CLODAGH FINN: The joy of berry-picking blurs urban-rural divide

Blackberry season is one of the few times of year when it’s clear that you can’t banish nature from the city, even though we try, writes Clodagh Finn.

FOR weeks now, I’ve been watching as the blackberries on my very urban daily route turn from green to red to luscious black. With a bit of luck — and a few sunny spells — they should be ripe for the picking this week.

After that, the only issue is whether they’ll survive the journey from hedgerow to kitchen because, as berry lovers the world over know, blackberry-pickers are divided into two groups: Gobblers and gatherers.

In the days when we stopped by the roadside with buckets and plastic dishes, I thought I might graduate from the first category into the second when I got some sense.

It never happened — the graduation, that is, not the arrival of sense, although the latter is entirely debatable. For instance, I still think the best thing about the blackberry harvest is eating them fresh off the bush.

These days, the bounty comes from those urban brambles which survive with enviable tenacity. You’ll find them clinging to concrete walls, trailing across tarmac in forgotten corners of carparks, or in the neglected lanes behind housing estates.

In truth, some of the fruit withers on the stem and some of it comes with a thin layer of city grime; a reminder that a traffic-choked main road is just around the corner. I sneak a few
anyway. Health and safety would have a meltdown but that just adds to the delicious pleasure.

And, it has to be said, I’m still here to tell the tale.

I’m not alone either. In recent years, it’s been heartening to see that the joy of picking wild berries has not been entirely forgotten. There are newspaper articles about it, much nostalgia, and lots of culinary advice. Thanks to their restraint, the lucky gatherers can chose from an endless supply of recipes: Blackberry crumble, blackberry cheesecake, even
blackberry liqueur.

On one outing a few years ago, a fellow urban blackberry-picker gave me a tried-and-tested recipe for blackberry jam. Maybe this is the year my harvest will survive long enough to give it a go.

Somehow, I doubt it, yet blackberry season still delivers. It is one of the few times of the year when the lines between city and country blur.

Try as the developers might, they just can’t squeeze the green out of the cityscape. It has a way of creeping back into every nook and cranny if you care to look for it. Spotting a ripe blackberry on the way to work might not register high on a general list of wonderful things but, for me, it is as good as a ray of sunshine on a dull September morning.

The way that nature — plants, animals, birds — can survive in even the most hostile and derelict corners of our urban landscape is something that never fails to surprise and, somehow, comfort. If a tiny plant can grow up between the cracks in a footpath, there might be some hope for the rest of us.

That message of survival against the odds has never been more welcome. Is anyone else left unsettled and unnerved by the news cycle? It seems particularly doom-laden right now.

I might be drawn to the witty lines, like the one from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who described US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “two chubby brats with short fuses and long missiles”, but the amusement is short-lived.

I also switch off when I hear about the Garda and fake breath tests. It is profoundly depressing to live in a country that has a lying police force and a Government that does not seem to be able to deal with it.

And yet, whatever is going on in the greater world and the bustling tangles of our cities, there is always small comfort to be found somewhere.

From the dusty window of a train leaving Dublin city centre, I spotted a heron standing stock still in a discoloured pool of water. A black bag of rubbish had split open and disgorged its contents on to the few sad overhanging branches yet there he was, a majestic bird in all his splendour. It made my day.

Another day, somebody pointed out a bit of pineapple weed (or wild camomile) that had made its way up through concrete. She picked a bit of it to prove that it really does smell like pineapple. Keep an eye out for it and see for yourself.

Then there’s the joy of the urban fox. One evening there were an incredible five in my front garden making that awful sound that they do — something between a baby’s cry and a seagull’s shriek.

My jaw dropped open when one of them balanced on the pointy top of the gate pillar.

I didn’t have the wit to get the camera but I do have a shot of a fox curled up asleep in the middle of a neighbour’s garden.

You don’t have to go very far to find an unexpected natural antidote to the news or to the stresses of life in the concrete maze; happily, it is all around us.

Author Richard Mabey christened it “the unofficial countryside” in the 1970s in a wonderful book of the same name in which he walked London’s crumbling docks and neglected estates to find that even the most inhospitable places were capable of supporting some form of life.

When people hear the word countryside, he said, they tend to think of those watercolour landscapes with their idealised bucolic settings. Or they turn towards the great set-pieces of forest, mountain and beach.

However, he saw the rural in the urban and urged us to celebrate the life that springs up in the wastelands we create. That’s not to say we shouldn’t clean up our wastelands, just that it is truly remarkable what can survive and thrive in them.

Which brings me back to the blackberry bounty.

I’m counting the days to harvest. Who knows, this year there might even be jam.


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