blackberry bramble with spider web

One summer morning a few months before I began writing this blog in the fall of 2012, I went out to water my garden on Asbury Street. When I came to the vegetables across from my berry patch, I looked up to see the August sun hitting this dew-speckled spider web in such a way that it was lit up like diamonds. By the time I had run into the house for my camera, the sun had shifted and warmed everything just enough that it was no longer visible like it had been just a couple of minutes before.

But I was undeterred. I put the camera safely in my pocket and sprayed water from the hose, ever so gently, ever so indirectly, and the jewels on the spider web lit up again. I snapped the best picture my inexperienced photography skills could manage, since it was already hot and the sun would be melting these diamonds away too. When I wrote my son what I had done to get the shot, he laughed back and said good for me–I  now had my own “art department”–just like the one he had worked for on the show Portlandia. I laughed too.

But there are more profound reasons I am grateful to have that shot. Those blackberries came originally from wild stock down near Orofino. They had been brought to town by the woman my former boyfriend had rented from, and when we moved in together across the street from the blue house on Asbury, I asked if we could take a cane with us. I planted it on the south side of that property, thinking we would stay for a while, and I could have berries and a vegetable garden there.

But the universe had other plans for me, and by Spring I was buying the blue house across the street. Both the landlord and his next door neighbor had been none too happy about my garden plans. They wanted it all gone, so I dug up the blackberry cane and took it with me across the street.

Let us just say that there might be no one more naive than I was when it came to how wild blackberries grow, or any berries, really. I just knew that berries grew well in the kind of climate I had moved to, and that it was a way to have fruit that was different from the peaches, nectarines, melons and citrus that are so abundantly and easily grown in a warmer, longer grower season. So I planted berries in the corner of my yard, and my education began.

Many years later, I read that blackberries and raspberries should not be planted next to each other. By that time my raspberries were legendary for their plump sweetness, and the blackberry bramble they surrounded had grown out and through and over the fence it was backed up against, and did its best to send little shoots up all over the vegetable garden that I had to pull out each Spring. Unlike blackberry cultivars, the canes were studded with impressively colored and extremely sharp thorns. Even the leaves had tiny teeth. To pick the berries it was necessary to wear long sleeves, and have at least one hand in a tough leather glove to hold the branches back or pull them closer. (No vegan alternative I tried could withstand the prick-point of those thorns.) And if that were not enough challenge, most of the picking had to be done from the steps of a small kitchen ladder my mother had given me. It was essential to find ground even enough to place the ladder on, and space enough to poke oneself through branches without getting impaled.

The berries were, indeed, somewhat seedy, somewhat tart. Nevertheless, Mike and I loved them. In good years they had a tart-to-sweet slide and a rich almost black color that caused me to swoon. I once wrote in my journal about September just these two words over and over: sunflowers, blackberries, blackberries, sunflowers–guilded in the magical slant of the evening light between summer and fall.

The years Mike was in high school and then the beginning of college were the high years for our blackberries. I would pick where I could reach and Mike would pick where I couldn’t. He would also help me process. One year I ran many cups of berries through a sieve with Mike’s help, to make my ailing mother seedless blackberry jam. We made blackberry syrup for our pancakes. And later vegan blackberry ice cream. Purple heaven in a bowl.

There were other blackberry brambles in the neighborhood back then. Latah County Grain Growers was still Latah County Grain Growers, and had not been bought out by a huge farming corporation that would eventually close all the towers in town. Around the edges of the huge towers just a half block north of my blue house, there was a right-of-way you could walk or bike through to the next street, and it was all lined with a forest of blackberries that grew along the base of the storage buildings. I remember the manager there telling me that they kept the berries because their wives picked them every year to make pie and jam. “I can’t give you official permission to pick any” he said. “But when I retire in a couple of years, do what you like.”

Of course there was a bit of a twinkle in his eye. He knew that I, and others, always picked them, but he had to make sure his wife had first dibs. I would wear an old white shirt and bring a tub, to supplement my own supply, or to start the season, since the berries at the grain towers were often ripe first. They were older and bigger and their berries were sweet. But they were very hard to pick. I’d have to bring my gloves. Picking with sandals on was out, too. Once in a while I’d see another interloper, and we’d nod, giving each other the space.

I loved all these riches, including the old apple and pear and plum trees that are now mostly gone due to the vagaries of urban renewal, but most of all I loved my own difficult blackberry beauty in the backyard. I used to tell my friends that picking berries was a meditation. And it really was.

I had to be mindful. In addition to the thorns, there were the most amazing spiders that loved to spin webs within reach of the most tempting (and deceptively) accessible berries. Spiders striped black, yellow and white; a peach colored one that could blend in with the skin on my fingers. And all bigger than I’d ever seen (except for a tarantula sighting when I once visited Arizona). And then there were also yellow jackets who sometimes succeeded at building a wattled nest up against the bramble-covered fence.

Maybe I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. It was possible, with the right focus, taught to me by the blackberry bramble itself, to be simply be “among” all the sharp points and strange life forms. Even with me balanced on that old aluminum ladder, we could co-exist. It was a world of strange wonder in the present moment, as I tried to capture in this tiny journal entry and sketch:

little green bugs

 

I didn’t start out in that state of mind though. The blackberry bramble had to teach me how to be present. Like many people who garden, I was almost always in a constant state of “fret” while out in it about whether this or that should be cut, cleaned up, growing better, yielding more fruit, more leaves, more flowers, etc. etc. But one afternoon as I stood near them, contemplating something growing next to them while I worked myself up into a full-throttle fret, it was as if they were asking me this question: is THIS how you want to enter into heaven someday? Because the consciousness you live in now will be the consciousness you take with you. . .

It took my breath away for a second. And then I laughed. So hard to explain now, but so clear back then in that instant. And it’s stayed with me ever since.

On an esoteric level blackberry flower essence helps with issues of grief, by nurturing engagement with life in the present. When a dear friend died unexpectedly, I gave some I’d made from the blackberry blossoms in my yard to his sister and her family. I also gave them a copy of one of my favorite award winning childhood classics, A Taste of Blackberries, in which a young boy experiences death for the first time when his best friend is fatally stung by a bee while they are picking blackberries. It’s a sensitive introduction to feelings of shock and grief that speaks to a heart of any age.

When I returned from the long road trip to California to see my Dad a last time, I came home to the bramble heavy with fruit. I threw myself into the gauntlet of picking. It helped with my panic, my ungrounded feeling that inside I was running as fast as I could because my Dad was leaving the planet.

I’ve tried to write about the blackberries over the years many times. My performance picking blackberries was often a measure of how my physical stamina had improved, as this journal entry from many years ago describes:

“This morning I am out picking blackberries while still wearing my pajamas. The sun is not high enough to shine through the cracks in the fence and the leaves of the brambles to blind my scrutiny. The berries are soft and unusually sweet, since they have been ripening on the vine these last several days in a muggy smoky heat. There are more of them than ever this year. As I roll them off the branch with the thumb and index finger, they collect in the palm of my left hand while my right, in a leather glove, holds back another branch to reveal the group of berries I am after. . .As I pick, I am in this moment marveling and filled with gratitude that my hand will pick and hold more than one berry at a time. And I am also in moments when that wasn’t true at all. The going was much slower. The bramble was smaller, less layered, but no less treacherous, and no less beautiful. . .”

Somewhere in my stack of journals is the experience about heaven starting right here on earth, but I can’t find it. Like heaven, it remains illusive, and instead points me back to the present moment. Like the bramble, by just being a bramble, requires a kind of attention that is timeless. I used to tell my son that you have to think like a berry to pick from these thorny arms, and he’d laugh at me.  It’s true, I’d say. Think like a berry. Or a spider. The one with the beautiful orange and yellow markings on its huge sack that made a web in the entrance to the bramble two or three summers in a row. Or think like the wasp that flew up under my nose outside my field of vision to sting me while the August sun was high.

I recently learned from the woman who bought my old blue house last summer that she had the blackberry bramble removed. “They were seedy,” she said, “they weren’t good,” as if to explain and apologize at once. She knew it wouldn’t be easy news for me to hear.

I told her it was her house now, her yard, she should do as she likes. And that yes, most people would find the berries tart, and not like their tendency to be seedy. And I meant it. But after our conversation, I awoke in the very early hours of the morning, remembering my times in the blackberry bramble, feeling  glad to have the photograph at the top of this post. And I knew I would write an elegy for the blackberry brambles, both mine and those at the old grain tower site, that are now no more. Even the grain towers are now being dismantled, to make way for apartment buildings.

But my old blue house will go on in the middle of all this so called urban renewal. The raspberries will come on, but without their treacherous and beautiful companions. Even with all these words about them, there really are no words for what that blackberry bramble gave me, what my time with it meant. But words are what I have here. So I’ll end my elegy with the beginning and the end of the poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass. It’s one of my favorites.

“All the new thinking is about loss./In this it resembles all the old thinking.”

“There are days when the body is as numinous/as words, days that are the good flesh continuing./such tenderness those afternoons and evenings,/saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.”

blackberries up close

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

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parsnip particles 2

I was in my fifties before I tried my first parsnip. They just weren’t a vegetable I grew up with, most likely because my Dad didn’t like them. But when I finally got around to it, the best case scenario presented itself. One of my favorite local growers, Elizabeth Taylor, was cutting them up and passing them out for interested customers to try. Never in my life did I expect something so “plain” looking to taste so good. Now every year I wait for Elizabeth’s parsnips–they are one of the highlights of fresh produce at our Farmer’s Market.

Luckily for me, though, there’s usually a regular supply of organic parsnips at the Moscow Food Co-op, which gave me the opportunity to experiment with my own version of Choosing Raw’s Parsnip Rice recipes. Originally I was smitten with Gena’s idea of using it to stuff nori rolls, and I still am. But honestly I never got that far. It tasted so good right out of the bowl of the food processor that instead I dumped it on top of my salad that day, and that’s what I’ve been doing with it ever since.

My version is inspired by Gena’s Raw Parsnip Sushi Rice, but I made a few changes. Since I wasn’t making a bunch of sushi, I used two good sized parsnips instead of five. And I took her suggestion that tahini might be a good alternative to almond butter. I used less and left out the oil. And added some lime juice and zest instead of the tamari, and a little sprinkle of ginger. Voila.

 

I called these Parsnip Particles instead of Parsnip Rice for  three reasons. The first and most important one to me is that I simply loved the alliteration. The second is that although this wonder of a treatment does resemble rice, I didn’t use it as a substitute for rice in my confetti salad. It went on top in addition to the other veggies and the rice, millet, or quinoa already in the salad. Also, because there’s less fat and no oil in my version, I’m not sure it would stick together quite enough to successfully imitate sushi rice. But if  one of you tries that option before I do, let me know how it worked.

And finally, I’m no physicist, but I did once teach biology majors how to write about chaos theory. I know enough to know I’m not using the science accurately when I say this, but nevertheless Lime Ginger Parsnip Particles remind me of the term strange attractor. It might be because it’s such a long way from an often passed-over and over-cooked stew vegetable to this bright, crunchy tasty raw treatment of it. Yet they come from the same root “system,” the same initial conditions. And though I can be lazy and loathe to get out my food processor, for this unusual taste treat, I do it gladly. I’m betting you might too. Perhaps you’ll invent your own version of Gena’s original or my knock-off of it, spreading infinitely fractal enjoyment of this not-so-insignificant-after-all root vegetable. I raise my spoonful of Lime Ginger Parsnip Particles to the beauty of order in chaos!

Maria (moonwatcher)

{ 7 comments }

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