Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Blackberry Patch Stealth Invasion

This memorable experience was unique and of special significance to this then-twelve-year-old. I was adapting to living in a different place again, following a move more than two years earlier to a rural somewhat isolated existence from the city life I had always known. Now I was even further away, U. S. States away, from familiar friends and family other than my parents – again no other young people around except when I rode a bus considerable distance to school, but this was summer vacation, there were no classes.

One early morning that late summer I rubbed insect repellent lotion over my body, then I dressed in what I considered my grubby clothes for the excursion ahead. I wore blue jeans, a pair of mid-calf-high rubber boots, a long-sleeved multi-colored predominately blue plaid flannel shirt layered over a plain white tee shirt. I hoped the boots would, at least partially, protect me from wet muddy ground, unfriendly snakes, and unexpected encounters with other small creatures.

I needed protection from insects, all bug types, though chiggers seem to be immune to deterrents in those years before some chemicals available today existed. Additionally, I needed to guard against the harmful effects of prickly thorns, stinging nettles, bushes, poison vines, and, especially, the sun with my redhead's fair skin. I vividly recalled the itching assault unpleasantness of Poison Oak from a city park vine years earlier.

I looked forward to this outing in which I would be accompanied by a neighbor, Mr. H., who could easily have been my grandfather. Since all my grandparents were deceased (grandfathers had died before my birth, one grandmother soon after,) I liked those rare opportunities when I could be with this neighbor and his wife. Mrs. H. hadn't come along for this outing, but had expressed relief her husband would not be alone and wanted me to take care of him as he would me.

I heard the motor sounds of my grandfatherly co-adventurer's car coming up the hill from their nearby lakeside retirement home. I quickly grabbed my metal gallon bucket, went out our door to meet him at the hilltop end of his gravel drive. Once I was safely seated beside him, he turned the car to the right, driving down a steep hill for about a mile on our less-frequently traveled graded dirt road, before pulling over to the road side, stopping to park his Studebaker automobile.

Each carrying our own bucket, we exited the car, crossed the road, and carefully climbed through a barbed wire fence. We were entering one small corner of a much larger wooded acreage belonging to a neighbor, who we knew wouldn't mind our berry picking there. We tromped side by side, sometimes single-file with him leading the way, deeper into the wild green growth. We made pathways through the brush, trampling dead leaves, as we pushed aside low hanging tree branches that quickly snapped back to lash the face of any follower not guarding against such a split-second sudden whipping attack. I kept one raised arm extended out from my face to carefully protect myself, especially my eyes. Eventually we circled around trees and shrubs to a more open but bushy area near the woods furthest edge.

As we drew closer to those bushes we were thrilled to see clusters of the large dark indigo blackberries, some hanging openly, others hiding among the branches and leaves. These tightly compacted wild thorn-laden bushes growing profusely, spread irregularly above the ground. In places their branches appeared to be reaching for the sun with new twig tips extending well above our heads. I had never seen so many berries and such large ones.

We began picking those luscious-looking dangling fruits, dropping them into our buckets as we slowly wound our way around the bushes' exterior edges. Sometimes, despite the prick of needle-like thorns, I pressed into the thorny growths indentations where fewer branches met and intertwined with others. I would twist and turn my body, twinging from the sharp thorn's points jabbing like a rapier, maneuvering to reach even larger purplish blue-black berry fruit clusters.

We each concentrated on filling our buckets while pre-occupied with our own thoughts. We had little or no conversation, but sometimes collaborated to identify the different unseen bird species from their songs and chirping commentary. I'd encountered no mucky mud to tread through, no cow pies in which to avoid stepping, and no snakes, at least so far. Even the few bees I noticed seemed to defer to me by flitting to other pollen harvesting grounds. So, my initial heightened sense of alertness at the beginning of this adventure had slowly modulated as I gradually internalized my environment's features.

I could now automatically recognize in this bushy wooded area sights and sounds that were quite normal from what had been strange, possibly even threatening when I first arrived. I knew I would be able to recognize instantly any change in environmental sounds -- rustling leaves, alterations in birds songs or their sudden quiet -- all possible indications something might be out of the ordinary or amiss. This information reinforced my perception this experience would add to my continuing gain in outdoor living skills. Skills that I had only begun to acquire a few years prior at a much earlier age.

I thought at the very least I would be equipped to recognize advance danger warning signs of sight and sound should anything untoward occur. My talents would especially surface, as I humorously fantasized to myself, if it was a dinosaur lumbering out of the forest, a herd of stampeding buffalo rumbling through, or a sky-darkening flock of giant flesh-eating parrots descending toward me. I felt confident in this environment with my newly acquired knowledge. I experienced a sense of comfort I could cope, and felt a high degree of personal safety. If necessary, I could probably even defend or rescue my blackberry-picking partner, whose care his wife had entrusted to me. Meanwhile, I'd just keep picking blackberries and maybe eat one or two for strength, energy and endurance as a cautionary preparation for whatever might come.

Several hours later we each were feeling humidity's tiring effects from the emerging sun's penetrating heat. So we picked our way back through those woods to the car with our blackberry-filled buckets and returned to our homes from what had seemed an uneventful outing.

While picking berries I also filled my thoughts with just how delicious these juicy dark amethyst-like gems would taste, and exactly how my Mom would prepare them. Whenever I picked berries of any kind, I rarely ever ate any, maybe just a few, during that process, instead contemplating the eating pleasures to come once I was home. Perhaps I was unconsciously motivating myself to continue the fruit picking by delaying gratification.

I created mind pictures of my favorite blackberry cobbler Mom was sure to prepare. During the cobbler's baking process, she would skim into a small deep high-sided bowl, spoonfuls of rich cream gathered from the inside top of bottled milk, refrigerated fresh from our neighbor's cows the night before. She would create whipped cream to top the hot baked cobbler by rapidly cranking a hand-operated beater, until the bowl's contents reached a degree of thickness resulting in the cream mix independently standing upright when the beater was removed.

The visualization conjured aromas and tastes that were real to me. But as I returned to reality from this stimulating titillating sensory daydream toward the end of the blackberry picking adventure, I had begun to realize that something was unusual. I was becoming slightly aware of a strange feeling around my ankles and lower legs. I had discounted it then to just being my jeans rubbing against my flesh.

Eventually when we had returned to our homes, I relaxed. With no other activities to distract me, I soon noticed again the sensation experienced in the blackberry patch, now extending all the way up to my thighs. The faint feeling was as though a million fine hairs were brushing lightly against my skin.

When I finally removed my blue jeans, glanced at my lower body, I saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of barely visible minute' dark spots moving upward on both my legs. Clearly these were living insects of some sort. The only solution my mother said, was to quickly hose them all off with water as best we could, then subject myself to her close visual examination to be certain none were left behind in any crevice or orifice. This was no simple task since she was having increasing vision problems.

So, we decided to also lightly rub kerosene over my lower body to dislodge any remaining attached creatures that we now thought might be ticks. This treatment was supposed to cause ticks to open their little jaws and release their hold on any host, including humans. We had never seen almost microscopic-sized ticks like these before.

When I described my experience to others later, these tiny dark-colored predators were identified as being seed ticks (larval stage of any tick species.) These newly developed ticks had emerged from their host parent's nourishing sack en masse (thousands,) then rushed out into life in search of a food source of their own. Their nourishment came from affixing themselves to a living creature, embedding themselves deeper and deeper into that being's flesh while extracting their needed nourishment from their host's life-giving blood. I think these infant ticks had not yet strongly attached themselves to my body as we were successful in separating them all from me.

[Bernie Rains at "Missouri Conservationist" explains ticks typically meet their mates where both gorge themselves on some living host. These are another of those insects where "...after feeding and mating...the adult male dies. The female drops to the ground to lay thousands of eggs, and then she dies, too." Once these seed ticks emerge from the eggs " find and attach to a host...," they use what Rains describes as "...a wait-and-watch technique called questing."
He describes "They climb to the top of grass stems or take a position on the branches of bushes. When a potential host brushes against the vegetation, the tick's extended legs snag fur, hair or clothing. This pulls them off the vegetation. Ticks sense exhaled carbon dioxide and emitted body odors, and will crawl a short distance to the source. They also detect vibrations and changes in light intensity caused by movement. These alert them to an approaching potential meal."

[Rains notes, "They frequent woods, tall grass, weeds and brushy areas. Overgrown, vacant lots, waste farm-fields, and weedy edges of paths and trails are prime tick areas, particularly where wildlife is abundant. They are not typically found in well-maintained lawns." Rains cautions "Any tick bite is dangerous because of the threat of disease. The three most prevalent tick-borne diseases are Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis"(bacterial.)]

I had prepared myself for many potential hazards that could occur with blackberry picking, but all my defenses had been penetrated. Actually, because those stealth attackers had finally been defeated, I derived special pleasure eating the treasured blackberry fruits. They were, after all, harvested during the time I was under assault in the seed tick invasion.

My sensory vault has stored only this experience's most important memories -- comforting feelings from the quiet companionship of my grandfatherly neighbor, the inviting aroma of my mother's baking cobbler biscuits and berries, the smooth textured rich real whipped cream's flavor and the combined sweetness but slightly tart tastes of the blackberry cobbler. Sometimes, though, I can still feel that crawling ticks sensation, much like a multitude of tiny loose hairs or cobweb filaments squirming against my skin and I can't quite brush them away.


  1. You were lucky to have discovered them before they "stuck" to you! That's a good memory to have, even with the ticks. My dad used to dress like you did and go blackberry picking every summer, at least twice. Then he'd come home, make a melt-in-your-mouth cobbler and freeze the rest of the berries for the next one. I miss those days!

  2. You are fortunate the ticks were found before they imbedded in your skin. I'm sure you still remember, quite vividly, the crawling feeling when they were moving up your legs.

    I lived on a farm and was lucky not to have that experience. My Sister got a bad case of poison ivy, from a trip back to our woods. She had lots of blisters and she was a very miserable little girl.

    I enjoy your writings.....

  3. My first blackberry picking experience came much later in life. About 10 years ago my friend Bob and I were on a Elderhostel kayaking program on Vancouver Island. After a long day of kayaking we opted out of getting a van ride back to the hotel. We casually walked back along an old abandon railroad track right a way and came upon bushes well over 6 feet high and so dense we couldn't tell how thick. They were filled with dark rich perfectly ripened blackberries many larger than the diameter of a quarter. We filled our hungry stomachs with the berries that costs over $2.50 per small plastic container at the Detroit area supermarkets. And to think these were free for the picking! Avoiding the thorns of course.

    Later at the dinner table I told a couple of Islanders in our group that they were lucky to have the succulent berries in such abundance growing wild. There response was "Are you kidding!!" That evasive plant once it gets in your lawn or garden it takes tenacious determination to get rid it.

  4. ick ick ick ick.
    I hate ticks. Vivid vivid story.

  5. This story was so real....I'm itchy all over Joared. You were very lucky young lady. When I think of the many times my cousins and I went blueberry and blackberry picking as kids with no protection of any kind...or any thought ot's a wonder we weren't eaten alive.

  6. wow, that sounds horrible. I have had tick experiences but never anything like that-- thank goodness

  7. Thanks to all for your comments:
    I'm not anxious to have any kind of tick, but least of all seed ticks.
    I've encountered a few regular ticks in bushy wooded areas, but mostly we had to remove them from our dogs. These were the only ticks I ever encountered blackberry picking and I've picked berries numerous times in three or four different states.

    Bob: Reminds me of a driving trip we made up the Coast from CA to Wash. I think it was Oregon where the roadsides for a long distance in one area were filled with blackberry bushes. I thought it was great to have them so accessible. Your trip sounds really interesting. (You should write about some of your trips.) The berries you found sound really lucious and so big! I can believe the bushes would be quick to take over in certain climates.

  8. Ouch! That sensation must have been awful - and then having to get rid of them with paraffin. Yuk!
    At least you enjoyed the fruits of your labour though.

  9. Oh, my, I was reveling in thoughts of blackberries and you hit us with the ticks! Now that's an itchy surprise in a good story.

  10. This is like a Horrid Nightmare...Or a Horror film...It sounds like one of the worst experiences one could have with thousands of itty bitty ticks...Deliver Me!
    I'm not sure I could stand to ever even eat Blackberry's again with this awful memory always hovering there....Eeewwwwww!