When I was somewhere in my early teens, my father bought a plot of land in Villa Rica, Georgia, a tiny little bit of nowhere about thirty-five miles west of where we lived. My dad had always wanted to live “out in the country.” He was a city boy, if you can call growing up in the hamlet of Henderson, North Carolina, “the city,” and I guess he thought he wanted to live off the land, or maybe just not have any neighbors that he could see. My mother, who had been raised out in the country on a tobacco farm, was decidedly against living there again, and so there was never any actual progress toward moving west.
There were no amenities on this property or in the greater Villa Rica area, but what was in abundance was blackberries. Like kudzu, blackberries grow everywhere in the South where there is not constant and diligent oversight of the land. They send out prickly runners and creep and expand until they are huge, thorny areas ready to shred your clothing and skin if you get too deep into them. But, in spite of all the dangers, the lure of the sweet, juicy, seedful fruit makes it hard to stay away.
Although family camping on the land was a solid failure, my dad and I made a number of trips to Villa Rica over the years in the summers for blackberries. Armored in thick jeans, long-sleeved shirts, heavy boots and gloves, we tackled the weaponized branches and kept eyes and ears out for the rattlesnakes that loved the protected spaces. Our prize was gallons of huge, glossy, sweet berries and all the precautions necessary were no problem given what we came away with. Picking blackberries with my daddy is one of the few times I enjoyed being outside in the summer. I suddenly didn’t mind the heat or the sweat or even the bugs. Daddy and I were doing something together, something that apparently no one else in the family was interested in. We left early in the morning, since we two were always the first ones up, and got out to the land before the sun was too hot. We suited up out of the trunk, changing shoes, making sure our cuffs were buttoned and our pants legs tucked into our socks. If you’ve ever encountered a large swatch of blackberry bushes, you’ll know this was absolutely necessary for the preservation of skin. We took our gloves, but I didn’t always wear them because it was harder to grasp the berries. It took a light touch to pull them without squishing, and my smaller hands could get into the deeper areas where the fruit always seemed to be fatter and juicier. Of course, we ate nearly as many as we picked. That’s the first rule of picking blackberries, especially when you’re picking them on your own land and not having to pay for them. Afterwards, fresh blackberry cobbler, blackberry jam and just a handful of berries on cereal or ice cream made all the effort worth it. Years later, when I spent the summer after my sophomore year in college away in Colorado, I got a latter. “I went to the land and picked blackberries last week,” Daddy wrote. “I wished for you.”