The Black Honey of Summer


Raphaelle Peale, "Blackberries"

Summer Food Series

Candice and Toby

My original design for this post was to begin it with a story about my youngest son when he was a toddler and lead into a Mary Oliver poem about blackberries. A momentous development in the Bates household has occurred since then, however. Not to be deterred, I’ve woven the news into my post.  Hang with me and all will be clear.

First, the story.  When we lived in our first Maryland house, we had large blackberry bushes in our yard that attracted the 18-month-old Toby.  He was passionately fond of the berries but didn’t know how to handle the thorns.  At one point I remember seeing him stuffing fistfuls of blackberries into his mouth, crying because of the prickles, then grabbing more berries and thorns, crying again, and so on.  Pleasure and pain were all wrapped up together.

Now the poem.  In Mary Oliver’s “August” there is a similar mingling of pain and pleasure.  While she describes “cramming the black honey of summer into my mouth,” she also mentions the hurt involved.  Nature’s gifts may be available to all but they are invariably accompanied by ripped arms and dark creeks. Rather than detract from the delight, however, the obstacles only enhance it. Life is a bear’s paw, thinking of nothing as it darts among the black bells. Here’s the poem:


By Mary Oliver

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend

all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking

of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body

accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among

the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

Now for our news.  Toby took his Trinidadian girlfriend to Church Point last night (her name is Candice Wilson) to see the phosphorescent lights given off by the jellyfish in the St. Mary’s River.  Under a full canopy of stars, he asked her to marry him and she accepted. We are all very, very happy.

Candice has a mixture of Carib, African and European ancestry, so at the moment I’m thinking of her as the black honey of Toby’s summer. To this association I add a story that Candice told me when I was describing Toby’s encounters with blackberries. When she was a teenager in Trinidad, she once cut down a tree (it was already on its way to falling) in order to retrieve a peewah fruit that was growing high in its branches.  She miscalculated, however, and nearly had the tree fall on her. Luckily, because she had much experience with falling out of trees as a child, she had already calculated where she needed to jump if anything went wrong.

Candice gouged her finger (she still bears the scar) but was otherwise all right. The peewah, she said, was delicious.

So Toby and Candice, may you reach high for delicious fruit, even when it seems inaccessible. Don’t settle for anything less than a rich pleasure.  There will be thorns and falling trees—as you well know, Toby, the dark creek by which you proposed is the river that carried away your oldest brother—but your love will carry you through the bad times as well as the good.

There will always be this happy tongue.


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  1. Barbara
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Oh happy, happy news! Congratulations to you all!

  2. Posted August 3, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations to you and your wife, your son and new to-be daughter in law. Happy news, indeed, Robin. Loved the poem too.

    A romantic proposal if I ever heard of one. 🙂


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