When I was in England, staying in the very small hamlet of Little Gidding, I went blackberrying with my newfound friend Tony.
We walked from the house where I was staying and followed a muddy road past a small wood, where Tony asked me if I would like to visit some surviving elms. Most of the Elms in England had succumb to Dutch Elm disease, so finding a small grove of trees was a treat. We wound down the road, with Tony trying to remember where the small, little used path was that lead to the trees. After a few false starts, we found it, and ventured in to see the trees hidden among ash and bramble, clustered together as if trying to blend in and hide their very existence. They were tall and spindly, but healthy, reaching up towards the sky, boasting wispy leaves that rustled in the late September breeze. I stood and looked up, trying to appreciate the fact that they were "elms" and not just lovely trees. What I did appreciate was the quiet that was full of sound surrounding me; the swishing of the leaves, the cawing of the rooks, the faint moan of the wind. All this gave the grove a feeling of ancient mystery, as if these trees would out live me, and all this had been long before I ever arrived. It was a place of fairy folk, of ancient rituals on the solstice. Yet it also seemed a place of prayer, a place where God could be heard, felt and experienced. It was the fusing of these two things; the pagan and the christian that struck me deepest.
We continued on, out to the muddy road, and then stopped for a bit in the old chapel of Steeple Gidding, which was unusual because it had no furniture inside. It was open and bare, with a medieval font near the door. It also retained that same feel of ancient knowledge, of so many lives that went before me, of uneven stone where worshipers knelt and prayed. We read the guest book and found an ongoing entry between two lovers that had been meeting at the church. As we read over several months, we found that they were having a row, leaving angry little messages to each other: June 16th-"you wombat, I waited" he said, June 17-"I was here where were you?" she said. And as quickly as the entries had begun, they ended, leaving me to wonder if they still met here, under winter moons, or late summer sunsets.
Our mission was to go and pick blackberries for the crumble that was promised by Mary, the part-time cook. We were equipped with plastic bags and ruck sacks, hoping that we would also be allowed to pick the wind fall apples in the garden of the woman who owned the large farm house we passed on our way. The bramble bushes lay out in the middle of a pasture, past what Tony called "The Four Lakes", which were ancient ponds that used to be stocked with fish to keep the local gentry fed. They were still full of water, but contained no fish, just ducks and weeds.
We finally came to the berries, which were just beginning to go, almost ready to shrivel and hunker down for the long cold winter that lie ahead. September was cold, and the berries had peaked in August, but a few plump specimens remained. Tony took one side of the thicket and I took the other and we talked about our childhoods and our families and the difference between our ages; He being in his seventies and I in my fifties. We talked about blood lines and ancestors as my fingers were poked by the thorns and stained by the juices.
Out there in the field, it was as if the rest of the world vanished and there was only England. All that remained were the green, low rolling hills, dotted with puff ball sheep stretching out around us. Hedgerows cut the countryside into neat patchwork patterns and clouds touched the low hills on the horizon. As I pick and fill my sack, I remembered Sylvia Plath's poem; Blackberrying
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
they accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
She is walking down a path swathed in bramble bushes, looking for the sea. I am very far from the sea, but know that she and I look for the same thing; the unpredictable, that element of surprise that catches us unaware, that longing for something greater and more powerful than us.
I do not think the seawall will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
She hopes for this as she approaches the sea;
The only thing to come now is the sea.
from between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
Her reactions is jaded hope; this is what she longs for, yet it comes at some great cost and may never be found.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me to the hill's northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
beating and beating at an intractable metal.
Her hope is left unfulfilled. At one point in the poem, she is in control, picking the blackberries, making them her own, at another, she is lost in grey nothing.
As I looked out over the countryside I reflected on the moment spent picking blackberries; the time in the elm grove; the pause to read the guest book in the church and I wondered if the memories would endure or be forgotten. Could I catch them and keep them tucked away, to bring out and ponder again and again. I had found something in this, something that went beyond me, that was eternal and deep. Unlike Ms. Plath, I had found hope; that elms would live on without me, that chapels would again contain lovers and that blackberries would eternally prepare for winter. I wish she had too.