blackberry picking in Nova Scotia photo by Debbie Malaidack

Blackberries in September/Photo credit: Debbie Malaidack

Last week, my young daughter came home from a visit to my parents’ cottage near Walton, Nova Scotia, with a mason jar full of fresh blackberry jelly. She and Granny had found wild blackberries along the path to the Walton Lighthouse, and those that they didn’t eat fresh, they jellied right away. Tonight we ate the sweet, too-runny jelly as a dessert, on small pieces of buttered brioche. Through mouthfuls, my daughter proudly described the process of berry-picking and jam-making.

Yesterday, when I dropped by for a visit to my friend’s house, I noticed two punnets of blackberries sitting on her kitchen counter. I grabbed two without asking and popped them in my mouth. They were perfectly ripe, glossy, black and juicy. My friend described how her family and two others had visited Graves Island on the South shore to pick the berries. She had been visiting Graves Island for years, but hadn’t realised until now that the island is covered in blackberry patches! One of the families who joined the excursion was from Syria. What a pleasant, language-barrier-free activity to share with new neighbours. It made me wonder whether there are blackberries in the Middle East. (Does anyone know?)

In England and Ireland, where my family is from, the blackberries are different.  In some places, like the Cotswolds, brambles grow wild for miles and miles, lining country roads and paths. The berries  themselves are much larger, each fat pod bursting with black juice, as described in the poem Blackberry Picking, by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

blackberry picking in Nova Scotia

Blackberry picking/Photo credit: Debbie Malaidack

In Blackberry Picking, Heaney describes his memories of blackberry picking in Ireland as a child. When I read it, I think of the miles of brambles we left behind in England, the strange hot, rainy few weeks of our Halifax August, my daughter’s happy purple hands as she devoured the toast and runny jelly tonight, and the delicate impermanency of the blackberries that were sitting on my friend’s kitchen counter on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. She asked what I thought she should do with them. “Eat them right away”, I said. Jam takes to long for young mothers to make (leave it to the grandmothers!), and there’s nothing like the taste of a bowl of fresh berries, sprinkled with white sugar or a little cream, to say farewell to summer.

Blackberry Picking

By Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)