A Parable of Fruit and Thorns

A black raspberry bush grows by my garden gate. I worked hard to compose that sentence. Originally, I had written, “I have a black raspberry bush,” but that implies an ownership neither the bush nor I feel. I planted it years ago, one of my first efforts at creating a food-producing, nourishing landscape. Mostly, the plants died. Blueberry bushes, the soil amended and fertilized, withered as I watched. Red raspberry canes did slightly better, but didn’t produce much fruit and eventually dwindled away, forgotten.

But the single black raspberry cane I planted, 4 feet from the gate, looked around at the location I had selected for it and decided it could do better. Within a year, it had migrated 3 feet toward the gate and spread its branches up and out.

The first year it spent relocating and growing and didn’t produce so much as one berry. Black raspberries are a 2-year project as they only produce on second year growth. I probably could have trimmed it back, forced it to the spot I wanted it to be, but watching the other fruit plants die had made me nervous about messing with something that was clearly working even if I didn’t think the spot was ideal.

And work it did. The second year, I collected handfuls of raspberries.

“Ew. These are sour,” one child commented, lips puckering as she looked for a garbage can.

Although they looked ripe to me, after tasting one of my hard-earned prizes I decided they were completely unusable. Sort of like gooseberries. Unless the cook adds a lot of sugar, they aren’t good for much.

And yet.

It grew so adamantly I couldn’t bear to dig it out.

“After all,” I thought, “it clearly wants to be here.” Good gardeners don’t anthropomorphize. I’m not a good gardener. I’m a hopeful gardener, a multiple-chance-gardener, but not a good one.

One vine became two, then several. Over the course of the spring, it sprouted offshoots and I called them ‘babies.’ Hopeful, remember, but not good.

The leaves of the black raspberry hid our resident snake I gratefully let stay. She ate the mice that came with the garden. But the vines themselves? Oh, those vines. Those pernicious, attacking vines. I would come in from the garden with scrapes along my hands, up my arms. I pulled souvenir thorns out of my fingers, the tweezers searching through raw skin to find the offending bit. I began to hate that plant.

The third year I harvested only tiny, hard berries. Third year growth, it appears, does not produce better berries. In fact, it’s a dance. The plant only produces good berries on second year growth. “Finicky little jerk,” I swore. “That’s gratitude for you. I let you stick around and you spit in my eye.” I know. Too much emotion wrapped up in one little raspberry cane, but I had, literally, bled for it, so I felt entitled to a little gratitude.

In a fit of frustration and as a last stand, I trimmed back the old vines, allowing the young, perky ones to shoot up. They took over the gate, which by that time had broken anyway, and began sending out feelers to close the gap. I tied them up, encouraged them to work their way back down the fence toward the street. But they persisted. By the time I woke up in the morning, they had untethered in a rebellious, exuberant display. Eventually, I used a MacGyver combination of twine and tomato tape that locked the vines in place, picturesque green against white pickets. I loved them. I took a picture. They never produced fruit. So, I thought, I have a choice. Unruly and productive or tame and fruitless.

By mid-summer, the berries looked ripe but I had learned. I watched birds eat their fill from the berries at the top while I waited. I harvested tomatoes, zucchini, and the first of the autumn potatoes and I waited. When the vines began to cover the entrance to the garden, I did two things: I began to harvest the hidden fruit and I snipped back the plucked-bare branches.

We ate berries by the handful. My youngest would come home from preschool and we’d sit in the driveway at noon, purple fingers and purple mouths, laughing as we sucked berries off our fingers. I would reach into the plant gingerly and pull out two berries, four, sniff their almost-wine scent, heady with the joy that is release from school, release from have-to-do’s.

Over the years, my children have learned to pick the fruit themselves, waiting until the birds finish off the top layer, gently pulling the dark purple berries from the vines. They come in with wounds from the thorns, but the sweetness of the fruit makes up for the damage.

But this isn’t about my children. It’s about how I’ve learned to navigate, even love a bush that isn’t easy. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the risk to my own skin; it’s just that I think the risk is worth it when I taste the fruit.

If you ask me what I like most about my garden, I won’t tell you about the black raspberry vine. I’ll tell you about the peace of gardening, about contemplating hope and faith as I dig out a bed for the Spring, put it to sleep in late Autumn with frost on the green tomatoes. I’ll tell you, laughing, that I love how absent my children are when I mention I’m going to pull weeds and how that time is sacred to me, sun burning my shoulders, dirt in my nails. I’ll tell you how I appreciate the sweetness of the potatoes I pull from dirt I hauled, remembering my two oldest children rolling in the mound as I piled shovelful after shovelful into a wheelbarrow that now sits, broken, alongside tomatoes. I’ll tell you how we all smelled of manure when I carried them inside, one in each arm, their hands clinging to my sweaty middle aged waist. I’ll tell you of standing with them in the shower, the three of us pretending we were mud monsters while I scrubbed their hair. I’ll tell you how I can still hear their shrieks as I tickled their toes with the rag and we slid around the soap-covered tub.

Those are the beautiful, shareable moments. But the thing I also know, the part that’s more difficult to explain, is the extra sweetness that comes after wading through thorns, learning to allow a vine to grow while still maintaining a necessary gate to the garden. I also remember the years of frustration, cushioned in the hope that this vine, this angry, cutting vine, would one day be the most adored plant in my garden. And, as my children can tell you, it is. It hasn’t given up its out-of-control reaching for the wrong side of the yard, but some gentle pruning after it produces fruit keeps it in check. It hasn’t dropped its thorns. On the contrary, I swear they grow sharper every year. But, if you come just before Autumn, as the weather grows tempestuous and unpredictable with alternating storms and heat waves, I’ll show you how to harvest a berry or two. We can coat our fingers in their sticky juice and call ourselves blessed to have such a plant in our vineyard.

Greek personification of abundance, Euthenia, resting on a sphinx with a bowl in her hand. Above and to the sides are birds in flight or at rest.

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3 Responses

  1. Katie Rich says:

    This was beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Kaylee says:

    So lovely. I haven’t figured out quite when and how to cut back our red raspberries so that they produce lots of fruit, but what we do get is super sweet. They survived their first year when a big branch fell on them, and now they’ve been spreading like crazy. My oldest sneaks back there all summer, checking on them and getting the best berries.

    I stumbled upon this poem today, and I feel like it belongs here too. Starts off “Ripeness is what falls away with ease”

    https://wordsfortheyear.com/tag/jane-hirshfield/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CRipeness%E2%80%9D%20by%20Jane%20Hirshfield&text=what%20falls%20away%20with%20ease.&text=of%20autumn%20iris%20from%20their%20core.&text=in%20equal%20ripeness%20and%20ease,is%20also%20harvest.

  3. Em says:

    If good gardeners don’t anthropomorphize then I’m the worst. Because I talk to my plants all the time and give them little voices to talk back to me. The weeds are insolent. Many flowers are preening and vain or competitive. Seedlings are often discouraged and need prompting to keep going. Gardening gives me so much deep satisfying joy. Thank you for your story and interpretation of those rambunctious vines. I definitely have a mixed bag myself — some happy to twine where I put them, others cross at being tied down, refusing to continue to grow as long as I persist.

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