~ Seamus Heaney
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 day started cold so we wrapped ourselves in woollies and scarves. It was a little late in the season for berry-picking and I thought all the juiciest fruit might be long gone. It was clear many hands had been here before us, but we were lucky to come away with several bowlfuls.
The dry summer meant the berries were small and bead-like without the rain to plump them up. What remained were mostly ripe though. They fell from the branches as quick as we could catch them, hanging trapped in cobwebs or disappearing into the long grass. Trying not to get our fingers and arms scraped by the thorns we gathered as many as we could leaving the highest – a late summer feast for the birds.
One of my earliest memories is of blackberry-picking while staying with an aunt and uncle. It is a yearly tradition that’s followed me through life including taking my children as they grew up. It is one of those activities that reminds me how the years pass. The berries cycle through change – they flower, ripen and die – again and again, and yet still some things remain the same.
A couple of hours of picking and chatting to the passing dog-walkers we hardly noticed the sun breaking through the clouds and start to warm our backs. We shed some of our layers and set off home.
Unlike the narrator of Seamus’s poem, we collected our berries in tupperware pots. Not so aesthetically pleasing perhaps, but at least now the berries are washed and safely stowed in the freezer and not at risk of rotting.
If you’re looking for some recipes that will make a change from jam, and crumble and pie… nice though they are, of course… I’ve found a couple that I hope to try: this recipe for Blackberry Bread and this one for Traditional Blackberry Cobbler look simple and delicious. I’m off to go nurse my scratches.