It’s early, which is important. The sun won’t be searing, my energy is high and my neighbours won’t likely be up to see me leave home in rubber boots, a floppy sun hat that ties beneath my chin and a purple-stained sweatshirt from my alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan.
I’m stealing away to the woods behind my house in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. I’ve lived here since April 2014, and the pinch me factor is still intense, especially at this time of year. I almost matter-of-factly stroll down the streets and pull a bounty of still-life painting-worthy pears, plums and apples off trees because they are dangling there, Eden-like.
No one could starve here, at least in the summer. Mostly, I am wild about the Himalayan blackberries. They are delicious, everywhere (they’re invasive) and they are a full-time job.
My best friend, who was born and raised on the West Coast and, unimaginably, doesn’t even pick blackberries, says I need to go to Blackberry Pickers’ Anonymous.
Yes, I’m obsessing. My minimum four litre per day picking habit has evolved into a minimum eight litres. The season is short and plump, juicy berries are everywhere I turn.
Just a one-minute walk from my home, I could pick daily for hours and still not make a dent in the crop. They’re at the beach and it’s a superlative experience to pick a few pails, then go for a dip in the ocean, with the water providing a balm for my scratched arms and legs.
I literally can’t drive anywhere in my community without spotting richly abundant berry-picking sites. I close my eyes at night and see berries big as thimbles on branches.
I am always ready. I have one pair of rubber boots in my car and another at my back door along with hats, long-sleeved shirts, pants, pails, stools and small stepladders.
I have a large stick hidden in the bush behind my house for pulling down branches because the most desirable berries always seems to be a little out of reach.
And physically, the Himalayan blackberry is not the most congenial berry to pick. I draw blood every day. Even with protection, injuries abound. I have sacrificed my arms and sometimes my face and legs to this occupation to the point of being embarrassed to meet people, lest they think I’ve been wrestling cats or barbed wire.
I sting plus my fingernails are tattered and stained. I often have several berry slivers in my fingertips.
Most dangerous, however, was when I hit blackberry land after first running 15 kilometres in the heat. Every time I reached up for a berry, I wobbled and nearly passed out. I could have easily blacked out in the thick of the woods with no one to find me except a berry-manic black bear.
I grew up in Saskatchewan and have been known to get excited about foraging just a handful of wizened blueberries in the Northern Provincial Forest.
I was a saskatoon berry-picking maniac when I lived near the woods in Middle Lake, Sask., with pail in one hand and leash of a large, straining redbone coonhound in the other.
I’m not about jams or jellies or pies. My goal is to pick enough to keep myself in blackberry smoothies for an entire year.
Blackberry picking has now become a kind of meditation for me. It’s also a time when I can make phone calls to family and friends while simultaneously alerting bears that I’m sharing their territory and get my day’s fill of vitamin D.
I do a load of stretching while in the bush so it’s a workout as well as a practical enterprise. On the flipside, I have neglected my writing and friends and I’ve ruined clothes via stains and tears.
I am constantly scrubbing berry stains off my countertops and floors. My fridge has seen cleaner days and quality zippered bags aren’t the cheapest item on the grocery shelf.
I have spilled many a pail, and stepped in a full one, and I once reached for a clump of berries without seeing the black snake that was curled around the branch.
The scrapes, mishaps, time and energy I’ve put into this are all worth it. In November and January and even next June, I’ll still be enjoying scrumptious, healthy, purplish-green smoothies made with berries I battled against and beat.
(Shelley A. Leedahl is a writer based in Ladysmith, B.C. Her most recent books are I Wasn’t Always Like This and Listen, Honey.)