I was hiking in my woods the other day, looking for a suitable site on which to build a cabin. The weather was unseasonably pleasant thanks to the low humidity and a gentle northwest breeze. I had remembered a knob that seemed to project out from the surrounding slope. I had first noticed it early last winter when the leaves had fallen making it easy to view the surrounding topography. I decided today was the perfect day to give it a close inspection. I seemed to recall that this particular hill seemed fairly covered in thick brambles so I grabbed the machete from behind the seat in my truck and headed into the hollow and up a deer path that eventually led to the top of the hill and into a small field in dire need of brushhogging. I started across the field to where I thought the knob should be; about a quarter of the way down the slope on the other side of the hill as I'd remembered it. Suddenly, I found myself waist high in brambles that were armed with no-nonsense thorns sharp enough to penetrate denim jeans and human skin. Undaunted, I took out the machete and prepared to hack my way through when my eye caught glimpses of bright red and shiny black. All around me I began seeing bits of color peeking out from beyond the green leaves. What I thought was a thicket of brambles turned out to the motherlode of blackberry patches and I had stumbled right into the middle of it. Hmmm, of course I had picked blackberries when I was a kid but that was decades ago. Then one particularly plump berry seemed to beckon. I instinctively reached out to pick it and it easily separated from the stem. I plopped the soft ripe fruit into my mouth and easily crushed it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. The resulting taste sensation sent me back to my childhood and back to my truck. Priorities in life can change when new information comes to light and suddenly, looking for a cabin site didn't seem nearly as important as looking for a bowl to fill with Missouri's own black gold.
I made it back across the field, down the deer path, out of the hollow and up to the truck hoping to find something, anything in which to collect the succulent morsels that awaited me on top of the hill. Like most folks, the area behind the driver's seat of the pick-up is filled with more things than logic or physics would ever say is possible. I was hoping to find any suitable receptacle, even an empty fast food soda cup. Imagine my delight in finding three medium sized Tupperware bowls, nested within each other, along with their lids! Incredible. I raced back up the hill as fast as I could to begin filling my bowls with the sweet fruit. The berries were plentiful and came off the canes easily. I was sometimes able to grab three or even four at a time. As I moved quickly along I spooked a fawn just yards away at the edge of the field. It broke cover and dashed away. It was the same one I had seen a week earlier on top of the hill. It seemed too large to still have its spots, but there they were. The mother moves it around a bit but always hides it in the same field. Any predator could figure that out soon enough, but the coyotes usually don't make it this far up the hill. They seem content to wander the bottom of the valley along Beaver Creek, hunting and howling by moonlight.
As I pick, it suddenly dawns on me that I am not in a race. I've been picking these berries like I seem to do everything in life these days, in too much of a hurry to ever enjoy it. I decide to savor the moment. I slow down. The sun feels good on my shoulders. After a time, sounds begin to drift in as meadow larks call to one another, crows in the distance crack jokes and laugh at each other. Bees hum all around and work right along side, visiting blossoms while ignoring me, as we all go, collectively, about our own business. Turkey buzzards glide silently overhead, then swoop and hover a bit as their wings catch air. Finally, they angle downward and they swoop again as the wind spills over their wings. My mind tends to wander as my fingers seem to fall into a natural rhythm. I begin to think about the indigenous people who lived here before me. I wonder if there were blackberry canes on this hill 200 or 300 years ago. Could I be picking from later generations of the same canes they picked from? Could I be carrying on the proud tradition of all hunter/gatherers throughout time? It made me smile to think so and I suddenly felt somehow connected to them. I spontaneously began to thank each plant for its contribution to my bowl.
It's been so dry, up until this year, the only place the berries were "making" was on top of this hill. A thin impermeable layer of dense gray clay underlays the soil up here and any water that hits the top of the hill soaks through the topsoil and flows along that layer of gray clay down to this field which, at points, forms a natural bowl. On state soil maps, it is officially designated as "Farm Land of Statewide Importance." I don't know exactly what that means but am sure it has something to do with the fact that this seemed to be the only place there was enough water for the berries. All the patches down below would either lie barren or the tiny green berries would have failed to develop, but this year is different. Abundant and well-timed Spring and Summer rains have given even the smaller species of berries some extra bulk. The berries in my bowl, that is, the ones that miss my mouth, are plump and sweet and it doesn't take long to fill three containers. I mentally thank myself for taking a break and re-establishing my connection to this land through the primordial act of berry picking. I couldn't believe the amount of relaxation and calm that came with this simple act.
Later that day, I visited friends who live on a hill above the Gasconade River near a town called Competition. Now, they usually seem happy to see me but I also know that, as a form of currency, blackberries carry a lot of weight. I knew that my arrival would be welcomed with an extra degree of appreciation and fanfare with a container of freshly picked blackberries in my hand. As they grow much of their own food, my friends understand the amount of work that goes into being self-sufficient. They could appreciate the time, effort, and sweat that a bowl of blackberries represented as well as the perfect balance the fruit would provide to the fresh vegetables from their garden. As it turned out, the berries had the desired effect and I was immediately invited to stay for supper. Our conversations that early evening wandered from the weather to the floods last Spring, and finally to the meal we were to share. Fresh sweet cream, it was finally decided, would be the only way to improve upon what Nature had already provided by way of the delicious fruit. The moon rose over the river that night as prayers were offered over a bountiful table in these Ozark hills.