July is leaving our hills, abandoning the last of the dog days to simmer into August. This is the time of year when we always journeyed to the blackberry patch, but unfortunately, this has not been a blackberry summer. I don’t know if it rained on the eighth day of June or not, but something happened. Son Andy reported that the blackberry vines along the road bank to his home were loaded with green berries just turning red, and all at once, they were gone. Maybe the surplus of rain combined with the hot, sultry sun that came after affected them.
It has been years since I have ventured into the blackberry patch of my childhood. It was in the upper pasture field where the milk cows grazed, and was full of blackberry vines scattered over hillside. We would get up early, while it was still cool, and climb the hill with our berry buckets. The first berries that we found, whether good ones or not, we put them in our bucket. We called this “berry luck” and it was a sign to us that we would have a good berry-picking day.
I remember the last time that I made a trip to the old berry field. It was years ago, but the memory is still vivid. I crossed the creek and started climbing the hill to the timberline. Barely out of sight of the house and garden, it was a different world. Below me, the creek ran beneath the roots of a big sycamore tree, forming a deeper hole that was an invitation to take off your shoes and wade.
The sun glared down upon the field below, but beneath the green canopy of full-leaved trees, it was shady and cool. I sat in the path made by Andy’s children when they ran and played here, but above, the underbrush was thick and heavy. I knew every inch of these woods when I was a kid, which trees were ideal to climb, and where the mountain tea plants grew in abundance. I climbed on to the old blackberry field at the top of the hill.
It had been many years since I had gone back there, and there was no remains of the path where our young feet once walked. Mountain laurel, greenbrier thickets and heavy underbrush grew so thick all over the side of the hill that I had to fight my way through it. The familiar landmarks of childhood were gone, and the territory felt strange and alien. Much of the ground was covered with club moss (which we call ground pine) — green, rounded whorls of ankle-deep foliage that made me leery of snakes.
The hillside had lengthened since I was young; it was three times as far to the top of the hill as it used to be. Breathless, I finally reached the point where the old-line fence marked the property line between us and what was once the Major Hardway place. Nothing looked familiar. I walked the line fence, looking in vain for the blackberry field of my childhood. It was gone.
Nature had encroached upon it, and time had obliterated it. Through the passing of the years, the woods had slowly but steadily reclaimed the upper pasture field where the milk cows once cropped the grass and kept the underbrush to a minimum. Not a blackberry vine was to be seen; it was all tall trees and woodland.
In my mind, I could see yesterday’s scene clearly. I could hear the tinkle of Old Cherry’s cowbell as she grazed on the path above me, and see our favorite cow, Brownie, as she followed behind. It is early morning, and the dew hangs heavy on the grass and bushes. Larry, Mary Ellen and I have our pants legs tied tight around our ankles to keep out the pesky chiggers that lie in wait. With long-sleeved shirts to protect us from the berry briers, we are ready to fill the zinc water buckets that are stashed under the shade of a sumac bush. We fill the smaller buckets that hang on our arms. The blackberries are ripe and hanging heavy on the vines.
When our buckets were full, we wearily began the journey back to the house. Hands and lips stained purple, we trudge back down the path through the woods. Mark and Ronnie are tagging along behind, and Ronnie will inevitably spill his bucket of berries. He scoops them back up into the bucket, along with sticks and moss. Poor Mom has the job of cleaning them! I don’t think that today’s children have any idea of the labor involved at berry picking time. When winter came, however, and we had blackberry jam and jelly to eat with our hot biscuits, it was worth the labor of picking them.
I can see an even earlier scene in my mind. Grandpa O’Dell is coming down the Little Road with zinc water buckets on each hip, fastened to his belt. He loved to go up on Pilot Knob to pick the bigger blackberries that ripened there, and bring them to Mom. She canned them in half-gallon jars in the old black zinc washtub over the outside fire where she heated wash water. As our family consisted of eleven people at one time, we could use these large jars.
I return to the present, and memories of those long ago children are gone, along with the backward glimpse of the old blackberry field. The tinkle of the cowbell fades into the past, and I return to the present day task of being an adult (and an old one at that!) How precious are the memories that still dwell in our minds! The past is gone, but the memories linger still.
The Old Oaken Bucket
How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollection presents them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep tangled wildwood,
And every loved spot which my infancy knew,
The wide-spreading pond and the mill that stood by it,
The bridge and the rock where the cataract fell;
The cot of my father, the dairy house nigh it,
And e’en the rude bucket that hung in the well.
That is not the picture of my old home place, but I love the first line, “How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood ...” even the memories of the hot blackberry field, and the young children in it, are now dear to my mind. Memories are precious indeed.