Every Common Bush

our haywagon swallowed by this year’s growth of blackberry bushes

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries~
–Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Aurora Leigh”

All I wanted was a few blackberries.

I admit my objective was just to pick enough for cobbler for Sunday noon dinner after church, oblivious to God burning in the bushes towering over me, around me, snagging me at every opportunity.  If I had given it more thought, I would have realized the reaching vines hooking my arms and legs were hardly subtle.  The thorns ripped at my skin, leaving me bloody and smarting.  The fruit itself stained my hands purple, making them look freshly bruised.  I crushed fat vines underfoot, trampling and stomping with my muck boots in order to dive deeper into the bushes.  Webs were everywhere, with spiders crawling up my arms and dropping down into my hair.  I managed to kick up one hornet’s nest so I called it quits.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, so blinded to all the clues crammed in every nook and cranny of every bush.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, trampling on holy ground with well-protected feet, unwilling to be barefoot and tenderly vulnerable.

All I wanted was a few blackberries, the lure of black gold plucked at the cost of rips and scratches and tears.

What I got was burned by a bush…

and a few blackberries for tomorrow’s crammed-with-heaven cobbler.

Blackberry Cobbler

blackberriesWe’ve often been asked about the origin of our farm name, BriarCroft, as it is a bit unusual. I point toward our back field when I explain: banks of blackberry bushes and vines on the periphery of our woods, covering an old barbwire fence, and literally becoming fence itself in their overwhelming growth. So that is the “briar” and the “croft” is our little Scottish “farm on a hill”.

The blackberry vines seem like trouble 90% of the year–growing where they are not welcome and reaching out and grabbing passersby without discriminating between human, dog or horse. But for about 3 weeks in late August and early September, they yield black gold–bursting, swelling, unimaginably sweet fruit that is worth the hassle borne the rest of the weeks of the year.

Today I was on a mission. I wanted to make a blackberry cobbler for a family dinner to serve warm with vanilla ice cream–a true once a year treat to offer up.

It has been an unusually dry summer here in the Pacific Northwest with little rain at all since July, so the fields are brown and even the usually lush blackberry vines are starting to dry. The berries themselves are rich from the sun, but a bit smaller than typical. The Haflingers have been fed hay for the past several weeks as they are turned out in the fields in the mornings as there is not enough pasture for them without the supplement–we are about 6 weeks ahead of schedule in feeding hay.

I had grown a little suspicious the last couple nights as I brought the Haflingers into the barn for the night as several of the mares turned out in the back field were bearing purplish stains on their chests and front legs, and one even had a tell-tale purplish mark on her muzzle with a short blackberry vine still painfully stuck in her lower lip that I extracted for her. Hmmmm. Raiding the berries. Desperate drought forage behavior in an extremely efficient eating machine.

So this evening I headed down the path to the back field, not seeing the mares until I rounded the corner of the woods, and headed toward the berries. They had heard the Haflingers in the other fields talking to me as I passed, and were already headed up to see what was up. When they saw the bowl in my hand, that was it. They mobbed me. I was
irresistible.

So with three mares in tow, I approached the berry bank. It was ravaged. Trampled. Haflinger poop piles everywhere. All that were left were clusters of gleaming black berries up high overhead, barely reachable on my tip toes, and only reachable if I walked directly into the vines. The mares stood in a little line behind me, pondering me as I pondered my dilemma. I looked back at them and told them they were berry thieves and they weren’t getting a single one from me.

I set to work picking what I could reach, snagging, ripping and bloodying my hands and arms, despite my sleeves, determined that I was not going to give up on this vision of steaming blackberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream that I’d entertained all day. Pretty soon I had mares on either side of me, diving into the brambles and reaching up to pick what they could reach as well, unconcerned about the thorns that tore at their sides and muzzles. They were like sharks in water–completely focused on their prey and amazingly skilled at
grabbing just the black berries, and not the pale green or red ones. Three plump Haflingers and one *plumpish* woman willingly accumulating scars in the name of sweetness.

When my bowl was full, I extracted myself from the brambles and contemplated how I was going to safely make it back to the barn without being mugged. Not a problem. I adopted that “look” and that “voice” and they obediently trailed behind me, happy to be put in their stalls for their nightly grain, a gift from me with no thorns or vines attached.

Thorns are indeed part of our everyday life. They stand in front of much that is sweet and good and precious to us. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry, make us beg for mercy.
Yet thorns did not stop salvation, did not stop goodness, did not stop the promise of sweetness to come. We simply can wait to be fed: a gift dropped from heaven.

Anyone ready for blackberry cobbler?