We think of plants as passive. They are alive, but it’s a different kind of alive than animal-alive. But the more you get to know plants, the more you can see how desperately alive they are.
I know blackberry well enough that it can stir up the same emotions in me as any human enemy.
Many times I have tried to make my way through a field, minding my own business, when blackberry reaches out and latches onto me. I detach myself in the same deft way I have learned to remove a cat’s claw, but in the process I get stuck again. I ask blackberry what it wants, but it does not respond and I begin to think it is just messing with me because it can. I become more violent and try to tear myself away, but this only results in bleeding. At this point I usually have to take off my clothes to free myself. This is risky because it gives me less than one second between the moment of disrobing and the moment when blackberry finds my bare flesh. Now when it grabs me I become furious and start throttling the canes and pulling them apart. I curse at blackberry, I am sure this surge of force will free me, I misinterpret my own pain as its pain. When it becomes clear that this is futile, I sit down and take up one of the canes. Even though the thorns stiffen at forceful contact, when I peel one away singly, it gives like a sorry child. This gives me some satisfaction. I resign myself to eating the berries. I become demented and resolve to peel every thorn away and eat every berry, convinced that this will defeat blackberry.
Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor) is one of the Most Wanted (Most Unwanted) invasive species in southwestern Washington where I do watershed restoration, and in the Pacific Northwest generally. It’s also the cockiest. Fed by a main root ball, it forms thick thickets by building on top of the thorny carcasses of previous years. Thus it either smothers trees that we riparian restoration folks plant, or prevents us from planting at all where it is already established. It has also mastered the methods (sexual and not-so-sexual) of making more of itself. In Washington, invasives are classified on the Noxious Weed List based on distribution, recency of introduction, and threat to local economy. But Himalayan blackberry escapes classification because it is so widespread and difficult to control (lost cause category) and because it is an agricultural product (farmers’ interests category).
Whether you’re a young red osier dogwood being crushed by spiky canes, a member of a convict crew digging up root balls with scratched forearms, or a kid with a sweet tooth and a stained face, it’s hard not to have a gut reaction to this creature. Hear the viscerality in Seamus Heaney’s poem* “Blackberry-Picking.” What better symbol to use in a poem about the nature of pleasure?
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
The poem also deals with abundance and waste. Indeed, blackberry is sinful. It is greedy in the resources it takes, and profligate in the fruit it gives. I remember, earlier this month, the day I noticed that all the flowers had become clusters of green drupelets. I stood there, wishing there weren’t so many. Who would eat all these? The despair of inevitable waste. In a lot of ways, blackberry is like a megacorporation. It spreads aggressively, monopolizes the land and outcompetes the little guys. It is difficult to get rid of. It originates far away and is in no way harmonized with the local ecosystem. But do I partake in the fruits? Of course I do. They’re there. Not just there, but everywhere. And they’re delicious.
*poem posted without permission…blame it on the blackberry muses
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