Blackberries & Berkeley

“Bullied” by Darwin Bell

There is a ragged little blackberry bramble that grows along the fence outside my door. We live in a ground floor apartment that opens almost directly to the street, so there is no grass for a visual break–the sidewalk becomes our cement front yard. I’ve been watching the bramble all summer, the green berries turning red, then black, and then the fat blue-black when they are finally ready. There are some days that the little bramble is my excuse to get out from behind my screen and go outside to check up on the ripeness of the berries.

When I was a child in Oklahoma my grandmother would send us out with gallon buckets, buckets that had held vast slabs of vanilla ice cream made crunchy from the too-cold freezer. We’d swing our buckets, bang our scraped knees, and squabble, a little scrum of bare-limbed cousins. I remember the main blackberry bramble as being at least two-stories high, thick, shaggy and impenetrable. It was full of all manner of bitey creatures, ticks, chiggers, wasps, snakes, and spiders as big as your hand. We’d approach the bush timidly, throwing rocks and talkin’ real loud to scare the snakes away. The nearby ponds were writhing with cottonmouths and they’d get into the bushes to eat the mice. Or possibly to kill children.

The berries were thick and would sometimes explode in our hands, or go into our mouths instead of the bucket. There would be long tears across our arms, punctured fingers, thorns embedded in our socks. We’d fill our buckets and return to my grandma who would freeze most of them, but would bake a big blackberry pie for dinner. It’s the first thing she taught me how to bake and is still my favorite. While a slice after dinner was delicious, having a cold slice with cream the next morning for breakfast was divine.

The bramble outside my door doesn’t yield more than a handful of berries at a time, and these are mixed. Many are still too tart, a few are dusty and bad, but occasionally I’ll get a perfect one and then it is summertime all over again.

This was my first summer in Berkeley. I am usually out on an excavation, but I’ve been determined to stay here and work hard to finish. I haven’t quite come full circle on Berkeley summers–I still whine and groan when it is cold, gray and foggy for months on end. But the bright hatred I had of the climate has dulled over time, and I enjoy the cool, sunshiny days. As I’m wrapping up I have also regained a sense of wonder over the University of California at Berkeley. It was never really gone, I always was drawn to grand state institutions with their endless halls and vast libraries.

I had a couple of beers with the new archaeology faculty members last night, and they made me excited again with their drive and enthusiasm. Jun has some great ideas about teaching and Lisa is ridiculously smart and incisive. I had a little too much cider and wandered back through campus, along the paving stones and through the shadows of the giant eucalyptus trees that had gone sharp and cold in the evening chill. Summertime in Berkeley, my first, and maybe my last.

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