As soon as I stepped into the river, felt that momentary thrill of the cold water burbling over my feet, inhaled the hot perfumed air, I knew that I had been longing for this. Blackberry season. Picking blackberries in the river is my most beloved spiritual practice, the one that most fills my soul, connects me to the Divine. The mix of the sun, water, quiet and the meditation of picking invite me to open to God.
River picking is special. The berries hang off the bank over the water so you don't tangle with the vines. You do have to be willing to get your feet wet, though. All the way up to your thighs at times. Part of the spiritual practice is really being in each moment. You learn to spot, walk, then pick. You can't walk and spot at the same time because the river will take you down. Once you've decided which part of the bank you're heading for, it's a good idea to close up the bucket to prevent spills, and watch your feet as you move through the water. And then plant your feet where they will be as stable as possible while you stretch and pick. I've learned this through experience. There's nothing more sad than watching a bucket full of berries spill into the running water.
Picking blackberries brings to mind many metaphors for reaching toward God. This is one of them. Make sure you're rooted first. There is always a bundle of plump dark berries dangling just beyond your finger tips. You can reach them with a stretch, maybe, but you risk falling in and losing everything if you are not rooted first. These are the kind of thoughts that pop into my head as I root, stretch, pick.
This hot summer has put the blackberries many weeks ahead. The dry weather has not impacted the river berries, though. The ones that grow on the river banks receive both maximum water and maximum sunlight. They are huge, plump and sweet. A perfect berry comes off with only a gentle tug. If you have to tug too hard it's not ripe enough. If it falls off, just eat that one. It's sure to be sweet and probably won't travel well, particularly if it's near the beginning of the picking and will soon be covered in a few pounds of it's buddies.
Every year, each time I go, I am amazed to be there picking alone. Not that I want a crowd. Blackberry picking is at its best as a solitary practice. The few people I invite to join me soon learn that they are there because they are tall and it is not really a time to chitchat. I just can't understand how it is that few people seem to bother. No, bother is not the right word because this glorious, spiritual experience is anything but a bother. People don't seem to partake? Imbibe? Engage? Occasionally I do see people there, mostly watching their dogs play in the water. It's like they don't even notice the sacred, kairos moment that is right there, but, like Brigadoon, only for a short time.
Last summer I picked blackberries from New Westminster to Saltspring to Point Roberts to Duncan. I made pies, tarts, popsicles, smoothies and blackberry lavender gin. I froze enough to last me through the year, just to have a taste now and again to remind me of the experience. I enjoy eating blackberries. And I enjoy the delight my family and friends take in the blackberry treats I served to them. But it is picking that fills my soul. This is where I meet God.
Last year, on my first trip out, I noticed that the path from the car park to the river bank had been paved with blacktop. I tried not to feel foreboding. Perhaps it helped prevent run-off into the river? As I headed to the border where the groomed park meets the river bush, the sense of foreboding increased. Normally I stepped over that threshold and felt transported, like stepping from the city to the country or what the children must have felt when they passed through the wardrobe into Narnia. But this year was different. Instead of stepping onto a bush path, I stepped onto a bare patch of dirt. Bushes had been pulled out, hacked back. A few meters along there was a fence blocking the path that led to my favorite picking spot. I had been going there for years. I remember taking little Finn and his best friend Emily down there, helping them to carefully negotiate the path, parts of which rose above the river. Every year those paths got a little more eroded by the BC rain. But they led to a lovely spot, accessed by rappelling down a bank with the help of a tree root, to a place where the river was shallow enough to sport pebble bars and laden with berries hanging low over the water. The kids would play happily while I picked.
Confrontation with the fence gave me momentary pause. But only momentary. I ducked around it and carried on. The path was no more treacherous than I remembered from other years. Not really treacherous at all. After all if a 5 and 7 year old could manage, how bad could it be? I carefully let myself down the bank with the trusty old tree root. I made my way across the shallow water stopping to look for a good spot to begin. But there was nothing. The bank had been cleared. Every blackberry bush gone. Devastated I waded back up the river hoping to find something.
The river at my favourite picking spot rarely went deeper than the knees on me, but walking upriver required careful navigation in order to not get in too deep. Some areas dipped to the thighs and higher. The deeper the water, the greater the pull of the current over slippery rocks. Happily as the river shallowed out again, I could see the banks laden with berries. Which does not mean I don't lament the loss of my favorite place, but the new spot ended up providing a similar experience of water, sun and berries.
About three years ago, I invited (he might say dragged, but that's just semantics) a then 15-year-old Finn on one of my blackberry excursions. We had gone to my favorite spot where he and Emily had played as children and were making our way back on the path along the corroded edge of the river bank. I was ahead when I heard an odd noise and turned just in time to see Finn hovered mid-air like the Wile E Coyote before plumetting into the river. I had a mother's stricken moment of helplessness as he plunged under the water, luckily deep enough in that spot to catch him. As he popped out of the water saying "I'm ok, I'm ok," I breathed in relief. Somehow he hadn't been gored on his blackberry picking pole, hit his head on the crumbled bank, or landed in a spot shallow enough to knock him senseless. I remember thinking, "thank God I'm carrying the berries."
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