IT’S BEEN a challenging season for blackberry lovers. The bushes that were missed by the sprayers didn’t survive the lack of rain. Well, the bushes did, they’re still going strong, but the berries are brown and desiccated.
The Loch-Wonthaggi Road used to be a happy picking ground, but these past few years a zealot has kept an eagle eye on the place and his sprayer ready. I assume it’s a he and I do understand his zeal. Introduced to New South Wales by homesick settlers in the early 1840s, the blackberry is now one of the country’s worst environmental weeds. It was declared a weed of national significance in 1999. And yet ... I’m sure a woman would have left at least a couple of bushes.
My neighbours and I were growing anxious. “Any sign?” we asked when we met. “No” was the answer. Optimistically I kept gumboots and a bucket in my boot. On my way home from work, I varied my route to cover the back roads between Warragul and Wonthaggi but there was nothing worth stopping for.
Finally came the call we’d been waiting for. Frank had found a patch, far from civilisation and the sprayers, with its feet in a creek. We asked what the berries were like, hoping to hear “As fat as plums”, but he only replied “I think it’s worth a trip”.
Last weekend Frank and John and I loaded up the truck: gumboots, buckets, secateurs, flynets, hats. I can’t tell you where we went, only that it took half an hour to drive there. Then we went off-road (hence the truck), bouncing along pot-holed farm tracks for 10 minutes, tramped about a kilometre down steep paddocks, crawling under four sets of electric and barbed-wire fences, balanced on an ancient rotted log across a creek and there we were. Frank needn’t have been so cautious. They were magnificent.
We had been starved of blackberries for so long that at first we picked and ate indiscriminately. Then, remembering that all this wealth was ours, we became choosey. Only the biggest, plumpest berries went into our mouths and pails.
I love picking blackberries, not just the berries but the picking. The busyness of your hands frees up your mind. At first we picked together and talked, about Manus Island, the Morwell fire, the dogs debate, the war against blackberries and how they might be grown and harvested without becoming a problem ... but gradually we lapsed into a meditative silence and drew further apart. I was thinking about other blackberry expeditions in other years with other neighbours. When I arrived in Wonthaggi, it was my old neighbour Jim who first took me blackberry picking. I had grown up in suburbia and the primal pleasure of foraging was new to me, but I was hooked from the moment he took me to the old tip site in Skip Lane, on the outskirts of Wonthaggi, where the berries were huge and luscious.
We returned here each season for many years, until one February a grim-faced Jim told me our patch had been sprayed. I think that was the start of serious blackberry purges. It became much harder after that. Jim used to start his reconnaissance missions in late January. For a couple of years, we had a spot off the highway near the floodplain just before Dalyston, until the sprayers found that too.
One year I found a good spot on the Loch-Wonthaggi Road. By this time Jim was about 85 and a little unsteady on his feet but there was no leaving him behind. We took our neighbour Vilya and headed up the hill. The picking was from the roadside and easy. We spread out and soon filled our pails. A couple of hours after we got home, Jim brought me over one of his famous blackberry pies. By the next day he was in hospital in Melbourne with a badly injured knee. What Vilya and I hadn’t seen, so absorbed were we, was that while reaching out for a particularly tempting berry, he had toppled down the bank and had to crawl back up to the road. He never said a word. Most impressively, he saved his blackberry pail as he fell. That was Jim’s last hurrah – I believe the injury knocked several years off his life – but he always said it was worth it.
The sprayers reached the Loch-Wonthaggi Road before the next blackberry season so I sneaked back to the old tip site for a look. By this time it was in private hands and I had to climb a padlocked gate past the signs that said “Trespassers will be prosecuted” and “This site is under 24-hour video surveillance”. Sure enough the blackberries had recovered from the spray massacre of five years ago. There must have been a spring flowing underground and they had grown back more vigorously than ever.
Over the next few years I introduced a lot of friends to this site. There was the added frisson of trespassing. As we picked, we discussed what we were going to do if the police arrived to arrest us. John said he would argue that this was a site of cultural significance to the people of Wonthaggi. Vilya said she wouldn’t waste breath arguing, she’d sink her face into the berries and try to eat as many as possible before they led her to the cells.
Finally one day last season, when I was there on my own, the nightmare happened. The tip owner drove up in a truck, blocking my escape. I waited for the abuse. “This’ll be the last time,” he said. “I’ve been ordered to spray them.” Ah, a blackberry lover, bearing bad news.
But back to this season and the latest find. We’ve filled our buckets and we’ve barely touched the crop. With purple-stained mouths and hands, scratched and bloodied, we trudge wearily up the hill with our heavy buckets. This country is so steep you can’t walk, you have to weave, and there’s no spare breath for talking. At the top of the hill, we turn to look at the valley, lit by the setting sun, the mountain ashes casting long shadows, and count our blessings.
When I get home I weigh my berries just out of interest. Not quite seven kilograms. They’re selling cultivated blackberries in the supermarket at $5.25 for 125 grams. By my arithmetic, I’ve just picked $294 worth.
But that’s academic. A freezer full of blackberries for the long winter ahead? Better than money in the bank.
March 4, 2014
Loved the blackberry stories. When we were kids, Dad took us blackberrying (and fishing and shooting rabbits). How otherwise did parents feed six growing kids? My friend, Chris, brought me about 4 pounds a couple of weeks ago. He had collected on his property - on one side of the patches as an emu ate berries on the other side. I made jam and shared around - old Wonthaggi mining days never die.
Yvonne McRae, Wonthaggi
March 4, 2014
It's not just Catherine and her crew who enjoy the benefits of the nearby blackberry harvest. We were lucky enough to score a jar of Catherine's blackberry jam this summer and breakfast has just shifted to the next level at our place. Heavenly. Long may you forage.
March 2, 2014
Your blackberry article brought back a memory of a holiday when I was five. We had come down from Eaglehawk, near Bendigo, for two weeks at Dromana. Our rented house was a glorified fibro shack with a wood fired stove and outside dunny. My most vivid memory is of us picking blackberries from beside the the road and then mum and dad making jam. We must have scavenged enough jars to make it possible. The kitchen was full of heat from the wood stove, there was bubbling and sweet smells and a sense of excitement and making do. I knew at the time that making jam on your beach holiday wasn't quite the usual thing to do but the results were wonderful.
Forty years later, camping with our children at Mallacouta, we had a memorable meal of prawns netted the night before from the estuary in front of us, and for dessert, blackberries picked that morning, with cream. Aah!
Liz Low, Cape Paterson
March 2, 2014
I was appalled at your article about blackberries. They are a noxious weed and wreaked havoc on this wretched country for too long. It is bleeding heart liberals like you who are ruining this fair land! You should be knocked on the head and biffed in the creek, as we used to say in the old country.
March 2, 2014
Another good implement to take with you when you go black berrying is a long piece of strong fencing wire with one end bent as a hook. You can use this to bring the long canes heavy with berries out of the middle of the patch to you rather than reaching too far and a) entangling yourself in the prickles or b) blindly grabbing a snake or c) falling down the embankment.
Carolyn Landon, Wonthaggi
March 2, 2014
I love the blackberry story. It always amazes me how many of the things that are natural pleasures are taken away by red tape and the thought that we can still find them if we search is encouraging.
March 2, 2014
What a delightful piece on blackberry gathering. It took me back to my summer childhood holidays at our Bach at Lake Rotoma, so long ago, when we would walk for miles gathering blackberries. My mum made jam with them and it was always a favourite.
Lenice, Papamoa Beach
March 2, 2014
Catherine I loved this story thank you! and enjoy your blackberries!