This is the fourth summer since we purchased our Wisconsin property, "Bide-A-Wee Land," just long enough to really start to get a feel for the place. We've seen enough changes of season to be able to anticipate, a bit, but there's enough variety in those seasonal turnings that we can still be surprised, or find new things to notice, with each progression.
One very broad observation that we've made, starting in the very first year we owned the land, is the stunning transformation that occurs between, say, mid-May, as the trees are just starting to leaf out, the thickets to thicken, the meadow plants to gain momentum, to the end of June, when the real heat of summer comes in, and with it the astounding profusion of greenery that takes what was previously a rather obvious landscape and elaborates it with layer after layer of texture, color, contrast, depth, and life. It's particularly striking on our very hilly acres, as the elevation compounds yet again all those layers, and the spare scaffold shapes of winter trees fill out and up, turning hills into mountains, modest inclines into imposing cliffs.
It's a little startling in some ways. Through this long spring, after the winter of deep and persistent snows, we really enjoyed the freedom of movement the flattened brown meadows afforded us--we could walk anywhere we wanted, on our own two feet! No skis or snowshoes required, and nothing to stand in our way. Now, within the span of about three weeks, the meadow vegetation is waist-high and still gaining. You can get through it, sure, but the gopher mounds that cover most of the lowlands make the walking treacherous when you can't see the ground, and the blackberries have sprung up, making long pants and tall boots imperative for any bushwhacking.
So we tend to keep to a few well-worn paths. Our friends Renee and Mark Bartz helped us out with that a couple of weeks ago--they brought over a 4-wheeler and a deck mower and cut a swath from the cabin down to the north meadow, where some of our best apple trees are. I got to try my hand at it, too, mowing the hilltop circuit just above the cabin. It is a lot more difficult to drive a 4-wheeler pulling a deck mower over bumpy terrain than it looks. I was pleased with myself for not flipping over, or driving into a tree. Mark, who's lived in this area all his life, said he'd never seen a piece of land quite so gopher-infested as ours. A mark of distinction over which I am not sure we should be proud....
When a belt fell off the mower partway through cutting the Bide-A-Wee yard, I was left to finish the rest by hand, with my trusty scythe, which is really an extremely efficient piece of equipment once you learn how to use it. It's better on some kinds of plant matter than others, and it really pays you back to keep it sharp with peening jig and whetstone, but under the right conditions I can cut a mighty swath in very little time. And it's an excellent workout, to boot (but one must remember to wear gloves, lest one wind up with weeping sores between thumb and forefinger where the blisters have burst, as I experienced last week).
"Mowing the lawn" (and expanding it a bit) after a two-week absence produced this haystack, and another, even larger one:
In amidst the green profusion, of course, there are fruity things happening, too. Mainly, the apples:
Blackberries, some still in bloom, while many have already set fruit, and it's looking like a good year for them:
A lesser-known wild fruit is the haw or hawberry, fruit of the hawthorn tree. I've done a bit with haw fruit in the past, and it's something I'm really eager to explore further. Last year we harvested exactly zero haws--it was that poor a year for wild fruit. In a good year the bright red fruits, rather like rosehips, hang on the shrubby trees long after the leaves have fallen. Not all haw fruit is delicious--you really have to taste around until you find a tree with sweet, flavorful fruit. Fortunately, hawthorn trees are abundant on our land, and in the region generally.
Also abundant, moreso than I ever imagined, are black cherry trees. They will grow to 50 feet tall or better, with trunks that can exceed a foot in diameter. Until you learn to recognize them by their bark, though, you won't know that these mature trees are cherries--the first branching on these big trees occurs way high overhead, and the fruit is indistiguishable in the overall canopy of mixed hardwoods where they occur. The fruit, therefore, we gather from baby specimens. Serviceberries also in the picture, left, with the green cherries top and right.
The prickly ash spreads and fills in on the old farm road, creating "verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways" (thank you John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale"). Prickly ash is in the citrus family, I was amazed to learn, and it produces a profusion of tiny berries in the the fall. The husks of these berries have two remarkable qualities: first, they smell very, very citrusy, mainly like tangerine, to my sniffer; second, they produce a numbing sensation on the tongue when you chew them, exactly like Sichuan peppercorns, to which--ta da!--they are closely related. I've done a little cooking with them, but the jury's out. They don't seem to retain their fragrant or numbing qualities (that's ma in Chinese Pinyin) once dried, so I think I'll try using them fresh come the fall.
Coming back over the hill toward the cabin, Lily went on point in the greenery. When I let her go she sniffed avidly down the hill ahead of her, and fixated on a particular spot, but there was no bird. Likely it flushed ahead of us.
The main meadow, and the "Tardis" outhouse:
On the hilltop circuit, an Aldo Leopold bench that Mary built:
A good place to sit and take it all in. Summer starts to seem long by this time of year, but we know what an illusion that is.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw