My lace-cap hydrangea, lilacs, and Japanese Snowball have become tangled with over-eager brambles that reach for bare feet, crawl across our porch, and spread out into our lawn. It became this Medusa mess through neglect. While the pages of my novel grew, so did the strength and ambition of the brambles encircling my house that I didn’t have time to uproot or even cut back. I will admit that the branch-thick canes are mean to step on and I do sometimes worry I might wake up one morning unable to leave my own house like some sucker in a fairy tale.
Then the canes clothe themselves in blossoms, the shower of petals in late spring is like a bridal explosion, and just when I remember that I’m supposed to be cutting them back or digging them up the sprays of green berries swell and hang heavily with clean pure food and I am reduced to a quiet humility. After all, I invade and take over everywhere I go too but I don’t feed birds and insects and bears and people as I sprawl. All the scratches and the encroachments are forgiven as I pick fat black berries and eat them warm and lazy.
When I came home from my trip the berries which were (I thought) still hard and green when I left had become luscious and sweet and there were so many of them ripened already that I could dream up a dozen possibilities of what to make with them all while I ate them by the cupful. I decided to make some jam and my mother requested a dessert be made with some because she doesn’t love jam. I started picking them yesterday and every year it’s almost the same meditation – the abundance all around us and the abundance we kill off with round up and mowers. I know we all need some space not over-run with blackberry hedges and in no way blame people for wanting to tame them better than I do, but to name such a generous plant as a noxious weed seems like awfully rich behavior coming from such a poor nation.
I am not rich in money and I’m not, according to all the tarot readings I’ve ever gotten, likely to ever be rich with silver or gold or even the things that stand in for them. I might lose my home soon. Like so many people, we’re hanging on. I was able to take my trip for which I’m deeply grateful. But not more than I’m grateful to the blackberries choking my porch. I’ve got six jars of jam, I’ve eaten at least a quart all on my own fresh, and tonight we had blackberry buckle. All of this food was free to me. I spent no money watering them or buying them or fertilizing them. They ask for nothing and give me pounds of organic free fruit. I know it’s not like having a heifer to butcher up. I know it’s not like winning the grocery store sweepstakes. I know it isn’t the same as having a field of wheat or rice.
I don’t care. It’s my secret joy to see blackberries taking over factory yards, neglected fields, rising up on the banks of rivers, and edging so many miles of blacktop. I feel connected to blackberries in a way I am connected with no other fruit or food. They’re scrappy, surviving in a hard-scrabble world; thriving in nutrient starved hard ground producing from this barrenness a rich sweet juicy tempting fruit with the most delicate fragile perfume.
While I picked the fruit of my neglect I thought about hunger and starvation. I thought about people ripping out brambles to plant more lawns. I thought about the kind of values that are reflected in our tendency to loath the messiness of food in a landscape. I thought about all those people in the J.C. neighborhood in Santa Rosa who complained about the horrible messes the walnuts made on the streets. I collected them every year. The whole time I lived there I never bought a single walnut in the store. So many people in our neighborhood bought walnuts when they were literally dropping from the sky into our hands. They weren’t just any walnuts- they were high quality large walnuts with a truly fine flavor. Before foraging for those nuts I was ambivalent about walnuts. I didn’t hate them but I didn’t especially love them either. The squirrels, birds, Sharon, and I looked forward to gathering those nuts every year. Food falling from the sky. Free food showering the streets and all anyone can say is “They make a damn big mess. I hate ‘em!”
I’ve never lived on the streets. I’ve never gone long enough without food to be truly deeply desperately hungry but I’ve been hungry. I’ve had nothing but butter in my fridge on more than one occasion. I’ve lived on potatoes and butter at times. I know what it is to not have an abundance of food. I don’t think you have to half starve to death to appreciate having food but why do so many people not collect the walnuts and blackberries? Why are they called a nuisance? I know so many people who plant “ornamental” pears and apples. I know they’re pretty but there’s so much hunger in the world, if you’re going to plant a tree that could potentially feed you or your community – why choose a sterile empty one?
Is food such a mess that we have come to reject it if it means we have to exert ourselves at all to collect it? There is such malnutrition and hunger in the world and yet even poor people aren’t collecting blackberries from the miles of thriving fruiting fragrant bushes. Even poor people don’t seem to value free food unless it’s picked for them and handed to them in a bag.
While I picked 9 cups of berries from my choked porch I felt lucky. I felt rich. I thought that even if I lost my home, even if I became literally homeless, in Oregon I would not starve to death in August because of this generous noxious impolite weed. There is enough here for the insects, the birds, the small rodents, the big bears, and me. In some way I felt myself break down a little. It happens every year when I’m picking food and realize all over again how small I am on the big map of the universe. I am nothing. My insignificance is colossal.
When we spend so much of our time building ourselves up, trying to become more than we started out, striving so hard to achieve things we dreamt up on quiet buzzing summer afternoons when we were children looking at the world of possibilities like it was one enormous frosted cake and all we had to do was point at the slice we wanted and it would be so. When we spend all this time reaching and growing it’s easy to forget how unimportant each of us is as an individual. Our legacy as a collective is so much bigger than each of us separately. It is good to be humbled. To become small. It isn’t at all the same as being humiliated or being made to be invisible or not count. Being brought to a place of humility is about embracing everything outside yourself. It’s about acknowledging that every bite of food we get is a grace in our life. It’s about your body being nothing more than a corporeal bookmark of who you are in this world. You can’t take your body with you. It doesn’t matter if you believe in heaven and hell, reincarnation, or neither- your body is a reflection of who you are but it isn’t going to go with you when you’re gone. So you have now. You have this minute and when you’re in a state of humility you are no more important than the bees and the frogs but you matter just as much as they do. Everything belongs. Everyone belongs.
My spirit is a field of blackberries growing in bankrupt soil producing from nothing a rich harvest of food for the poorest bird.