Some years ago, when my father-in-law was still with us and had not yet become a precious memory, he put together a little orchard of sorts in a corner of his backyard where the pasture fence made a …
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Some years ago, when my father-in-law was still with us and had not yet become a precious memory, he put together a little orchard of sorts in a corner of his backyard where the pasture fence made a turn.
He set out grape vines, planted apple and pear trees, planted fig bushes, and put in blueberry bushes and blackberry vines, including some without the thorns. He even planted some catnip, although I’m not sure why. (The one time I tried some catnip tea my stomach sent my brain a memo saying, “Don’t you ever try that again if you know what’s good for you.”)
That little piece of ground produced some bumper crops through the years. There were different varieties of grapes. We ate scads of them off the vine and for a while my better half and her mom made grape juice by just dumping a truckload of sugar and a bunch of grapes into quart jars. By the time cold weather arrived, the Concord variety was sweet as could be.
There were apple pies and pear preserves and figs off the bush and fresh blueberries to freeze or turn into muffins or to top dress your Cheerios. And there were my favorites — the blackberries, which also became jelly but fairly often, for the reason God made them in the first place, became hot blackberry cobbler, which by royal order must be topped with fresh vanilla ice cream as soon as it’s done.
Today, much to my sorrow and for a number of reasons, the local orchard isn’t the same. The grape vines are still there but the arbors are in bad shape and the weeds are plentiful. The trees died and we finally pulled up the stumps. There are still a number of blueberry bushes and the little folks who live in what was their great-grandparents home take delight in harvesting them when they get ripe.
But the blackberries? Gone. Choked out by weeds and inattention. No jelly or jam or cobblers from them since who knows when. A sad and mournful time in my young life.
So, imagine my joy a couple of years ago as I drove west of Siler City on U.S. Hwy. 64 and saw the roadside sign advertising blackberries just up the road. I couldn’t stop that day but made a point to go a few days later and, lo and behold, there were blackberries to be had. They were so good, in fact, that I went again several days later to make sure Shirley had enough to make some more cobblers, freeze some and turn others into jelly.
I felt it was the least I could do. They’re still there at that orchard and, although the wet finicky spring messed up the bountiful harvest, there are still some to be had. A few days ago, our daughter-in-law took her brood to the place and came back with some fat juicy blackberries which she later disguised as a cobbler. Good move.
The good thing about these was not only their flavor but the fact some are already picked. Now, you can go out on your own and do that but it just doesn’t seem like a good idea given the heat.
But things weren’t always that way. I remember days long gone when my dad and I, often accompanied by Roland Farrell, a people fixture in my little growing-up community, would head out in the cool of the morning with empty buckets that were to be turned int full containers of sweet berries.
Early on, I learned several rules of blackberry picking. If the bushes were on the side of the road on the right-of-way, then you could just go get them. If there were loaded briars in someone’s pasture you had to do two things: first, ask permission and, second make sure it was OK with Billy Bull for you to be on his turf. I can’t give you all the details but I distinctly remember a time or two having to pick ‘em up and put ‘em down — and I don’t mean the berries — rather quickly to get over the fence ahead of the bull and avoid an unpleasant experience.
For me, not him.
Funny thing ... I’m pretty sure we never mentioned those times to my mother. Maybe that was a secret for me and my dad or maybe it was so Mama would not call an end to such endeavors.
There were also a couple of other things that had to happen. One was we had to smear a concoction known as “6-12” around our waists, wrists and ankles, not to mention some other significant body parts, to ward off chiggers, better known as “red bugs.” Often, we would soak strips of cloth in 6-12 and tie them to our ankles and wrists. I learned early on that Queen Anne’s Lace was a favorite place for the little buggers to gather and that it was best if we avoided those flowers ... if we could get to the blackberries some other way.
If we were out of the aforementioned product, then kerosene-soaked rags would do in a pinch.
It’s been a long time since those days. Both my dad and Roland have picked their last bucket of berries. I don’t think 6-12 is produced any more and my brother, the retired medical doctor, told me that today’s kerosene isn’t as pure as it was in the old days and that it would likely be a good idea not to smear it on your skin. And out-running a bull? Forget it, unless he was using a walker.
All of that makes it a good idea to go by your local favorite produce place. And maybe there’s a chance for us to reconstruct the family orchard. I’ll look into that just as soon as the cobbler is done.
Bob Wachs is a native of Chatham County and retired long-time managing editor of the Chatham News/Chatham Record, having written a weekly column for more than 30 years. During most of his time with the newspapers, he was also a bi-vocational pastor and today serves Bear Creek Baptist Church for the second time as pastor.
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