Why Blackberries

Hindsight may show clearly our actions, but out motivations are never quite easy to see. When asked, “Why Blackberries.” I am afraid with all the benefits of distance from the act, I can still do little better than tell the story.

In 2008 as the market roiled and the world’s attention was riveted by greed so puissant as to harm entire nations and indeed the whole world, I returned to Kansas after 6 years in South Carolina. I cried on my parents’ doorstep that spring day, knowing both that I was home and could not again leave, and that I had left friends made during those cherished years of college and early professional life who were as dear to me as brothers. After a good cry and a few weeks of settling in, I got busy being home.  

I was at that time mostly interested in where water goes after you push that little lever on the tank of our white porcelain toilet, and questions like why we Kansans build our homes from trees in Canada instead of the dirt all around us.  

Freshly done with college and on the back end of two years teaching classical literature and reading a bit too much, I was determined to see the ideals of John Ruskin’s Society of Saint George put into practice here in my home. The plot was to come up with a scheme of architecture and mechanical systems which used distinctive local materials like earth blocks, hedge wood and black walnut, combined with mechanical systems like composting toilets that were simpler, more cost effective, and more ecological than technological. This effort took me to many odd places including one of the oddest experiences of my life in Fairfield Iowa where I found myself surrounded by spiritual acolytes of the earth who followed the teachings of the Beatles old spiritual advisor Maharishi.

That effort proved ill founded on the overzealous energies of youth, but it was the birth of Elderslie Woodworks, and there is a very stout built cottage near Elderslie which I dare say bears the charm and whimsy of the idealism that I was in the midst of.

In 2009 while I was no longer bothering Sedgwick County Wastewater Officials with questions about permitting composting toilets, I was still thinking about how to make a life and a living right here near my home. I was still determined to see my community made more unique, more beautiful, and more vital. In the company of my sister and brother I began traveling to places like Reece Fruit Farms outside Topeka, and Cain City Orchard near Great Bend, and Regiers’ Orchard in Whitewater. Everyone had apple trees, some people had peach trees, most had a smattering of other small fruits that they were interested in but did not do too much with. But multiple times I heard the comment “oh when those blackberries go you cannot stop people from getting into them.” But they were talking about plantings of a single row, or maybe a hundred bushes. I put the question to Rex Reese (owner of the oldest fruit farm in KS.) “what about planting an acre of Blackberries?” Rex is a philosophical person who thinks about his words for a minute before saying anything, which he did, then he responded in a slow sentence: “that would be A LOT of blackberries.”      

In 2010 we planted roughly 1 acre of blackberries at Elderslie. 1,000 bushes in 8 varieties strung out along the hillside overlooking the Chisholm Creek and Bramble culture became the focus of my life for many years.

If I had to answer why I guess I would say I wanted to see that moment when people got so excited by nature and the harvest that they threw their schedule out the window and could not stay out of the berry rows. I wanted to prove something about my home ground, that it was worth that kind of excitement. I wanted to fulfill something of Wordsworth’s reminders to us that nature is exciting and life-giving if only we will use our leisure, our best days, and highest moments to soak in her bounty and share in her joys. Looking back now, I guess I might say blackberries came about because composting toilets never worked, but hindsight is 20/20.

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