with berry canes. Hitherto untouched, unregarded, they yield up fat clusters of their intoxicating ripe fruit sweetly, easily, to the hand that is their destiny. Find it once, and you will never give up the quest.

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Blogger Syllabub said...

You brought me right into that promising copse and I don't want to leave! such delectable prose.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 10:25:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Philadelphile said...

WHOAH, U.F.! Such bounty, such deliciousness!!!! When I was a tiny kid I had a beloved black chicken with a bright red comb . . . on hot summer days we would crawl to the center of the blackberry patch and sit there in the deep shade. She would nestle down and make the most delicate, happy clucking noises while I stroked her with one hand and ate blackberries with the other . . .

I'm sure it was all deeply unsanitary.

And somehow I think the vision of a full grown woman diving into a blackberry patch along the bike trail would lead to arrest. You can't go home again!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 11:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Hall-King Family said...

Beautiful! And we love to be the recipients of those delicious biketrail berries. Mmmm. Summmer.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 2:32:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Darx said...

Yum. I hope you didn't actually get poison ivied!!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 5:04:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous lxn said...

When I was a kid, we used to forage around in thorny berry bushes, always down some rocky slope, it seemed, with cans attached around our necks with strings. Our berry grail was the most perfect thimbleberry. We'd eat gobs of them with sweetened condensed milk and my mom would make the rest into jam. Your post reminds me of that by-the-road-perfect-berry feeling. They always tasted best if there was some blood running off my arms from the effort.

Thanks for writing this


Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 5:26:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember berry picking too, but not as eloquently or elegantly.
Num Num

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 7:31:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Urban Forager said...

I've only just now realized that I had to approve the comments, when somebody e-mailed me to say she'd posted one. Here I was feeling all lonesome and unappreciated because no one had commented, when I actually had this incredible bounty of responses. Thank you all!

p.s. Philadelphile, you should meet lxn. She keeps pet chickens.

Thursday, July 20, 2006 at 12:15:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Nature Girl said...

UF, so beautifully written...

I have a secret spot on Blue Mountain where the blueberries are plentiful this week every summer. You can sit in a big ol' patch and eat and eat. Just watch out for the bear poop... black bears love them berries too, mmm-mmm...

Thursday, July 20, 2006 at 1:47:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

enchanting! Like a grown-up version of Robert McCloskey's "Blueberries for Sal" (with much better writing.) You even have the overalls! Watch out for bears, though, the urban kind as well as the ones hiding in the woods! And keep bringing those cobblers for us to taste!

Friday, July 28, 2006 at 5:09:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Suzanne Bender said...

Lovely, Clod! Thank you for sharing this with me. I have a mess of blackberries on my property, and you should come over a pick them (soon, while the pickin's still good) and make us some cobbler. A little "old-timey" music to accompany dessert would be much appreciated too....

Wednesday, August 2, 2006 at 12:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Suzanne Bender said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006 at 12:58:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Darx said...

Reading this again, I am going to say I think you *could* legitimately count the berry picking as a roadside emergency, and should a state trooper approach you, you could always say you had been using the berry patch as cover for an emergency stop of another sort.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 at 5:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Ernestine said...

I moved to TN a little over a year ago from Montgomery County, MD. I foraged the most amazing blackberries in the city parks and walking trails in MD. The very best berries to be had, however, were at the Home Depot parking lot in north Silver Spring. I'd just drive up, park, and pick to my heart's content. The best crop of luscious, plentiful raspberries I ever came upon was at a picnic area in the Susquehanna Park (national park, state park...can't remember). Of course, that's not exactly "urban" but I had swung off the road to stretch my legs after spending the Fourth in Philly. How I'd love to raid that berry patch again! Berry picking my first year in Tennessee last year was uninspiring. I know I must have just not looked in the right places. The quest continues! Thanks for stirring some great memories.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 8:51:00 PM EDT  

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