I first started foraging for raspberries around 2008. A couple of years before I had had a breakdown triggered by my gran’s death. This wasn’t an instant, full-on collapse, more a gradual landslide where the rocks fell on me faster than I could remove them. I didn’t talk about it, as I didn’t really have the means to: I felt too guilty about feeling like I did that a silent stoicism set in.
It festered, and other long-term health problems grew sharper. I ended up on Diazepam and god knows what, washed down with rivers of booze. A hangover too far spent lying in bed. My skin condition was sore and weeping, stinging my flesh. I felt hollowed out, a feeling like the best days were long gone and all there was now just a pointless decay. It wasn’t a feeling of self-pity, more a rational acceptance. I lay there, kidneys aching, the skin on my face red-raw, and I came to a decision. I either wash down the full bottle of pills with a swig of the musty glass of £2.99 wine that was on my bedside table, or I get some fresh air. From the chinks in my curtains I could see it was a bright, clear day. I got my boots on.
I found myself in nearby woods, where jays hopped from oak at their chosen distance, and I found canes of wild raspberries, a large crop of sweet ruby. I picked them and ate them there and then. They tasted beyond anything I’d had from the shops, the drupelets bursting with summer-stored sugars.
They reminded me of the trips I’d make with my gran, collecting fruit from the hedgerows and forests she’d grown up nearby. Living through times of sheer, starving poverty (and a couple of World Wars) she’d got to know what was good and what wasn’t, and where to find it. She taught me that sweet nettle flowers contain a nectar that is a beautiful, rare taste…but also tap the flower, less a bee is having first dibs. She taught me to identify ransoms: by smell rather than sight (in late Spring they are hard to miss, a garlic blast that out-odours any of the other florid pungency that bursts into the air in that rich season. We’d pick berries for crumbles, but raspberries would be eaten there and then: too good to just cook, she’d explain.
Returning to Beeston that day, I found a copy of Richard Mabey’s Food For Free in a local charity shop, and it became a bible. Mabey himself had fond relief from depression through nature, though I wasn’t to know that at the time. If you get the chance to read Nature Cure, do so. It should be available on prescription.
I got to know loads of plants, and knew where they grew, and when. You get to know many, many things can be cooked like spinach. IBut raspberries were the true treasure. While blackberry brambles run wild and dominant, raspberry canes are more passive, more elusive. While blackberries flaunt themselves on the plant, raspberries shy behind their broad leaves. You have to find them, have to recognise where the fruit has taken and swollen. They are fragile: once mature they rot fast, especially in the damp. I came to recognise the subtle shade that showed they were at perfection, and marvel how the berry core would slip off the coat of fruit once ready, a luxuriant fur clump of glistening jewels, juice under pressure to burst from the thin skins.
I came to know the best places to find them, and the best season. When I first met the woman who would become my wife, I took her foraging. She now admits that she then thought it was an odd thing to be invited to do, but went along and was surprised to enjoy it as much as she done, even when the midges bit and the thorns scratched. Each year, we would visit the sites of canes and pick out anything from a few desultory fruits spared by the birds; to a crop so large we’d make jams or spread them over homemade pavlova.
After my son, Leif, was conceived, my wife and I would go out on long walks around the nearby nature reserve and adjoining fields, trying to get our heads around what we had to expect, knowing full well that we couldn’t really guess. On one such walk, we passed a house where plants were often for sale on the garden wall: I’d bought the reeds and iris that started my pond off from there, and a few other plants that had done well. There was a raspberry cutting this time, a potted woody stub with a delicate green shoot sprouting from it, a not-fully uncurled green leaf breaking from the brown. I put a £2 coin into the honesty box, and on returning home found a sheltered spot in the garden where I planted it, hoping for a crop in a few years time.
It took well and grew rapidly and healthily, flourishing in the good soil and compost bed I’d made for it. When early Summer arrived, it was tall, bushy and sprawling, but no fruits were borne: not that I’d been expecting any. Then in September it flowered and fruits soon spilled from it. Not many, but enough to pick a couple off each day. By now, my wife was heavily pregnant with a craving for fruit, so I’d bring them in to supplement the mangos, oranges, and peaches she had become obsessed with.
As we approached the due date, the plant gave up fruiting, but I had other uses for it. I tried making tea with the leaves, to help my wife go into labour. It didn’t work: unless it only kicked in ten days later, and it was the hormone injections and hard work of the midwives that was superfluous.
Our boy was born in early November, by which time the plant had shed all leaves and pulled it’s own life deep inside its roots and woody core, gathering its energy for when the sun called it out again.
This year, it grew rapidly again and has fruited incredibly since late August. Every morning, I go outside and pick a crop off the bush, harvesting a good handful each time. I eat some myself, relishing the sharp sweetness and indulgent juices that taste like nothing else, no watery strawberry, no cheek-collapsing cranberry, no hard-skinned blackberry.
I then take some into my boy, my beautiful son who will open his mouth when he sees the red of the mushier part of the crop, and enjoy with gusto. The more robust berries will be spread before him, where he will pick them up, holding them for a second to admire the rich colour, before they are into his mouth.
The season is now coming to an end, and Leif will soon turn one. Next year when the raspberries arrive he’ll be walking, and I’ll teach him to pick his own from the cane. Just the thought of that grips me with love and above all, gratitude.
I’ve not been writing much on here of late due to the aforementioned little bundle of chaos and sheer joy that I pretty much orbit around these days: no wonder ‘sun’ and ‘son’ are phonetically identical. I tend to write more about local literature as part of my day job as Comms Manager for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature: writing about professional writers to be read by professional readers: mildly daunting when I’m daft enough to stop and think about it.
I do still write on occasion solely for pleasure, and I recently got my second ever short story published. I don’t really do fiction, but a couple of years ago I gave it a bash and the result was accepted for a book of international writing, with a nice slice of cash thrown my way.
I was planning to leave it at that but was tempted to have another bash when I saw a Tasmanian microfiction competition with the theme ‘Smoke’. I duly entered (they were looking for international entries, I haven’t relocated to Hobart. Yet.) and although I missed out on winning the whole competition, my story, Choked, was shortlisted and duly published. The actual book is a work of art: not a bound book, but a ribbon-tied collection of beautiful loose-leaves, each story an individual leaf/page. It’s lovely, and if you fancy buying one then click here. It’s not cheap at 21 Australian dollars, but as the pound continues to sink under the weight of Brexit it’ll be a lot cheaper now than if you decide to buy it in, say, ten minutes. So buy it now, and realise how it’s actually just a rewrite of a blog post I put up here for free 9 years ago.
We’re currently working on the Bumper Christmas Issue of The Beestonian. To make sure we have enough copies for everyone to enjoy, we need to get a few more advertisers on board. If you helping us out, while putting your company next to the excellence that is The Beestonian, drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org.