Blackberry Picking

Summer’s blood was in it~Seamus Heaney

Tugged by the day’s last wash of sunlight, the boys are outside and running before the supper table’s cleared. They have a tiny kite, no wider than a hand-span. Somehow, they are making it fly on the faint warm breath of evening, a shy breeze that fingertips the treetops more gently than I brush the cornsilk hair from a damp forehead on a humid Southern night.

I slip on a pair of wellies that probably won’t survive to see another blackberry season, and grab a bowl. Metal bowls are best; you can hear the soft round ping of the first berries against the bottom. We had our dessert in the blackberry patch a few evenings ago, and I’m a little wiser now. The kite is still all-absorbing, so before the boys lose interest and descend on the berry patch like a pair of giant locusts, I skirt the perimeter, driven by a sense of urgency. Last time, they stuffed themselves with all the biggest berries, leaving me to pinch off the stunted ones. But this time, I’m first.

My bowl is half-full by the time they come running up the hill and plunge into the patch (these berries are thornless, and so, I hope, is their childhood, at least mostly). They exclaim over the berries, search for the best, gobble down their August sweetness.

They’re masters of being in the moment. I’m not. My mind drifts. I am a forager, a hunter-gatherer, gleaning nature’s offerings against the coming cold and dark. The berries are sweetest now, but when I’m picking, I don’t eat them. I hoard them, feeling the weight of the bowl growing in my hand, pulling me earthward. They may be sweetest now, but in winter, baked into crumbles and pies, blended with milk and yogurt, they will be bright reminders of long, lazy evenings when the world exploded with a superabundance of life. As I harvest food for the days when my breath hangs in the air, I become at once something less and more than what I am. The facts of my name and place don’t matter. I am one of a sisterhood stretching back into a nameless past. The ghosts of other women hang in the somnolent air around me–I can almost see them, their bent backs and reaching arms silhouetted against the sunset sky. We share a sense of wonder that this vast planet that anchors and terrifies us offers us such provisions. We share also the same slow nagging worry that there might not be enough for the hard bare months. But in my case, this worry itself is a ghost. My children will not starve. My apprehensions are first-world problems, echoes of biology or some collective unconscious.

And then, as they will do, my thoughts turn to writing. I haven’t written much this summer, and haven’t put down a single word of a story. My babies won’t starve if I can’t come up with a freezer full of berries, but this dearth of words is real.

When I’m not writing, I have to fight the temptation to panic. I should be writing more. I should be writing, period. If I’m not writing, as countless articles and books have advised me, I am not a writer. The panic starts to rise from the pit of my stomach, reaching its cold fingers up into my chest, feeling for my throat.

But the lovely thing about getting older (yes, it’s lovely, though we’re taught to fear it, because if we didn’t we might love ourselves as we are, with all the fearsome power that kind of love brings), is that just maybe, I’m getting a little wiser, too. I remember a post by a fellow writer about how the flow of her writing trickles into drought in the midst of canning season. I breathe. It’s okay. I’m okay. And there is no One Way to write.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself over the past couple of writing years as I’ve worked in a concerted way toward publication. This evening, along with the berries, came a small epiphany. Living in the country and producing much of our food, I’ve come to see my life not as a succession of calendar squares, but as a gyring through the cycles and seasons of the year. In spring, I plant. In summer, I weed until the lines in my hands are the color of Virginia soil and no amount of scrubbing can bleach them. In late summer, I harvest and preserve, and in autumn, I gather the last frost-kissed pumpkins and hope to nurse a little patch of kale through the new year. In spring, I begin again, after a new collection of failures and triumphs, a little wiser each time.

Why shouldn’t writing work this way? I read another post not long ago by an author who decried National Novel Writing Month for making her feel she had to crank out tons of crappy words in a frenzy. Because I’m an overthinker and not exactly the Queen of Self-Confidence, her post stirred the panicky depths inside me. Is it a bad thing that I love cranking out a novel in a month, that this kind of deadline actually frees and motivates me?

This evening, dropping blood-dark berries into my bowl, I realized. No. It is not. The more I strive to live life according to the rhythms of my crazy lopsided journey around the sun, the more I begin to suspect that for me, writing moves in seasons, too. Spring brings story-seeds and the frenzied growth of excitement as the first shoots of an idea push their way up from my winter-fallow mind. I write late into the night, drunk with the power of thoughts, the flavor of a phrase on my tongue. In autumn, when my guys are back to their school year routine, my life settles into its autumn routine as well, and I have the luxury of uninterrupted hours to wrestle with language.

But in summer, I watch my stories grow with little conscious help from me. The burgeoning from seed to shoot to fruit-heavy vine is sometimes so gradual I don’t recognize that anything worthwhile is happening. But, as another writer-friend puts it beautifully, I’m composting ideas. Stories are unfurling inside my mind.

When I tuck a tiny seed into cold spring soil, I let my thoughts linger on the intimacy of the act, the knowledge that no living eye will see that seed again. It will undergo a kind of death into something other, something impossible. What strange and wondrous alchemy is this that transmutes the base materials of earth into the miracle of food? I understand the science, but somehow that only increases the wonder. There is nothing mightier than a seed.

The real work of the garden comes in spring and fall–the back-bending, earth-churning work of tilling, planting, harvesting, and putting the garden to bed for the winter. Summer is lazy by comparison, at least on the surface. But underneath the hum of the bees and the flow of cloud-shadows across the foothills of the Alleghenies, things are happening. Roots are sinking deeper. Slow, ancient magics are afoot.

So it is with stories. They have their seasons, their seedtime and their harvest, and in between, the long growing-time.

I’m sure it comes at different seasons of the year for different writers–perhaps even different seasons of their lives. For me, this year’s growing-time is drawing to a close. Soon, the startlings of crows will echo a little lonelier from the hills. Frost will kiss the blackberry leaves, and the garden will begin to curl up into itself. I will begin to harvest the ideas that I’ve been growing this summer, and as the days grow shorter, my thoughts will stray to farther shores.

My bowl isn’t full yet, but all the ripe berries are picked or eaten, for now. The kite-flyers have transformed into ninjas, and their laughter is as golden as the light that slants across the mountains, stroking the cloud-edges to flame. Autumn isn’t here–not yet–but I can feel the air that it pushes before it. There is a hint of coldness to this air, and I shiver, despite the stickiness of the evening. I think of Seamus Heaney’s poem, and of the loss that heralds transformation.

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