Right now, they are flush west of the Cascade Range, along roads, occupying abandoned rural fields and abandoned urban lots. They are ready to be plucked, eaten on site. Yes, the delicious Himalayan blackberry is ripe these summer days in Oregon. I call it Luther Burbank's hubris… or, blackberry fields forever.
Over a century ago, master plant experimenter Luther Burbank, considered the Thomas Edison of horticulture, a giant of a man who had a transitive verb named after him (burbank: to modify and improve by selective breeding) and once bred the needles out of a cactus, purchased a packet of blackberry seeds from a global botany agent, whom Burbank mistakenly thought had collected them near the Himalayan Mountains (it was later discovered they came from Armenia). It was claimed the seeds produced remarkable fruit, but of course there was the unfortunate matter of thorns and the eons of time over which they'd evolved. Never one to be deterred by evolution, Burbank sowed the seeds in his laboratory garden in Santa Rosa, California, with the hope breeding this robust alien blackberry with a rare thornless blackberry from the East Coast (with inferior berries) to create a thornless plant with luscious berries.
It was one of the 10,000 or so plant experiments masterminded by Burbank, a leading proponent of eugenics, who had a mission to "improve" nature so it would better serve Man. As an example, look to the Burbank russet, the "improvement" of the potato that has become the dull and chemically drenched McDonald's french fry world standard.
Some might say the manipulation resulting in the Burbank russet turned out right; we fed a lot of people, right? But with the seeds that became known as Himalayan blackberries, well, things turned out very wrong.
The Himalayan blackberry has invaded and conquered much of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest and has no interest in setting up a provisional government with a timetable to turn over control to the natives. Anyone who has lived in Oregon west of the Cascades for any length of time has a blackberry bane or bounty story. If you don't, you really need to get out more.
I had a personal grudge with the Himalayan. In my capacity as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge from 1998-2008, it is quite possible that I cut by hand more of Burbank's hubris than any other living human being during the period. I had only one rule of engagement: no chemical weapons. And I had one rule for captured prisoners: they get made into treats, including the love potion that is homemade blackberry liqueur. (Recipe: seven pints blackberries, six cups sugar, three liters of vodka. Put in jar, store in cool place for two months. Strain and bottle. Drink while listening to the Rolling Stones.)
It was treacherous work and I'll let Tom Robbins in Still Life with Woodpecker provide the proper context:
In the wet months, blackberries spread so rapidly that dogs and small children were sometimes engulfed and never heard from again. In the peak of the season, even adults dared not go berry picking without a military escort.
Right before I left the refuge, out of obsession and a soldier's desire to meet one's mortal enemy, I traveled to Sebastopol, California, the site of Luther Burbank's laboratory garden (now an outdoor museum).
Number 12 on the garden tour marks the spot where Burbank conducted all his sinister Himalayan experiments. Here, the stalks have no thorns! Seeing this preposterous anomaly, I threw myself to the ground and cursed Burbank in the fashion of Charlton Heston in the last scene of Planet of the Apes, although certainly I employed a harsher noun than maniac. I do believe the word mother was involved.
But what about burbanking in our time? In 125 years will someone like me have the ability to overcome the unintended consequences of some of our contemporary improvements of nature? I refer to such experiments as human cloning, ectogenesis, and transgenic organ transplants.
If you've never heard of these experiments, let me assure you, they take tinkering with nature to a place well beyond merely advancing agricultural yields, to a netherworld where apparently no spiritual or ethical boundaries exist except those of the tinkering corporations, which of course, have none.
What is the lesson of Luther Burbank and his Himalayan blackberry as we venture into a vain new "improved" world where a majority of humans still don't have access to clean drinking water and yet, via ectogenesis, a human soon might be gestated completely outside a womb, in a tank?
I know what I intuited through my experience of combating blackberries. This invasion didn't have to happen and the reason was right outside my bedroom window on the refuge. A few years ago, after I had cleared away the Himalayan thickets around the house, restoring a little ecology to the grounds, a blackberry-like plant completely unknown to me emerged and spread.
A little while later, the plants bore fruit. I ate the berries. Incredible. The finest berries I have ever tasted. I looked them up and discovered they were black raspberries, a.k.a. black caps, and they are native, in harmony with their surroundings. After that initial tasting, I built a trellis for my black caps, composted around them, and they exploded. I often wonder what became of them after I left.
Black caps were here when Burbank tinkered. He either didn't know about them, or as is more likely, didn't accept them as they were — are — something wonderful that nature had evolved in balance with other living things. That lesson is all around us, if we just pay attention.