By Dr. Curtis Varnell
Blackberries are one of the gifts of God. They grow wild and free in most open pastures in the South and they get ripe just about this time of year. Even though abundant, they come with some strings attached. They grow best in June and July, the hottest of hot months in Arkansas, and are attached to some awful thorn-bearing bushes. To make matters worse, every stinging, biting, and itching insect known to man hang out in the best berry locations.
My grandmother Nettie loved blackberries and knew the best ways to harvest and the best ways to avoid the attendant problems above. She also knew the best secret places, those areas where the vines grew thick and were covered with the largest plump berries. On the days we picked, she would get us up at daybreak while it was a relatively cool 80 degrees or so and head to the pasture. Our heads were covered by big straw hats and our arms and legs were completely covered by clothing. Both protected us from the direct rays of the sun and some of the smaller thorns but done little to alleviate the heat of mid-morning July days. Before the days of DEET, DDT, and Napalm- things that appear to have some chance of killing off the little boogers- my grandmother used home remedies to repel the myriad insects that enjoyed feasting on us. We spread grease or turpentine around our ankles, around our wrists, and any exposed areas. Kerosene, one of my grandmother’s cure-all remedies, also could be used in place of the above and also prevented any inclination to smoke while harvesting the berries.
My uncle William was harvesting blackberries on Sand Ridge near Prairie View. They were more than head high and full of berries that he was picking as fast as his hands could move when he heard a noise on the opposite side of the bushes he was emptying. Pulling aside the bushes, he came face to face with a black bear that was enjoying the fruit on the backside of the patch. Both let out a squeal, dropped the berries in hand, and skedaddled in opposite directions. We kept that bear in mind from that point forward but the real danger was Dave Rhineheart’s big bull that shared the pasture where we picked.
Fully armored in our clothing and protected by grandma’s elixirs, we took our gallon armor lard buckets and headed off to work. If we were lucky and worked all morning, we could pick a gallon bucket by noon. That bucket of berries would be turned into a dollar cash from one of the local housewives who converted it into a delicious cobbler by evening. My cousin and I would stop by the local store and get a sixteen-ounce pop cola and a three-dip ice cream for a quarter on the way home.
Once home, we would heat water over a wood stove, deposit it in a big iron washtub, and then take turns taking a bath. Lye soap and a little bit of bleach deposited into the tub would hopefully dispose of any of the insects making it past our initial defense. By the time we were through, the water was deep blue from the residual soap, kerosene, grease, dirt, and sweat.
Blackberry picking taught me many valuable lessons about life. There is a reward and a sense of pride and accomplishment when you get through doing a job, the harder you work, the more reward you got, and last and most important, chiggers are hard to kill.