By Siri Bardarson
June 22, 2016
It started two months ago with a phone call from my sister.
“Have you seen the wild blackberry blossoms?”
There was a hint of challenge in her voice, she—the middle child, me—the oldest sister: the beginning of the seasonal contest of wild blackberry picking.
I had seen the tiny white blossoms. They covered vines everywhere I drove and walked on South Whidbey.
“It’s the earliest I have ever seen them,” she said and I agreed.
Two months ago, most Whidbey Island residents stood at the shoreline and squinted into the distance for a chance sighting of the gray whales and orcas. My sisters and I have been occupied otherwise. We’ve slowed our cars, scoured the ditches, gauged the sun and mentally calculated the time of year. We’ve secretly prayed about rain (we are not the praying kind). We hoped for the right balance, not too much to wreck the pollination or mold the flowers but enough to encourage plump fruit. The two hot days last month held the key.
The phone rang.
“The wild blackberries are out. I have never seen so many red berries!”
A blackberry pie in time for the Fourth of July is rare and a pie in June is unheard of.
These Pacific Northwest days—the days immediately after school lets out—the weather is gray and damp in the morning and the afternoon is clear and warm. The blackberries love the hothouse steam of the tall grass and the heat of the afternoon filtered by the nettles poised like bayonets over the growing fruit.
* * *
On cue with the blackberries, my family—minus our working father—would load up the station wagon in Seattle, prepared for the summer. It was stuffed to the rafters with my mom, five girls, flannel sleeping bags, the cat basket that could not contain the cat, the Coleman cooler, groceries, library books and suitcases with shorts, t-shirts and swimsuits and beach towels.
There was no I-5. We drove a meandering route up the east side of Lake Washington, Issaquah and Bothell and finally down the tree-lined road to the Mukilteo ferry landing. When we saw Puget Sound, we sang the “Doxology” at the tops of our lungs. (We are the singing kind.)
We ferried over on the new boats—the Rhododendron or the Olympic—and drove up the island on the old highway to Freeland, then ducking down Cameron Road to the cabin on the edge of Holmes Harbor. With luck, the yard had been mowed but most likely not. We hauled the gear into the cabin, through the large wooden door without a frame or lock—only a long worm-eaten board with the name of the cabin, “Wit’s End,” rendered in red paint.
Unloading the car in the tall wet grass was the beginning of summer dampness: tennis shoes that never quite dried out, swimsuits that were clammy and rimey with salt, sleeping bags full of sand and pillows that absorbed saltwater from still-wet hair.
We hurried over the plywood floors, staking out our bunk beds. My favorite was the upper bunk across from the open doorway into the living space. From that spot I could see the flicker and shadowy light of the fireplace and the kerosene lamps. Out of sight, at the picnic table, my mother would sit tackling a volume of Dickens that she wouldn’t finish. I’d hear the strike of a match and she would smoke one Pall Mall. Below me, my little sisters slept end to end under old sheets and army blankets and breathed sweet open-mouthed noises.
In a few weeks, when the weather warmed up, we went blackberry picking. It’s tough going—the picking gig. In my family, there’s a moral subtext to picking that has something to do with courage, dumb fortitude and no whining. After a brief discussion about containers (the Revere Ware quart saucepan had a great handle, the Pyrex pitcher, too), we would give small metal cups to the little girls and get into the car.
It took a good two hours to pick the minimum two to three cups necessary for a pie. The berries were the size of your little fingernail and the vines had tiny, mean stickers. Vines trailed over fallen logs and camouflaged holes in the ground that you stepped into with a crash. The nettles were fresh and fiery, the snakes always a horrible surprise and the first berry made an insubstantial “plink” going into the container.
It’s a demoralizing sound: you must not look into the bottom of the cup until you’ve picked the first layer and the plinking stops.
There was the thrill of consolidating into our mom’s larger container with the hope that she would call it good—enough for a pie—and we’d struggle out of the brush and load back into the car. We’d lick our wounds but not complain too much —our forearms scratched and full of tiny stickers, our ankles burning with nettle stings, our fingernails dyed purple and black, and streaks of berry juice on our skin like sailor tattoos.
My mom would fire up the Great Majestic woodstove stove and we’d go swimming. After dinner we’d have pie, always with whipping cream because we never had a refrigerator. My mom would discuss the quality of the crust and we’d bob our heads and peep our praise and make our first tentative remarks about crusts that were too short, too thick or underdone, and filling that was too sweet or not sweet enough.
My sisters and I are all terrific pie makers because we learned from the best. But the real reason we care so much is that we know that blackberry pie means, “LOVE 4 Ever.”
I’ll close with a horrible poem I wrote in 1973 in pencil on a piece of ripped grocery bag. I had picked the berries and baked a pie in the Great Majestic all on my own. It hung on a nail in the cabin forever.
Ode to the Blackberry
I shall now praise the rare prize,
The finest fruit in Paradise,
Who in the sunny field doth dwell
And under summer’s sunny spell
Bursts forth in bounteous multitude
A rare jewel worthy of platitude.
Amongst garter snake and nettle high
You attempt to thwart the avid picker
With prickly claw and stickly sticker.
But in the end must resigned be
To clever hand in pastery.
Forever with the God’s fare to vie,
Your true realization, the blackberry pie.
A Northwest native, Siri Bardarson is a writer with an emotional hotline to the vibrant natural beauty of Puget Sound. When not writing about the importance of the wild blackberry, daisies and natural time, she practices her cello a lot and sings at the same time. She loves her Whidbey Island home.
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Lovely story. Thank you.
Thank you, Siri – A perfect ode to the fruit we love and struggle with, evoking fond memories of my own station wagon journeys to a lake up north in Minny. Fun!
Have you really picked some already on the island??
My compliments on your poem–a rare jewel worthy of platitude!