Louise writes: I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds.
I am a blackberry-er. In fact, I’m probably a downright scrumper and forager of all sorts. I have never seen it as that, I have always seen it as utilising part of a wild food resource.
Going berry-ing was always the highlight of the final week of the summer school holidays; I was always impatient to get out from the edge of small town onto the ‘rec’ to get a couple of bags of blackberries for the freezer, to provide fruit pie fillings for the winter to come. It was ALWAYS disappointing to see too many flattened areas of grass almost forming bays into the bramble patches at accessible spots… my heart would always sink as it meant other locals had been there first. I had determination, and although short of stature, always managed to find ways to get to some of the further-away ripe fruit; my grandmother’s walking stick was hugely useful – one of the old-fashioned wooden ones, a curved handle ideal for hooking through brambles to drag nearer. To an eleven year old it always seemed like a race to get as much fruit as we could that week, although I’m sure it wasn’t.
Preserving, pickling, bottling, freezing produce from autumn, the time of plenty, to last through the winter was part of normal routine. I guess that even then in the late 1970s and 1980s, not everyone was doing it, but it was normal. As we turned into a country with money to buy food, things available year-round in supermarkets, we became disconnected from this annual cycle, except for some of us who somehow didn’t shake the habit.
Now, as a grower of as much of my produce as I can, and still making preserves, pickles and the best use possible of the autumn glut, I see a slight resurgence in going out blackberrying. I do, however, see it much more as something the middle and professional classes now do as a family on a September weekend, one of their means of getting out doors and connecting with the environment. I see it as part of my routine annual survival strategy…. I still have a low income and although I don’t NEED to go out blackberrying, it is soothing, satisfying and provides a sense of achievement as well as food.
I have looked on in surprise at folk picking ripe berries from the bottom foot or so of bushes in public open spaces – just how many dogs have wee’d on those? And similarly at the determined picking of fruit from busy roadsides – I just wonder how much particulate has settled on them? And why, when for another 500m walk bushed loaded with ripe fruit away from the road but still on public paths are there to be picked from. A couple of years ago, out for a day with a group of like-minded friends, we were joined by an Australian, and she was completely baffled by this apparently strange habit of picking blackberries. She plucked up courage to ask why we were picking a fruit which, although she knew was edible, had been sprayed with potent herbicide to kill it. Apparently, in her part of Oz, Bramble is an invasive weed and is given this eradication treatment – it just hadn’t occurred to her that it was our native culture and we didn’t control it in that way.
This reconnection with the outdoors is stronger in my mind this year, as I have spent 9 months working in an environment not stuffed with naturalists and conservationists, but with ‘normal people’ (?). Two days ago I helped two colleagues pick ripe apples from the tree in the office orchard, as part of a picking day. I had to teach them how to know if the apple is ready, and then they both confessed to never having picked an apple in their lives. We were having a picking session at lunchtime, to get people out from their desks and appreciating what’s around them, but it really had not occurred to me that two professional scientists in their late twenties or early thirties really had no idea how to pick an apple. It has always been so deeply part of my life.
Others turned out to help munching on their imported, supermarket-shiny apple to help pick because it seemed interesting, not realising that they could take the apples and eat them! No packaging, no food miles.
I think this disconnect had not really been part of my thoughts for many years, because foraging has always been part of my life, and because I have a social circle where it is understood, accepted and shared. A year working in the real world has indeed made me aware that much of the working society around me is not connected to the foodstuff in the hedgerows around us, and sees it as a bit scary, or dangerous, or simply irrelevant. This is quite a serious and significant generational divide (I am significantly older than many of the people I work with) and I do wonder if the gap is not easily bridgeable. The outdoors, and connecting with it, is clearly something which is done as a special activity on a Sunday afternoon trip out. And not part of daily existence. If we are to have an effect on the mind-set of this clear majority in the country, we need to start thinking differently about how our perceptions and interactions with the nature and countryside around us differ from theirs, and how WE can be part of providing them with the connection lost.
I certainly could not cope without the annual opportunity to pick blackberries from August to early October, to provide a food resource and some very tasty fruit liquers to savour in the darker days of winter, and to be outdoors for a couple of hours at my favourite time of year.