Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

July 31     I watched two juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers tap their way up a telephone pole in the back yard this morning.  Then they started  tapping on the pressure-treated upright poles of the pergola.  Finally, they went for the hydrangea and the old apple tree.

Blueberry Fields Forever

All the signs say it’s a blueberry day.  The late July sky is cloudless.  Locusts sing their hot-weather song while dragonflies slip out of their cases and dry slowly in the sun.  Wild blueberry bushes have transformed sun, soil, rain and air into sweet round fruit that must be ready for picking.

“Are the blueberries ripe?” I ask the man who answers the phone at the National Forest Service’s Middlebury Ranger District.  There is a pause on the other end of the line long enough for me to think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t pick blueberries today:  I have work to do;  it’s almost noon and I won’t have enough time;  it’s too hot;  I’m tired.  But when he confirms that the blueberries are ripe, I seize my car keys and leave for the Blueberry Management Area in Goshen. 

Upon arrival, I choose a well-trodden path among the ankle-high bushes and find a place to pick.  Glancing around, I note that the open field where I now sit picking berries on Goshen’s Hogback Mountain is surrounded by trees.  Without intervention, weeds, bushes and eventually trees will fill an open field.  That’s succession, the gradual replacement of one community by another.  Such a community, this blueberry area for example, is called a seral stage.  The whole series of communities from hay field to mature forest is a sere. 

Early settlers cleared these fields.  Stone walls stand witness to their efforts.  Years later the fields were kept open for a downhill ski area.  When this was abandoned, blueberry bushes sprouted from seeds spread by fruit-eating birds and animals.  The low-bush blueberry, Vacinium angustifolium, likes open fields with shallow, dry, acid soil.  Finding these conditions on the south end of Hogback Mountain, they thrived. 

For the past 20 years, the U.S. Forest Service has prevented succession and maintained the blueberry fields as an upland wildlife opening.  Turkeys, partridges and deer feed here.  It is also a popular spot for human visitors from mid-July to early August when the blueberry shrubs are bearing their fruit.
“How do you prevent succession?” I later ask a forester. She explains the process of controlled burning and rotation that is used.  The blueberry area is divided into three units.  Each year, one of the units is burned in the spring before the leaves come out.  After the removal of dead stems and competing plants, the blueberry bushes sprout vigorously and spread by sending out underground stems called rhizomes.  They will not produce fruit until the following year.  While one unit is regenerating, two units are producing blueberries.  This is how the seral stage in which blueberry bushes  grow is maintained indefinitely. 

I pick a single blueberry and study it carefully.  It is covered with something that resembles frost.  I polish is gently.  Underneath, it is so blue, it is almost black.  One end twinkles like a star. 

Time passes and the monotony of picking sets in.  Wild blueberries are small—sweet and delicious and small!  It takes a long time to cover the bottom of a pail—longer still to fill it.  But the good thing about repetitive work is that eventually, my mind shifts into neutral where it is free to journey through a universe of thoughts.  That is why I am here—that and the blueberries.    

This piece written by Linda Lunna  was  published  in Vermont Life magazine as "The Peaceful Pursuit of Wild Blueberries"  in the Summer 1999 issue.

Illustration: Sally Wickham, August, 2012