I have been writing quite a bit lately, just not on my blog…so I thought I would share with you my latest writing accomplishment. Behold (drum roll please), my first nature essay! We’ll leave the applause card at your discretion after you read it. My assignment was to write an essay in the style of Wild Apples by Thoreau. So I give you to
Wild Black Raspberries
On a recent ramble through the woods I came upon a delightful surprise! Growing along a stream bank, stretching their purple canes to the path, clothed in white blossoms, I found wild black raspberries. The day was nearly perfect already as the last of winter’s icy mornings had long lost its grip and given way to spring’s raucous appointment with new life. The bees and butterflies had discovered this trail-side treasure ages past and were busy making acquaintance with it again, collecting their own reward. And for that, I am immeasurably grateful; their diligent collecting will eventually lead to my reward. Patience is the only ingredient I need to contribute to the recipe of sun, rain, seasons and soil.
Week by week, I watch the berries slowly ripen on God’s schedule - a time and a season for all things under the sun, a time to wait and a time to harvest. One day in June, my patience is rewarded, my wait is over. The five-petaled, snowy-white flowers huddled together at the end of canes have completed their miraculous transformation into ripe drupes. These fruits are full of deep purple ripeness. There are only a few ready to eat, an early reward for my observant waiting. Soon there will be enough to bring my children with containers to fill with these not-so-hidden jewels of nature. Navigating the thorny canes, I snatch the mildly sweet-tart tasting morsels. They are just enough to put a spring in my step for the woodsy meandering ahead. I am on my way to see how the wood frog tadpoles are coming along in their ephemeral pools on the forest floor.
The following week I come prepared for a harvest. I am not dissappinted. Clumps of druplets, as the berries are called, hang at the tips of the two-year-old flowering canes. The first year canes don’t produce berries but make me happy all the same when I walk through the woods on a quiet winter morning dusted with snow and their bare purple canes poke up from the blanket of white, decorating the trail. Ants and other insects have discovered the ripe berries store of sugar too.
A perilous task, this harvesting berries in the wild. Prickly canes snag at my hands, ants abound on some, spiders have gathered to collect an insect feast attracted by the berries, and poison ivy is growing at the edges of the thicket. These obstacles mean very little to my fellow harvesters. Songbirds think nothing of the thorns, chipmunks and mice can’t understand why we call it poison ivy, especially when it produces such tasty berries in the fall, and the foxes only harvest after the ants are asleep. All they see is God’s provision, his open hand filled with good things. I wonder if traversing these dangers only makes the berries sweeter, a bit richer on my tongue. What is a little scratch on the back of my hand to harvesting a stream-side treasure? What cobbler doesn’t improve when flavored with wildness? What scoop of ice cream can resist this topping when spooned to eager taste buds with berry-stained fingers? But just maybe the perfect accompaniment to wild black raspberries is wildness itself. Fresh air and sunshine, a brisk walk to work up an appetite, a hunt for productive brambles – this is all that is needed to enhance nature’s table. Quite possibly, my hunger is only satisfied by the wilderness I seek.
My brother’s children joined us one year to forage for wild black raspberries. Walking past the wild blackberry patch, the fruit of which looks similar but ripens later in the season with a longer, thumb-shaped tart fruit, we stopped to try some. They are not quite ripe, but my nieces and nephew are curious about this ‘eating from nature’ as if all food only comes from a store, shrink-wrapped in plastic. I don’t think they have contemplated where the food originated from, possibly even thinking that it comes off the tree pre-packaged. All declare the blackberries are not ripe enough to pick and we move on to the black raspberry patch. Foraging in the wild ignites an excitement I have not seen caused by other wilderness activities. Maybe that sense of independence and discovery set deep in the American heart cannot help itself when given such an opportunity to emerge. The pack of children listens carefully as I explain how to harvest the soft, ripe fruit, pointing out the dangers surrounding the brambles. These explorers choose to navigate the risks for the berries, or maybe they have never had poison ivy before and don’t know to be cautious around it. Not many berries make it into the canisters that day. Tummies are full however and ready for the romp through ‘Aunt Kim’s woods’ with homemade boats in hand ready for maiden voyages down the stream. When their dad comes to pick them up, the children beg to go berry picking again. My brother is nervous…picking berries in the wild and eating them is dangerous. It is what we have always been told. But he trusts me and knows I love his children, so this becomes an activity they are only allowed to do with me.
Maybe that is why we neglect these wild harvests so often: fear. Fear of what we cannot control, what we don’t know, and what isn’t guaranteed by some governing authority to be safe. The Native Peoples who thrived here long before the European settlers came to live used all manner of plants for their benefit. Rubus occidentalis, the wild black raspberry, was used not only as a food source; this important plant was a pharmacopeia. God’s provision was not just to satisfy hunger, he gave the leaves, and the roots, for healing. The leaves were used as an antiseptic and analgesic, cleansing wounds and boils and helping through childbirth. The roots were chewed to alleviate tooth ache and infused for cough medicine or as a purgative. Today, even, we are discovering some pretty amazing things about this powerhouse berry. Current research on the healthfulness of these berries reveals a highly-edible drupe with abundant concentrations of anthocynyanins and ellagic acid, compounds known to be antioxidants, or ‘anti-cancer’. This anti-cancer action has been shown to reduce esophageal cancer and colon cancer by 65% when eating 1.5-2 cups of berries per day. Other berries also have this effect, like strawberries. It turns out that one of the biggest health issues today may have its answer in a little berry that grows throughout the east coast of America from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Colorado. My brother’s kids just had the healthiest walk in the woods of their young lives.
Visiting the wild blackberry bramble as I wander through the woods becomes a ritual. This ritual I perform year-round, whether it is setting fruit, budding out or dormant. I like to see how the new canes are growing, how the trail improvements have pruned them, and what kind of harvest I can expect next year. Productive thickets bless me, particularly because they defy commercial cultivation. The edges of the woods and trails suit wild black raspberries better than being corralled and tamed into neat rows, cultivated into thornlessness, mechanically harvested. I, myself, would rather harvest them in the wild than on a farm. Their fruit would not be half as sweet as those taken off the trail. It would be the difference between seeing a black bear in an enclosure and coming upon one as you gained a ridge while hiking in the mountains. The experience in the wild will always taste sweeter and last longer in memory.