One of the exciting things about our new blog page is that Sam has several articles he has written over the years that he never got around to publishing. A few years ago, Sam wrote just such an article about a bumper blueberry picking year we had in northern Wisconsin. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
I promise, I will never complain about the weather again. Not that I do that a lot, but this summer I did. It rained and rained and rained, and even though we desperately needed that rain, even though the lakes were five feet lower than normal and we’ve had drought for eight years out of ten, even though the subsoil was exceedingly thirsty, even though the hickories have died out in my county from a drought-induced disease epidemic, I complained about the rain. My driveway washed out in one storm, and I had to spend five hours shoveling mud and gravel to make it passable. Four days later it washed out again, worse. It was bad enough that the rain kept most of my apple blossoms from pollinating—it also drowned one of my trees. And the mosquitoes could suck a man bloodless if he were stuck in the woods for an evening.
But still, it was wrong to complain.
There is an axiom of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is a less well known axiom of foraging: seek dry-land plants in wet years and wetland plants in dry years. One of these axioms made for something magical this summer.
Here in the Northwoods there is no more quintessentially dry-land wild edible than the blueberry. Where summers are too cool, or the soil too acidic, for prickly pears, blueberries take their place—growing with many of the same associates. More specifically, the blueberry I am speaking of is Vaccinium angustifolium, called “late low blueberry” or some such silly name in the field guides. To locals they are just blueberries. I call them pine barrens blueberry. They love to grow in sandy places where, in two years out of three, they are nearly dying of thirst by the middle of summer. That’s something of an exaggeration; these guys are used to it. The hot rays of sun on long days, only occasionally filtered through sparse needles of jack pine; the occasional rains percolating swiftly through coarse sand almost devoid of organic matter—this is the chosen world of the low-bush blueberry. It does swell here. Especially when it rains.
This May, June, and July it rained a lot. And last May, something else happened—right in the middle of the biggest pine barrens in the Midwest (and the biggest one in the country outside of the famed New Jersey Pine Barrens), there was the biggest forest fire this region has seen in decades. As I listened to the radio news coverage of this disaster, I could hardly contain my excitement.
I am no arsonist. I don’t rejoice in the suffering of others, and I really do feel bad for the few cabins that were lost. But a fire could not have come to a better place. This is, after all, the pine barrens—a landscape born of fire, shaped in every way by fire, composed of fire-adapted and fire-dependent plants and animals. The area is almost devoid of human habitation, criss-crossed by a partial grid of narrow, scarcely-driven sand roads used primarily by deer and bear hunters and log trucks hauling out crooked pulpwood. The fire jumped several of these roads. It burned up the jack pines and northern pin oak, the hazelnut thickets, the serviceberries, and all of the shrubs and dry grasses between them. Including the blueberries.
The pine barrens have been disappearing for 80 years, as fire control has let them grow slowly into pine-oak forests; in some places, people have sped up the process by putting in plantations. The pine barrens plants and animals are mostly relegated to abandoned farmland, roadsides, and a few tracts in the heart of the barrens so sterile and unproductive that nobody has gotten around to “improving” them. As the scattered trees of this dry savannah meet to form a canopy, casting shade on the sandy earth below, the sun-loving plants of the pine barrens slowly lose vigor and give up their ground to forest plants. The prairie onions die out, along with the leadplant, wood lily, big bluestem, anise hyssop, harebell, prairie smoke, and blazing star. Sweet fern, sand cherry, New Jersey tea, and blueberry—the gang of knee-high shrubs that characterizes pine barrens in the Upper Great Lakes—give way to thickets of American hazel, serviceberry, aspen, black cherry, northern pin oak, and pin cherry. The open-country animals die out, too: prairie skinks, Franklin’s ground squirrel, Plains pocket gopher, sharp-tailed grouse, upland sandpiper. Others, such as smooth green snakes and badgers, just become less common as the barrens grow up.
Finally, after fifty short years some pulp cutter comes and clears the trees, and if he does so soon enough, while a few of the barrens species are hanging on in scattered openings, they will have new life for a decade or so until the next generation of planted pines begins shading them out again. (I know, this is the opposite of what your normal environmentalist would suppose—loggers saving the day and preserving the habitat of native plants and animals. Pine barrens are full of surprises.)
Really, pine barrens are a habitat meant to be in flux; they are meant to grow up and then burn up. Jack pine cones wait patiently, decade after decade, for a fire to open them up and release the seeds. All of the pines need bare soil to germinate, and this is supplied in Nature almost exclusively by fire. We even have a bird, the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, specifically adapted to the Great Lakes pine barrens during the brief process of growing up into jack pine forests—it nests in no other habitat. But logging is a poor substitute for fire as a means of periodically re-opening and rejuvenating the barrens.
So the German Road Fire of 2013 was an ecological miracle of a small scale. The pocket gophers can relax now for several generations, merrily digging harebell roots with no worries of relocation. The prairie skinks can gleefully bask away the sunrise atop the sandy plateaus of gopher mounds, knowing that all is right in the world (unless a badger comes by). Wood lilies can sway their ridiculously big heads in summer storms and somehow refrain from snapping their flimsy stems. All because one fine spring day, someone parked a machine with the exhaust system against dry bluestem.
And, oh yeah, 20 square miles of the best blueberry picking I’ve ever seen. The first year after the fire, there are virtually no blueberries—they have to grow back. But in year two, everything is just right. The canopy is gone, so they have all the sun they want. The ashes dissolve in rain, releasing a bonanza of mineral nutrients like these bushes didn’t know this sand could offer. And since they didn’t fruit the year before, their reserves of energy and nutrients are strong, and their hormones tell them to flower like crazy. And the pest levels are low. You only need one more ingredient to get the bumper crop of a lifetime: rain. We got it. And I complained.
Thousands of people came to pick. Some came from hundreds of miles. But it didn’t matter; they hardly left the roads. A few steps from the car put them in blueberry heaven. There are more blueberries than anyone or anything knows what to do with. There are more blueberries here in this burn than all the cultivated blueberries in the state combined—by more than an order of magnitude. In the olden days, this was the role of the passenger pigeon; to wander the land in great flocks looking for bumper crops upon which to gorge. And here we are, Melissa and Sam and two little kids trying to be the passenger pigeons, and coming up way short. We’ve picked 83 gallons in 15 hours over four days. But that doesn’t really tell you how good the picking is: Our best 20 minutes gave us 11 gallons. That’s 180 pounds per hour. And we didn’t put a dent in it. It’s hard not to go back, but we’re about out of freezer space, and need to save some canning jars for other food, and have way more fruit leather than we’ll eat in a year. Plus I’m sick of sorting and cleaning blueberries by now.
I’ve seen blueberries this good once before—in Ontario, in 1996. I’ve picked enough to know this is pretty darn good—even by Maine standards. The bushes are so loaded, many lie directly on the ground. The berries in places are as big as store-bought blueberries—many are the size of a dime. In one cluster I counted 61 berries, all touching each other in a solid mass. (No, it wasn’t 61 berries the size of a dime.) I may never see blueberry picking this good again. Next year will surely be a crop failure.
Last year, the bumper crops were serviceberries, hickory nuts, and cranberries. This year, it’s blueberries, acorns, and nannyberries. So if next year the blueberries are too worn out to give much of a crop, I won’t mind. There will be another miraculous disaster, another counterintuitive blessing to remind me to be grateful. Always. I don’t always have the perception to understand the plan. But I can count on it: Some other fruiting plant will be waiting for the passenger pigeons who won’t arrive.
And I won’t complain about the weather. No matter what it is.
Here is one of our large wild blueberries from 2014.
Sam Thayer is an internationally recognized expert on edible wild plants. His first book The Forager’s Harvest has sold over 125,000 copies and his second book Nature’s Garden is not far behind. His passion for wild food extends to studying the origin of cultivated plants and the socio-economic history of the human diet. Other favorite activities include running, bicycling, archery, fishing, cliff diving, swimming, photography, cooking, growing fruit trees, using scythes and other old hand tools, hunting, and anything with the family.