Tuesday, February 10, 2009
OLD FIELD AND CEDAR BERRIES
There’s a field up the road where I sometimes go for a ramble. Once farmland, it’s now a mostly forgotten parcel of public property—seldom visited, lacking any amenities other than a gravel pull-off large enough to accommodate two parked vehicles. Whoever designed and had built this tiny lot was either a well-meaning optimist, or some local government official playing fast and loose with public funds—though I suppose it could just be a case of the guy operating the bobcat needing more room to turn around, whereupon the fellow driving the gravel truck figured, might as well dump a few rocks since the patch has been scraped. At any rate, I’ve never once shared this little lot with another vehicle or noticed one parked there in passing. Neither have I ever encountered another visitor during one of my walks. Should the ground be covered with snow for weeks on end, mine are always the only human tracks I find on subsequent visits. All of which suits me just fine. I like the place precisely because it lacks those three most necessary conveniences for attracting casual strollers—restroom facilities; a dry, well-maintained loop path; and a little kiosk displaying a large trail map with a bright and apparently reassuring YOU ARE HERE dot, along with a list of rules and a holder dispensing folded, smaller versions of the big map, so once our impromptu adventurers have ambled around the first manicured bend (unschooled in the art of backtracking), can at least feel some confidence of eventually finding their way out alive from this 200-acre bit of howling wilderness. It’s certainly not wilderness. Not with a large, sprawling city, several smaller villages, a couple of Interstate highways, shopping malls, big-box groceries, hardware, and general merchandise stores, plus fast-food emporiums galore…all within a 30-minute drive. Rather it’s what I like to think of as “wild” land. Land left to its own devices for long enough that only nature rules. The rhythms of ever-changing seasons prevail; days follow the dictates of earth and sky, water and wind. Land where ancient struggles of life and death are played out regularly, without fanfare or apology. I like that, just as I like having the place to myself, apart from resident and visiting birds, animals, and other creatures great and small. Just as I like the total lack of even a rudimentary path, other than the maze of crisscrossing rabbit runs, and the deer trails which angle from the corridor woods along the river to day-bedding thickets higher up the gentle slope. Here, during decades of blessed neglect, natural succession has made good progress at reclaiming the place as its own. I’m especially fond of the numerous red cedar, our most common native species of juniper. Though often thought of as barely more than an evergreen bush, the red cedars in this old field thrive. Some of the biggest specimens now top the 30-foot mark; and given time enough, they might eventually come close to doubling that height. I hope so, though I won’t be around to applaud their accomplishment. What caught my eye yesterday was the number of blue “berries” or roundish seed cones, which so many birds adore—among them, the cedar waxwing, whose penchant for cedar berries carried into its name. Many of the field’s cedars were so loaded with berries their limbs drooped with the weight. I don’t recall ever seeing such a crop—though it must have been a real blessing for wildlife during recent weeks of snow and cold. In yesterday’s bright sun, however, the blue berries almost glowed—looking so luscious I momentarily considered eating one myself. Then I recalled that another use of aromatic cedar berries is as a flavoring in gin…which, after a walk in the unseasonable heat, did seem a more prudent and preferable means of ingestion.