By Taylor Herald
At the end of the month of June, just when the weather turns humid and the once cool air transforms into a sticky haze, blackberries make their return into the world. The bushes that house them appear to be homely eyesores during all of the other seasons, but when summer comes, the seemingly useless bushes birth hundreds of spectacular berries. The purple berries flourish in the summer heat, hanging effortlessly off of the limbs, daring anyone who may pass to not pluck them and give them a taste. Chiggers also call the bushes home, but will take up a new residence under one’s skin if the habitat is invaded. One must collect the berries quickly because they will disappear only a few weeks after they have arrived. It is a nostalgic sensation, watching them fade away; nevertheless, one can count on the berries to return the next summer.
I grew up on a sprawling farm in rural Kentucky, but the farm’s size is not what makes it so remarkable. Instead, it is the secret patch of land located at the end of the property. The land is about twenty acres of nothing but blackberry bushes, shaped in a circle within the woods at the very highest peak of the land. My family named the entire farm after the location, calling it “Blackberry Hills.” I was always fascinated with the land. The circular shape of it seemed like some divine blueprint created only for me to see, but my grandmother was always willing to remind me that the land was not mine.
“They’ve been here forever,” my grandmother told me. “Really? They’ve been here that long?” I replied back. “Well, probably not forever, but they were here long before you and I were born.” I inquired, “So, you mean they were here when the Indians were here? Do you think Indians might have picked blackberries off of these bushes, too?” She said, “I suppose they could have. There’s no telling who picked blackberries off of these bushes. Imagine the stories these plants could tell about all of the people who have been here before us!”
I often entertained the romantic idea in my head of a tribe of Native American women picking berries off of the bushes, using them not only for food, but also for body paint. When squeezed, blackberries release a purple juice that stains the skin. I used to find a blackberry that was especially juicy, and draw on my face with it. I had a few distant great-grandmothers who were full-blooded Native Americans, so I loved to paint up and pretend that I was them. Never mind that I had strawberry blonde hair and was wearing modern day clothing, when I was surrounded by the blackberry bushes, there was no sense of time, and no mirror to remind me that I was not an Indian. If I was lucky, I could find an arrowhead in the fresh dirt that had been tilled up during planting season. With the sharp object in hand, I would make my way to the blackberry paradise, and morph into a girl of the past.
Picking blackberries was more than just a hobby for me as child -- it was also an occupation. In my community, the market for fresh, summertime berries was always profitable for me. Most farmers chose to not spend their resources on something like a blackberry, so I had little competition. Also, most people do not want to fight the thorns on a blackberry bush. I did not mind, though. From the time I was a small child until I was around sixteen, I spent my summer mornings picking blackberries. Given the unforgiving Kentucky heat, I would start my day at six in the morning, and conclude around noon. My hands and arms were covered in vicious scratches from the thorns, but the money was hard to complain about. For the four weeks or so that blackberries were in season, I would make around one hundred dollars per week. I spent the time crawling around on the ground, digging through the bushes for the perfect berries (the best ones are often hidden). To pass the time, I would let my mind wander in places it would normally not go.
I would think about my great aunt, who worked in the blackberry fields as a teenager so she could make enough money to buy a blue dress she desperately wanted. I would think about one of my other distant great-grandmothers, who wrote in a journal passed down from generations that she had never seen such pretty little black berries as the ones she had encountered in Kentucky. She was from Germany, and I had always assumed that something like blackberries were available over there, too. Maybe they were, but the beauty of the Kentucky blackberry was what she found so visually appealing.
Of course, all three of our journeys were in different fields, but the peaceful encounters were the same. I would also pick off a few berries and give them to the cattle, if they happened to be grazing nearby. Cows will not eat the berry off of the bush, but some will take them out of a hand if they are offered to them. I have always been a little leery of cattle; I was much more comfortable working with sheep, goats, or horses than cattle, mainly because cows are very unpredictable. However, when I offered them a blackberry, it seemed like they took it as a peace offering and would meekly go on their way after they got the treat.
Sometimes, when I would find the surroundings to be calm and the woods silent, the thought would cross my mind that the very patch of blackberries I was standing in could also be God’s personal blackberry patch. The perfect circular shape that exposed it to the sky made it possible for anyone, from any generation, to reach down and gather up some of the world’s finest blackberries. Whenever I would find a bush mysteriously bare, I would imagine who, and from what time period, was also picking a bushel of berries.
Most of the farm is vacant now. There are no more cows to be afraid of, as my father sold a majority of the land and a majority of the animals that lived on it. A few horses, sheep and one goat remain on a small amount of acreage behind our home, but about fifty animals were shipped away at one time. On the day they all left, my emotions reacted as if a massive tragedy was occurring. I looked on in disgust as men I did not know handled the animals disrespectfully and used foul words that, I suppose, made them feel more like men. The men screamed at the animals, ran from them and then looked around amazed at why the whole scenario was chaotic.
After every animal was loaded into the trailers, I went around to each of them and told them goodbye personally, crying uncontrollably. I finally made my way into the house and fell onto my bed, looking for something that could effectively mute my screams. Suddenly, I shot up, remembering that I was also losing my blackberry patch at the back of the farm, a fact that had been lost on me during all of the confusion surrounding the sale. I could no longer call the patch “my secret spot,” because it was no longer mine. I realized that I had just turned into a person of the past, someone a girl would pretend she was while she was picking the berries. I was going to be one of the people my grandmother had spoken about, a person the berries could tell stories about. The berries would wonder why I did not return to them like I had all the years before; they would hang desperately off of their vines, realizing no one was around to tell their stories to.
As if the separation was not enough for me to wail about, I soon learned that the people that bought the land were planning on planting soybeans on it. Soybeans are one of the least visually appealing crops there are, and are really not good for anything but getting your feet tangled up in. Sure, one can make a fair amount of money harvesting them, but you cannot plant soybeans and blackberries together; one has to go. This meant that my blackberries were going to be bush hogged down. A bush hog is something that is attached to the back of a tractor, which cuts down tall grass or plants in order to make the land as barren as possible to plant something in the soil. Now I was going to be the last to pick from the circular blackberry field. It was not fair, in my opinion, to sacrifice something as stunning as the longstanding bushes in order to turn a profit. The land was no longer going to be a pure space where organic farming took place; it was going to turn into a manufactured operation.
Interestingly, though, the people who bought the farm called a few months later and had this to say: “We don’t know what we’re gonna do about those damn blackberry bushes. We tried to bush hog them down, but the roots are still there; we can’t plant anything over them.” As it turns out, the bushes are not only deep-rooted in my memories, but also in the ground. When I heard about the unruly bushes refusing to be banished, I felt some kind of validation. I was not necessarily delighted about the planter’s misfortune, but it did remind me that the mystic, circular blackberry patch belonged to no one except the Earth. It did not matter who legally owned the land; it had been passed around for ages, and will continue to be passed for ages to come. In the grand scheme of creation, no one owned the land, and no one ever will. On paper, it is no longer “Blackberry Hills;” instead, it’s a nameless business operation.
However, there are still blackberries on the hill, placed there to remind the people that have and will walk within the land’s presence that the land is a gift, but not a right. The land belongs to the creature that is willing to innocently soak up the wisdom left behind by those who have trudged along in the dirt before them. It is there to learn from, not take advantage of. Once this lesson of the land is learned, the creature must be willing to leave their wisdom behind, to plant it for future generations. It is fascinating to wonder who my blackberries will teach next. Perhaps the berries will now tell the tale of a strawberry blonde girl, who returned to them every season. The berries will probably admit that they do not know what happened to the girl, only that one summer, she did not make the climb up onto their hill, like she had never failed to previously do. The blackberries will not fret, though, as they know that wherever the girl may be, she has planted them into her heart.