The wintered-over raspberry canes were already bending and leaning, tangling into the dead grasses and new weeds, providing a good host for Creeping Charlie and poison ivy. I have a mortal dread of poison ivy, and I don't like experiencing mortal dread when all I want is berries to make pie. Besides, the dead canes are like unnecessary dragons to fight when I'm trying to get to the branches that bear fruit.
I both love and hate thinning the canes. On the one hand, it's a task that makes me feel like I've accomplished something significant. It's productive. At the end, I've got something very concrete to show for my time. On the other hand, it's a painful activity. Some of the canes have visible, obvious thorns, especially towards the roots. You can be careful with those. But some of them look deceptively innocent, and it's only later, long after you've gone in and washed up and had your glass of cold water that you realize your fingers are full of tiny needle-like prickers that bury themselves deeper and deeper, poking at you when you're typing, or washing dishes, or doing other things that shouldn't hurt.
|Mike Pennington [CC-BY-SA-2.0 |
via Wikimedia Commons
It's a tricky business to know which canes are still alive, and which are the standing dead. Our raspberry bushes have a two year cycle, kind of like Monarch butterflies: some bloom in the spring, and bear fruit in June along the entire branch. These dry out over the winter, die, become hollow, and are less fierce by the following spring. Others only sprout in the spring, sending up long stalks into the stratosphere seemingly overnight; if we're lucky, they bloom and bear smaller, less voluptuous, but still sweet fruit in August and September, winter over, and become the early bloomers and bigger producers the next year. Though sometimes the older canes appear lighter in color and more brittle to the touch, you can only really tell which canes are alive in late spring, after the leaves start to unfold, and even then it's not always a given that the barren canes are dead. Sometimes, you tug at the ones that seem dead, and they tug back from the root, green, unwilling to give up their earth.
I am arm-deep in the tangle of branches, the sun is warm above me, not quite beating down yet like it will just a month from now, and my daughter orbits me in the grass, singing, picking dandelions, and sometimes screaming "aaaaah! beeee! BEEEEE! gnaaaaaaaaat!! AAAA! GNAAAAT!" which I am ignoring probably more than I should. I toss the canes into a neat pile, stacking them in parallel so that they're easier to transfer to the garbage bin later: another opportunity for them to scratch me and lodge their prickers in my skin one last time before they go to the curb. Minutes--an hour--pass without my notice. I am absorbed in this work, this important work that will give me better fruit, and better access to the fruit, when it comes in just a month.
Have I told you? Lately, I've been thinning my own canes, too. The ones that I can't touch. The stalks of my past lives. It's long overdue, this thinning. And it's a more long-term project, not something I can finish in a day, not something I can stack neatly in a pile and put out at the curb. It's probably something I'll have to do at the start of every growing season, or maybe to start my own growing season.
Like the raspberry branches, some of my canes are thorny. I can see the thorns as I approach those memories, those feelings, and I'm gentle in the pulling; even though I know they're dead, I also know that they can still hurt me. There are some, too, that are surprisingly thorny--those are the ones that leave barely perceptible prickers. And some are still alive; I tug at them, and they don't give. Despite their wintering over, they need time, still, to bear fruit, bitter and seedy as that fruit may be, before they die.
Unfortunately, there are no gloves for this kind of work. You just have to do it: take a deep breath, don your courage, and dive in.
The afternoon shadows lengthen, and I decide to pack it in for the day. I survey my work: I can see the earth again, and there's no poison ivy, or at least not yet. The dead canes and weeds fill a garbage can. My hands and fingernails are dirty, and my arms scratched and scarred. I am already finding small prickers buried in my fingertips, bits too small to tweeze out. But I'm also pleased to see just how many live canes I've found, to see the silver buds opening into silky green leaves, and am already thinking about the colanders full of ripe, red berries, and fresh raspberry pie.