C.W. Gusewell

THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Picking the right day for picking blackberries

Second only to spring’s priceless gift of morel mushrooms, wild blackberries surely must be nature’s finest offering.

It’s true that autumn-ripening fox grapes, though they require a bit of effort, make a nice jelly. And persimmons, if you wait to pick them until the first frost has deprived them of their power to pucker, are wonderfully sweet.

But the blackberry is summer’s treasure, wonderfully abundant and with no liabilities except the clawing thorniness of the canes that bear the fruit, and the ever-present chiggers that colonize the picker.

The beginning of July is the traditional time of the harvest – one of the important events by which we mark the season’s advance.

In the country area of our long acquaintance, we know all of the prime spots – the brambly fence rows and moist lowland stream banks – where the berry thickets flourish most luxuriantly and produce the plumpest, juiciest berries.

In an hour’s picking, one easily can fill a bucket or a dishpan and still hardly even touch the bounty, leaving more than enough for the birds and rabbits and coons or any other creatures inhabiting such cover.

But when the fire of a swollen sun scalds the land, the opportunity is brief. And this year, the second in a row, we missed our chance again.

Last July our family was traveling on a far side of the world. This year we let ourselves get bound up in mindless busyness. It was only a little more than a week ago that the matter of the neglected berry season came to mind.

I telephoned a friend in that neighborhood. What hope might there be, I asked, that we could yet have some luck in our favorite places?

He’d look, he said – and he knows that stretch of country as well as we do. But though flooding has been a curse across much of the midlands, in that area there’d been hardly any rain at all. The few berries he’d come across by accident had seemed past their prime.

Well, it would take only part of a weekend day to see. Two hours going, a couple more prowling the woods and field edges, and another two returning. At least we’d know for sure the state of the crop.

But that was before we opened the morning newspaper and read the forecast.

The predicted temperature was 96, with a heat index of 106. And at that point our decision was immediate. For I remembered then an inspiration I had on another blistering July several years ago.

It would be delightful, I thought during that past berry season, to invite some of our city friends to an afternoon party on the lawn of our Ozark cabin. It would be an elegant event, rather like a picnic in a Manet painting – the men in stylish summer jackets, the ladies in wide-brimmed hats and flowing dresses.

We’d serve blackberries over vanilla ice cream, washed down with chilled white wine.

So the guests arrived and arranged themselves, perspiring, in a circle of chairs under the hammering 3 o’clock sun.

In the heat, the berries shriveled and soured. The ice cream melted to soup. The wine turned to vinegar, and the ladies’ hats were wilting. The cabin had not yet been upgraded, and the only sanitary facility was an outhouse.

So one woman spent an uncomfortable afternoon touring the county’s gravel roads in her air-conditioned car.

“We’ll be all right,” a gentleman announced, “if nobody talks.”

With that calamity in mind, I’m resigned to next taste berries on a cool day in early July of next year. The reminder is already written in my 2012 calendar.