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GUEST COLUMN: California’s Berried Treasure

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Wildlands foraging is getting harder to do.

After a long day fighting the first wildfire of the season on July 4, 1972, a small grass fire near the Tiger Creek reservoir in Calaveras County, my crew found itself at the bottom of a hill waiting for the bus that would ferry us back to camp. We were tired, hot, and thirsty, and we talked about the cold beer we expected soon to be drinking at the tavern near the camp.

Somebody noticed there were wild blackberry bushes close by and we pulled off our helmets, filled them with dusty berries, and sat down to feast. The unexpected gift of such intensely sweet berries momentarily wiped away my fatigue and almost made me forget about the beer.

Fifteen years later I was back in Calaveras County with my family at a massive patch of blackberries just off the road somewhere between San Andreas and Jackson. The patch must have been about an acre in size and judging from the number of tire tracks was a very popular place for berry gathering. My father, who’d grown up in Calaveras County, told me that blackberry patches were also popular places for rattlesnakes to cool off in the shade. So instead of wading into the patch, I stood on the periphery, listening for the hiss of rattles, and picked what I could reach from there. We called it Blackberry Central and made regular stops there gathering quarts of blackberries. We discovered that wild blackberries over vanilla ice cream was the Mother Lode of desserts. We’d struck it rich.

Ridgelands

A few years later while working at Glorietta Elementary School in Orinda, I found a good-sized patch of blackberries downhill from the school. I used to harvest handfuls after work, bring them home, and head for the freezer.

Even while living in high-tech paved-over San Ramon I came across plenty of wild fruit growing next to the creek near downtown. There was a patch of small coarse berries alongside a plowed field and not far away a shady patch of probably unintentionally irrigated berries that were much larger and not quite as sweet, but still fine to eat.

Since that day at Tiger Creek I’ve kept an eye open for wild blackberry bushes. Living in urbanized Walnut Creek now, patches seem few and far between. That could be because wild berry bushes, having long ago escaped from cultivation, are near the top of the state invasive species list and they’re usually cut down and poisoned and bulldozed wherever they’re in the way of progress. I could, of course, drive to San Ramon and visit the my old dispensary. But there’s something about driving to gather wild berries that now seems incongruous to me. I prefer to approach them on foot.

One day recently, while walking in Walnut Creek’s Sugarloaf open space, a former cattle ranch and walnut orchard, I noticed a large patch next to a dry pond at the bottom of a hill near the freeway. Helpless as a politician near a microphone I made my way down to it. It was a scary place with small animal bones and feathers strewn about. I figured it was a coyote hangout. The patch was probably 30 feet across and if I were a coyote I’d happily bunk down in the middle of it. The berries weren’t ripe so I decided to wait a couple of weeks.

Time passed and I returned. Ripe berries were still at premium but I managed to put a handful in a plastic bag and headed home. As I walked I began to wonder if city workers might have sprayed such an unwelcome intruder with herbicide. It seemed unlikely but possible so I emailed David Ogden of the Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation asking who I should contact to find out. After advising me to “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints” (Having tallied countless miles in Walnut Creek’s open spaces I wonder if a more appropriate slogan might be “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but dog feces and mountain bike tracks”) he forwarded my message to Bruce Weidman, the ranger at Sugarloaf. Weidman emailed me right away to inform me that collecting is prohibited in the open space and that the wildlife needs the berries more than I do. How he concluded that the fruit of a recent invader like blackberry is more crucial to the ecosystem than it is to me I’ll never know. A few days later Weidman’s supervisor Nancy Dollard emailed me to further explain that she considers blackberries a “viable” source of food for wildlife. I’m not sure what she meant by “viable” but I am sure the forbidden fruit was delicious.

Unfortunately, the prohibition against gathering foodstuffs on public lands is widespread, though not universal, and probably directed more at commercial mushroom hunters than casual berry tasters. Nevertheless berry pickers could be swept up in any purge of open space foragers and one should be cautious before tasting of the wild and wearing the purple stain of courage on one’s picking fingers.

I’ve spent my adult life cultivating fruits and vegetables, earning my living by the sweat of my brow. So the fact that the land provides these blackberries for no more effort that reaching out my hand is marvelous. Yet, in recent years much of my work has been at homes in the Berkeley Hills where I’m compelled to fight these same blackberry vines. They’re tough opponents, fierce and relentless, and I often come home scratched and torn from the battle. But they are indeed highly aggressive and will quickly cover a landscape, throwing long spiny tentacles over any shrub or plant that gets in their way. The shoots root easily in cultivated soil and after rooting they send up other long shoots to leapfrog across the ground. Left unchecked the vines would turn a spacious backyard into an impenetrable thicket. In the interests of gardens and naturalistic landscapes everywhere they must be stopped.

But each time I rip a vine from the soil I think of the masses of blackberries that will never be tasted. I think of the disappearing opportunities for children to experience nature directly through the taste buds. I ponder how one person’s threatening immigrant can be another person’s bearer of gifts. So gather ye blackberries while ye may, fellow foragers. Stumbling across a blackberry patch loaded with ripe fruit may become just another thing people around here used to do.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Guest columnist Joe Queirolo is a professional gardener and organic foods specialist. He makes his home in Walnut Creek and spends much of his time walking our hills in search of – apparently – forbidden fruit.