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The wild blackberry is not a hospitable plant. It grows in dense snarls of thorn and branch, looped like barbed wire on wooded hillsides and the edges of highways. In fairness, there isn’t really anywhere else for the plant to grow in East Tennessee: The clay here is not fruitful like the rich, dark soil of the Mississippi Delta or the sandy loam of South Carolina. Instead, it’s a hardscrabble affair.
Yet the blackberries persist. Like Tennessee farmers, they’re stubborn as all get-out. Picking them is an undertaking. For my family, it went like this: In June or July, we’d wake hours before dawn to beat the steaming southern sun. We’d put on heavy jeans and long sleeves as armor against thorns and the clouds of mosquitos that hover around ripe fruit. Our ensembles were topped off with gardening gloves, buckets, and occasionally headlamps for visibility.
The task itself hardly resembled any reasonable person’s idea of fun. We’d spend hours trudging up hillsides, praying we wouldn’t slip in the dim light, until we located a promising bramble. Then we’d wade through thorns to get to the berries, which were sometimes already half-eaten by June bugs. By the time we got home—sweat-soaked and covered in scratches—it looked like we’d lost a fight with a pack of feral cats.
It was a ritual akin to penance, like saying decades of the rosary while your fingers slowly go numb. Color me Catholic—I loved every second of it. And the payoff was heaven. Wild blackberries are small and seedy and utterly unlike their grocery store counterparts. They crunch satisfyingly between your teeth. And they taste like a pomegranate gone supernova—a sharp tang, an undercurrent of bitter, then an explosion of vibrant, improbable sweetness.
Joanna Thompson is a science writer based in New York.