PICKING WILD RASPBERRIES

This is the second in a series of three essays which explore the same sort of themes and wisdom that emerged when I interviewed twenty writers over seventy for the book Autumn Voices: the importance of letting go; recognising that later life can hold many joys and that, as one door closes, another opens.

Wild the raspberries may be, but they are well established in my garden. They occupy a strip about fifty feet long and ten feet wide, bordered on one side by a high stone wall and by a grassy area on the other. To call the latter a lawn would be sheer flattery. At first strawberries grew along that strip by the wall, then a variety of heathers was planted. These succumbed to an invasion of blackberry bushes, which held sway for several years before the raspberries made a bid for supremacy and won. A milder winter, a wetter summer, more salt spray off the sea than usual, a virus that attacked one species but not another, some shift in the make-up of the garden’s insect population – any of these, or other variables, could have tipped the balance in their favour.

The crowns and roots of raspberry plants are perennial, but individual canes live two years. They grow during the first summer, bear fruit in the second summer and then die shortly afterwards. You will gather that I am not a fanatical eradicator of unplanned plants. My attitude to gardening is laissez faire. Would-be writers complain that they don’t have the time to write. I tell them there is no such thing as not having time, only having different priorities. And I offer my neglected garden as an example of what I mean. But, even if I did give more time to gardening, I would still choose to have a garden that was on the wild side. There has always been an unresolved tension in gardening between the extent to which we feel the garden belongs to nature and the extent to which we feel it belongs to us; whether it is an expression of nature or of human artistic aspirations. It is a matter of how much domination and control over our gardens we want. There are no straight lines in nature. I don’t feel comfortable in symmetrical gardens where everything is geometrically arranged and with plants in regimented rows. Even worse (in my opinion) are the hedges and bushes tamed, trimmed and trained into shapes far removed from their natural form. I am in agreement with the pioneer of wild gardens, William Robinson (1838-1935), who held that it was Nature who was the supreme artist, and the gardener only the assistant. He believed in trusting Nature and staying true to her guidance.

I am not sure what William Robinson thought about weeds. I joke that my garden is a British weed sanctuary. Most weeds are beautiful if you look at them in a positive way. A weed, after all, is only an unwanted plant, a plant out of place. The wording on the boxes of weed-killer in my local garden centre is the language of the police state and the holocaust: control, targeted, selective, Kill, poison, instant death, eradicate, gone for good. I prefer peaceful co-existence.

Thoughts such as these wander through my mind as I pick the raspberries. The advice most often given to writers about how to stimulate their creativity is, ‘Go for a walk.’ Fruit-picking has much the same effect. The repetitive activity allows the mind to wander and coaxes it down unexplored paths. This mini-raspberry forest is full of metaphors for life. The way, for instance, that the biggest and most luscious fruit are just out of reach or guarded by the fiercest thorns; how, in order to fulfil their role in life, the raspberries must signal their presence and readiness to the world; the ease with which the fruit is picked when the time is right, no force necessary; or how there is often a surprisingly rich haul when you look on the underside of the plant, when you peer into the darkest thicket, or crouch low. Even the slightest shift in the angle at which I look at the canes brings new perspectives and reveals fruit I would not otherwise have seen. The act of picking is rather like Ti Chi – I move slowly and deliberately to avoid being scratched. I stretch up, bend down, reach forward and sideways – slowly, so as not to break the canes or knock the ripe fruit to the ground. Just occasionally, when my breathing synchronises with my movements, I feel that there is no separation between the garden and the gardener.

Amongst the many things these wild raspberries have taught me is patience. They will mature and ripen when they are ready and not before. Unlike many other soft fruits they don’t continue to ripen once they are picked. I have learned to wait, to respect their natural rhythm.

Sometimes, instead of dropping a raspberry into the bowl, I pop it into my mouth. I am told that ethyl formate which gives raspberries their flavour is found in the clouds of gas and cosmic dust that drift through the heavens millions of light years away. Does outer space taste of raspberries? Raspberries are a way into my inner space, too. When fully grown some of the canes are above my head. They enclose me, becoming a little oasis of peace and solitude. These wild raspberries are rich in vitamins and antioxidants good for my bodily health; and picking them in this quiet corner of my garden is a calming, beneficial act of meditation.