Last summer the three blackberry patches closest to my home finally succumbed to poison. They had grown alongside the urban creek where I walk daily with my dog, and for over twenty years the creek’s management committee has been gradually working to eradicate all non-indigenous species in its precinct. While the blackberries were still there, that part of my day where I passed them always involved a small mental shift. Early in the season it took the form of a subconscious eye flick to check for notes of purple fruit amongst the hard red ones. As summer deepened, this eye flick segued automatically into more active scanning for the weighty droop and dark lustre of any fully ripe clusters. From the first, this surveillance felt surprisingly familiar, effortless, stimulating. I realised that spotting promising clusters at fifty paces and mentally cataloguing them for later inspection not only required no slowing of my natural gait, but actually seemed to enhance its fluidity. Once berry ripening was really up and rolling I would pick daily, always filling a container to take home but still eating a lot on the spot.
I’d get a feeling for the architecture of the plant, so that I could make inroads into its heart by pinning down waving canes with my foot, safely trapping lower canes beneath them. I’d notice that the largest berry loads were to be pillaged from those more secretive canes that bobbed a little beneath the plant’s lacy arches, and speculate that perhaps birds gobble up the outer berries as soon as the sugars start to form. I’d discover which insects like to eat blackberries, to use them as nurseries for their larvae, or to make homes by folding leaves into silk-stuck purses. I’d note that the bush higher up the slope always has sweeter berries, and wonder if this was down to soil variations or to less water being available to dilute the fruit’s intensity. Last summer the three blackberry patches closest to my home finally succumbed to poison. They had grown alongside the urban creek where I walk daily with my dog, and for over twenty years the creek’s management committee has been gradually working to eradicate all non-indigenous species in its precinct. While the blackberries were still there, that part of my day where I passed them always involved a small mental shift. Early in the season it took the form of a subconscious eye flick to check for notes of purple fruit amongst the hard red ones. As summer deepened, this eye flick segued automatically into more active scanning for the weighty droop and dark lustre of any fully ripe clusters. From the first, this surveillance felt surprisingly familiar, effortless, stimulating. I realised that spotting promising clusters at fifty paces and mentally cataloguing them for later inspection not only required no slowing of my natural gait, but actually seemed to enhance its fluidity. Once berry ripening was really up and rolling I would pick daily, always filling a container to take home but still eating a lot on the spot.
Such semi-conscious thoughts shimmered only as a backdrop to the star of the show, however: picking. Plucking berries hand over fist, I am mostly in a completely absorbed mental state that I associate with art making. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this feeling ‘flow’, and defines it as a state of intrinsic motivation to perform the task at hand, where time seems to stop and ‘the ego falls away’. Science identifies ‘flow’ as being a slow brainwave state hovering between the alpha and theta range, which promotes physical and mental rejuvenation by lowering stress levels. The ancient, adaptive act of finding food on a bush and steadily conveying it to your mouth can, I think, partly trigger this feeling because it is so completely its own end point. It has no further motive.
Whether brainwave speed was the intervening angel or not, I discovered that any crankiness present when I embarked on a foraging session would be reliably diminished by the time I was done. And I was fed. For free. Without any use of fossil-fuel driven transportation, pesticides or fertilisers. And I did this for two months a year, for five years.
During that time blackberries made up a truly useful part of my summer fruit supply: think one serve out of three per day. I anticipated them with glee, and my awareness of weather patterns and seasonal changes increased as I monitored the stages of their growth and development. They had become part of my map of my territory; part of what was relevant to me in the world. So I felt very disconcerted when someone else assumed that it was okay to kill them.
There are various bodies that manage Melbourne’s urban waterways. Melbourne Water plays a role, as do local councils and various community groups. Others are NGOs, who rely on a handful of paid employees and reams of volunteers (think corporate team-building outings with a BBQ to follow). Almost everyone involved in these projects works under the assumption that the eradication of weedy species is a basic aim. They labour in good conscience to plant their section of creek or river with indigenous vegetation – ‘indigenous’ generally meaning whatever the earliest European records note as having been growing in the area. To enable these plants to grow in competition with the more vigorous introduced species, a herbicide spraying program is in use. Given that our urban waterways abut endless domestic gardens full of non-indigenous plants, these spray programs (with their hefty input of herbicide, truck fuel, human hours – the list goes on) are regarded as an ongoing requirement in the battle to defend the ‘desired’ vegetation. In many senses, this high level of human intervention makes most urban revegetation precincts more like nostalgic gardens than wild natural landscapes.
Weedy species that colonised a creek area did so largely not by jumping into a pristine indigenous ecosystem, but by colonising disturbed ground created when white settlers moved into the area and cleared the river banks for quarries, market gardens, houses and rubbish dumps. Storm water was directed from newly paved surfaces into drains that empty into the creek, making its flow violent enough to rip plants from banks after a heavy downpour. Contours were straightened in some areas to allow for building; rubbish and heavily polluted water were funnelled into the creek; lights were erected in the vicinity; average temperatures rose due to the urban ‘heat island’ effect; and noise and vibrations from highways and other human activity entered the scene. In short, every ecological quality of the area was changed to some degree. And the plants most capable of survival in these new, inhospitable conditions were the weeds.
The blackberry is a hard plant to defend. Despite its delicious fruit, its thorns invite immediate hostility, and it is a rare Australian who hasn’t seen embankments or creek edges swallowed by its brambles. Yet it is precisely these qualities – thorniness and dense, food-bearing growth even on denuded slopes – that we could choose to esteem and exploit, rather than detest.
Originally introduced into Australia for the purpose of erosion control and fruit production in the 1830s, the ability of blackberries to find a foothold is remarkable. These tenacious brambles can colonise land stripped and hardened by clearing, animal hooves or unchecked water runoff. They then form a dense vegetation mesh that catches and traps its own fallen leaf litter. Insects and the small birds that feed on them (and on the berries) move into the brambles with the confidence of being protected from predators by the thorny matrix. The fallen manure of these birds, as well as their corpses and those of the insects, all combine with the fallen berry leaves to commence the rebuilding of humus-rich topsoil. Eventually the soil’s water retention capabilities and nutrient levels become sufficient to allow seeds of other less hardy species to germinate.
When I was two, my father bought a chunk of cheap rural land, and in true 1970s style, built a tiny wooden hut on it, which became our ‘home away from home’. Over the course of my life I have witnessed that sloping, eroded, former sheep paddock return halfway to the dry sclerophyll forest that was there before clearing. Blackberries appeared early on in the piece, but by the time I was ten their thickets protected enough viable earth to see a few tree seeds germinate. My adolescence saw more vigorous young trees push their way through their blackberry nursery and form dense canopies above it. On my last visit, these trees had shaded out those same brambles, leaving space for a more diverse, shrubby and herbaceous understorey to move in. By the end of my life this process may be complete.
This ability to aid in land repair is by no means limited to blackberries. Many vigorous (read ‘weedy’) leguminous species, willows, and herbaceous weeds function in various ways to stabilise and rebuild topsoil, entrap nutrients and slow water movement. As they do this, they can create homes and food for birds, insects and animals – including humans. In addition, plantings from earlier this century tell us that there is a cornucopia of fruit and nut trees – not weedy, but admirably hardy – that thrive when grown with native vegetation along the city’s creeks and rivers. These plants produce generous, easy food right by our homes with no need for labour or input pillaged from other ecosystems. Their presence can re-engage us with our landscape as something useful and meaningful, rather than as an aesthetic abstraction. It seems worth asking whether they should have a role here.
Most of us are conscious that producing food close to where it is consumed can reduce environmental costs – less transport and packaging for starters. Also, the more of our food production we can integrate into urban areas, the less pressure exists to expand and overwork rural farmland in ways that impact on adjoining indigenous ecosystems. Such ecosystems are often much more intact and viable plant communities than the revegetated urban riparian zones being coddled along in the hope that they may mimic something they once were.
Locally foraged food not only has no food miles or packaging, but zero resource inputs, taking the benefits of local food an order of magnitude further. It removes the water, power, processing and transport costs incurred in supplying seedlings, mulch, manure, irrigation and tools to an average urban produce garden. This has its own bonus knock-on effect in further reducing pressure to take resources from environments external to the urban one.
And yes, I do get quite uppity when accused of being ‘anti-native’ for suggesting that we could add some productive trees into the mix when revegetating waterways in Melbourne, or let the ground-level herbaceous (and largely edible) weeds flourish. I want them there so my neighbours’ kids can know the late summer pleasure of gorging on pears growing amongst riverside thickets; so that my local park can host harvest parties where we all shake down almond trees planted by the adjoining creek and split the nut haul to fill our pantries; so that I can pluck a bag of salad greens on my way to dinner at a friend’s house in the next suburb. And I want these things so that we can stop squeezing the rest of our country so hard for food – giving our more remote and intact Australian native landscapes a chance to stay that way.
There is something very reassuring about walking in your territory and picking food. It has been one of human history’s most dominant activities, so perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, it would be odd if something in finding food to gather near our homes did not send a brief message to our brains announcing ‘the most fundamental things, at least, are okay’. I have focused on blackberries for the purposes of this article, but I could equally well have been talking about the pleasure of collecting greens from the ground-level edible weeds that grow along the same path (unless these have been sprayed with poison, yet again), or filling a bag from the few remaining old fig trees that haven’t yet been hacked out for replacement with more native plantings. I take friends picking with me sometimes, and for that week at least they do not buy another head of lettuce or bunch of spinach that has helped to suck the Murray–Darling dry. Plus, the bags of wild greens (or figs or berries or plums or apples) that we’ve foraged are fresher than purchased products could ever be. And as we have walked, chatted and harvested, a kind of love of place is engendered that comes only with being fed by your place, and with having to gaze at it with searching eyes that see, remember and rely on its ways.
Image credit: Simon Brass