Monday, September 12, 2011

Berrying

The blackberries were late this year. Moreover, they are sparse, small and bitter. The Met Office says it has been the coolest summer in twenty-five years. The blackberries confirm it.

Here in Ireland, blackberries are the one fruit still widely gathered from the wild. When we first came here almost forty years ago, some folks gathered mushrooms from the fields. It's been a while since I've seen anyone mushrooming. It's been a while since I've seen mushrooms.

But the lanes are still edged with bramble, and for the past few weeks we have joined our neighbors trying to fill a bucket or bowl with enough blackberries to make a crumble. I've been able to gather barely enough for my spouse to dress her breakfast cereal.

Why do we do it? Richard Mabey, in his wonderful big compendium Flora Britannica, says: "It is not just that blackberries are delicious, ubiquitous and unmistakable. Blackberrying, I suspect, carries with it a little of the urban dweller's myth of country life: harvest, a sense of season, and just enough discomfort to quicken the senses. Maybe the scuffling and scratches are an essential art of the attraction, the proof of satisfying outdoor toil against unruly nature."

Or maybe we are feeding our inner hunter-gatherer, some resilient impulse inherited from our pre-agricultural ancestors. Blackberry seeds have been found in the stomach of a Neolithic man dug up in a British bog.

Here is a drawing of blackberry bramble from an eleventh-century herbal, probably compiled at Bury St. Edmunds Abbey in Suffolk, England, and now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The herbal contains some of the earliest naturalistic plant drawings, with information on the plants' medicinal uses. A very William Morris-y design. And a precursor of the coming Scientific Revolution.