The Nostalgia of Blackberries
It’s coming to the end of blackberry season. For some reason it is always a surprise to see blackberries in late summer. I suppose it’s because they seem to be such an autumnal fruit to my mind. They are hotly anticipated, not least by my two girls who, at this time of year see a walk without foraging for blackberries as a total waste of time.
Seeing the first fruits in the hedgerows throws me right back to the early 1980s, to me and my brother in school uniform racing to be the first out into the garden to grab them off the bushes in the garden. One year we picked so many that we filled the little trailer of his ride-on tractor. The sheer weight of them crushed the ones below into a sticky juice that made Goths of our mouths and fingertips. And if left too long, the rat-grey fungus (a Seamus Heaney line – see poem at the bottom) would creep over and destroy our treasure. Every year we’d try again to preserve the excitement of blackberry season and each year we’d end up with containers overflowing the freezer, those not frozen left to rot in their bowls and baskets. For me it became something more important than just collecting blackberries. In my Brummy suburban garden I felt that it connected me to something older and more rural, something more picturesque and thrilling: a bit like something the Famous Five would do in an Enid Blyton book. But how do you preserve a feeling?
I’m always on the look-out for lovely words, especially enjoying those that describe a hard-to-express feeling. Living so close to Wales, it is inevitable that some of their lyrically beautiful words permeate through the border. Some of them are instantly appealing in any language. Gwdihˆw (goo-di-hoo) is a word for owl and ych-a-fi (euch-a-vi) is perfect for expressing your disgust in something. Go on, try it: ych-a-fi. Brilliant.
Embarrassingly little Welsh makes it through though, for all sorts of reasons. The difficulty in speaking it is my own excuse. Because I have no fluency in it, I have nothing upon which to hang the words that I learn. Instead, I know a few phrases (pronounced so poorly it must seem malicious to the unfortunate Welsh people I’m practising on) and a couple of words that stick. However, the ones that stick really do remain in my mind. Hiraeth is just such a one.
Hiraeth (hi-rye-th – again, apologies to all Welsh people) is one of those beautiful concept-defining words. The kind of word that you didn’t know you were missing from your own language until you hear it in someone else’s. It’s the feeling of a sort of homesickness: a yearning – or even a grief – for a home that you cannot go back to. It could be a physical place you loved that is now different from your memories of it or it could be nostalgia for a time that never really was. It has been described as “a longing to be where your spirit lives” and the exquisite sadness at being away from that place. If you’ve felt the feeling, you know what I’m talking about. If I can be allowed a Proustian madeleine moment, blackberries give me piercing hiraeth.
Every word has its antonym and I recently learnt that of hiraeth. It’s cynefin (kin-evin). The every day use of cynefin means habitat or haunt but it also has layered meanings of well-acquainted or very familiar. It is the feeling you get when you have truly found your people. It is a deeply satisfying sense of home. I felt it once when I got to university and finally found ‘people like me’. I feel it when I head north to see my relatives in Cumbria. And I feel it when I see the blackberries on the bramble hedges in late summer, early autumn.
Now I’m older, I know that too many blackberries together will squish down to an unpleasant pulp and the mould will take over if you don’t get them to the fridge fast enough. It’s a lesson my eldest learnt again this year when she swung her swag bag all the way home and they condensed to black mush. I suspect she might do the same kind of thing again next year, and the next, creating with her sister the same kind of blackberry wisdom I learnt once. Creating with it a kind of hiraeth and, I hope, whenever she sees blackberries in future, a kind of cynefin too.
Folklore has it that the devil haunts all blackberries after Michaelmas (29th September). Or, as I was told bracingly by a random old man at Wigmore Castle whilst I was munching on a few myself, “The devil pisses on blackberries from the start of October!” Don’t be like me and get caught out by a piddling demon, will you?
For Phillip Hobsbaum
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
By Seamus Heaney