Stephanie Hill: Braving The Brambles To Reach Out For The Sweet Blackberries

"When the blackberries hang swollen in the woods, in the brambles nobody owns, I spend all day among the high branches, reaching my ripped arms, thinking of nothing, cramming the black honey of summer into my mouth . . ." — Mary Oliver.

"Through Love all that is bitter will be sweet, Through Love all that is copper will be gold, Through Love all dregs will become wine, through Love all pain will turn to medicine." — Rumi.

Isn't it interesting how the mind works? As a kid, it seemed as if summer stretched on endlessly like driving across the state of Kansas on Interstate 70. During the infinite sunny season of my youth, I spent many days and nights at my Grandparents' house in the small town of Raceland, Kentucky. I can recall the unique smell of their home - a hybrid of mixed scents: fresh garden green beans, rambling rose and spirea bushes, fried meats, sweetly baked treats, Pledge wood polish, old books and magazines, moth balls, and Estee Lauder Youth Dew. Even now, the memorable scent wraps me in a blanket of security.

One of the highlights of these lazy, hazy days was the July 4 holiday week. We almost always gathered at my grandparents' house for a holiday feast. Grandmother, as I called my maternal grandmother, was a phenomenal, traditional, good ol' Appalachian cook. Translated: She often cooked and baked with bacon grease, leftover fat drippings saved in a can, and plenty of sugar

July 4 was her time to shine, let me tell you! Freshly strung half-runner green beans pressure cooked with about a half pound of bacon grease in an oversized pot with a whistling top that seemed to dance on the steam emanating from its center, thickly sliced and salted "just picked from the garden" beefsteak tomatoes, Heiner's brown-and-serve rolls topped with smears of "oleo," aka margarine, homemade mashed potatoes mixed with whole milk and slabs of butter, fried chicken that was prepared in an electric skillet using an ample supply of Crisco vegetable shortening, salad sprinkled with little croutons from a can, and her famous,

block-you-up-for-days macaroni and cheese. Additionally, there was always a relish tray with olives, varieties of stuffed celery, and an assortment of pickles.

The real rock star of this show was the trifecta of July-4-only-desserts: made-from-scratch brownies (I still use this recipe.), hand-cranked homemade lemon custard ice cream, and blackberry cobbler baked in a long metal sheet-cake pan with fruit filling on the inside, and a hand rolled pie crust on top. Yes, siree this was some real unbuckle-your-belt and unbutton-your-pants sort of eatin'!

Spending time with Grandmother and Papaw a day or two before this epic-eating event was to watch ritualistic feast preparation worthy of mythological Gods. Energy flowed and vibrated through my grandparents' entire beings, and thus created a frenetic field of ever-flowing love perfected through food. The house was redolent with sweet, savory, and salty aromas. Typically, I'd hang out in the kitchen, offering to help, but really hoping for food samples.

"Do you need someone to clean the brownie batter dish (or icing bowl, custard dish, etc.)? I'd be happy to 'clean' it for you."

I attempted to sound sincere, but my mind schemed, I'll clean it after I slurp up all the generous leftovers clinging to the sides of the bowl. I'm sure my grandparents knew what I was up to, but they didn't appear to mind my so-called help.

If I was up early enough during this time period, I'd eat breakfast with Papaw before his assent into the mysterious, overgrown hillside filled with "sticker bushes," snakes, and insects. No matter the temperature, he'd don his denim britches, as he called them, a long-sleeved, plaid shirt, cowboy boots, and a straw summer work hat that had a permanent perspiration ring around the closest part encircling his head like a dirty halo. Lastly, work gloves were added to one hip pocket, and a red bandana (kerchief) was added to another. Then, once breakfast was over, he'd get an old metal bucket, and head into the safari of overgrowth on both the side and back embankment of their yard.

Papaw would be gone for hours, or so it seemed. When he finally did return, his bucket would either be overflowing or contain just enough berries to make a cobbler - depending upon the weather the weeks leading up to his picking, which he would never fail to explain to anyone who would listen. His hands would be stained purplish-black, while his arms, legs, head and face were often scratched with briar claw marks and numerous bug bites.

But the scent emanating from the bucket was sweet and earthy, the fruits of his stick-to-it-ness.

All of these recollections, and more, swirled within my head recently as I picked blackberries one hot July evening. Plucking those tiny jewels of dark sweetness, my mind also drifted to thoughts of how berry picking is so much like life.

Picking blackberries is hard, often painful, and even annoying work. It takes time, effort, energy, and much patience to pick enough blackberries to make a cobbler. As I plucked away at the fruit, thorns perpetually pricked my skin, while mosquitoes and flies dined on my exposed flesh. Much of the fruit was hidden in the brambles or dangling high above me. I had to learn ways to work, such as lifting a branch by a leaf to reveal the berries behind it; or, contort my body by sucking in my belly, stretching up on tip toes, and craning my neck at odd angles in order to successfully gain a few more gems. I spent over an hour, and in that time I was able to pick about a pound of berries - not a lot for the wear and tear on my body. Yet, the sweet reward of fresh baked cobbler scenting my home seemed enough motivation as I thought of my connection to family love.

My grandparents had it right. Marriage, childbirth, education, friendships, work relationships, healthy habits, maintaining a robust faith life, and even family feasts — none of these are easy. We get snarled, tangled, and stung by life events. There are time periods in life where we may feel as if we are ensnared in the middle of the world's biggest briar patch, but it is at these very times where we must keep the faith and continue to pick away from a place of love, genuine goodwill, and honest effort, for the ultimate sweetness awaits us — the metaphorical taste of yummy-for-the-tummy, laugh-out-loud at the stain-your-teeth-purple goodness of the simple cobbler that is the joy of life.

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Huntington. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at Or you can check out her website,

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