Berry Picking

by Katy Tahja, August 20, 2013

There’s nothing like indulging in the late summer pastime of roadside berry picking to renew your appreciation for the free bounty of edibles Mother Nature provides us with, coming from the invasive species Himalaya Blackberries.

Stories vary about how this indestructible bearer of tasty fruit came to California. Originally from Armenia it was growing in Europe in 1835 and was introduced to North America and Australia by 1885. It can send out canes 30’ long every year, produces thumb tack size thorns and will grow anyplace from freeway verges to primeval redwood forests. Anywhere in the temperate world it is now considered an invasive species crowding out natural vegetation. Its only redeeming value is succulent edible berries.

I pick berries on the Comptche Ukiah Road east of beautiful downtown Comptche. Why berries grow so much better along the roadway than on my 40 acres only 200’ away is beyond me, but they do. This year the County Roads crew choose to do some “control” brush cutting along the road. Personal observation: the only thing that controls Himalaya berries is something that eats the foliage. Think goats. Seriously. In British Columbia there’s “Sustaina-Billies and in Santa Barbara “Goats 4 Hire”. You can hire hoofed landscape maintenance and get goat berry fertilizer left behind for free.

The brush grinding back to the fence lines left clean tidy road shoulders to pick from. My neighbor’s ranch, worked for more than 150 years now, has wonderful eol worn split pickets holding back the blackberries. The fence posts are covered in lichens and moss and may have been in place a century. They’re beautiful just to look at. This neighbor has natural stock ponds and seeps that allow the berry roots to suck up moisture and produce berries so big they just burst apart when you touch them.

You’d think after 40 years of berry picking I’d remember to wear long sleeves and gloves, but no...that would be too easy. Scratched hands, sunburned arms and stained fingertips came home with the berries. I find berry picking in the cool morning hours calms my mind. I’m attentive to bird calls and animal noises coming out of the brush and I can hear faint noises in the distance from all over the valley. I marvel at the immense size of some of these berry canes. Many are the size of my wrist and have been putting out fruit for decades. Poison Oak growing intertwined with the berry bushes is very gently pushed aside and I scrub with Fels-Naptha soap when I get home. I feel the warm breezes, enjoy the sounds and scenery and bless the powers that be that the Comptche Valley is my home.

A lost carload of tourists stops and asks for directions to Montgomery Woods State Park. Neighbors pass by on their way to the post office or store or town errands. Logs truck haul loads of timber harvested from last fall’s wild fire past me. Deer jump the fence and head for the other side of the road and the water down in the river. My berry bucket fills. It’s like a tasty form of meditation I practice every year.

These berries went into a pie for my new neighbors who bought the old Ross Ranch. I added some grated orange peel in with the berries and a little Vodka in the crust to make it flaky. The newcomers were thrilled. They’ve got a lot to learn about country life Comptche style. While delivering the pie I told them it was Bookmobile day. They had not ever heard about bookmobiles and were fascinated and will be there to sign up with the traveling library in two weeks. The next time I go out for early morning berry picking I’ll invite them to join me

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