A walk, taken this weekend with nearby neighbors who were seeking stewardship ideas. An old farm in central New Jersey, hayfield deep in its habits, hedgerows thick with the tumble of years of rank growth.
We skidded down a steep slope to an old stream, passing spicebush and blackhaws. Up the other bank, through black walnuts that colonized an old pasture. Along the hedgerow, with traces of an old farm road, and popping out beneath a fall-tinged sassafras into a meadow full of goldenrod going to seed.
Back through young woods of red cedar, flowering dogwood, autumn olive, grapevine, blackberry, blackhaw, arrowwood, highbush blueberry, silky dogwood, and multiflora rose.
The land was re-wilding. It had all been farmed, but now, on wind and in birdgut, seeds were arriving and recolonizing.
The soil was more compacted than before it was farmed, from plowing the shaley clays, and surface water flowed along novel channels where erosion drained the former fields. Traces of degradation remained, some exotic species monopolized large areas, and deer had rendered the herb layer thin and same-y.
But, by and large, the landscape was abundant, structurally diverse, full of birdsong and shelter, tracks and bones, thorns and tangles.
* * *
We tend to idealize what used to be called the "climax forest", with its complex layers, its ancient herbs, its lichen-scribed boulders and giant canopy. I do too: I love the rich forest floor covered in Christmas fern, black cohosh, bloodroot, wild ginger, wood nettle, showy orchis, and the thick eccentric bark of ancient trees.
Yet that forest is a hard one to recreate. It develops complexity seemingly over the scale of centuries, and perhaps it cannot be replanted, only stewarded and restored to balance and abundance where it already exists.
But there is another forest, the young forest I call "berryland", garnered from some author (was it Bernd Heinrich?) long ago read and half-forgotten.
I see traces of berryland everywhere, but it is richest in the less-fragmented north-- the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, the Catskills, the Adirondacks. Places where the deer population is less out-of-balance and native shrubs can still compete. In those places, vast stretches of roadside, overgrown orchards, boggy abandoned pastures, and derelict railroad tracks become berry-laden paradises of chokecherries, viburnums, raspberries and blackberries, strawberries, serviceberries, blueberries and more. An abundance of sustenance and structure for wildlife, and for people too. Few things are more enjoyable than feasting on sweet, juicy berries while exploring in the mid-summer sun.
* * *
The narrative of "succession" - a linear, teleological progression towards climax, from (human) disturbance through to (virgin or climax, ahem) old growth forest, tends to slide right past the glories of the transitional phase, the messy, viney, abundant tangles of young woods/thickets/shrublands.
And ecological restoration practice, too, skips over these communities, displaying a bias towards prairie-emulating warm season grasslands, or "reforestations" that skip the entire viburnum and cedar, white birch and blackberry phase in favor of a quickie climax, as it were.
The permaculturalists, at least, have seen the appeal of the berryland "pattern" - an abundant landscape full of easily reachable fruit and nut crops, with abundant enough sun for lush herbage beneath. Much permaculture design emulates the orchard-gone-feral, and seeks the transition zone between domesticated and the nonhuman wild.
Berryland binds humans and newly wild in an area with traces of both, an area of easy food, good birdwatching, and lots of thorns tearing our nice(r) pairs of pants as we try to find our fast-disappearing paths through it. Its the perfect living analogy of the landscape of the future, where the lines are once again blurred between "natural" and "human" landscapes, to the benefit of both.
* * *
Here are some of our locally native "berryland" species. Create your own berryland by planting them in naturalistic groups, leaving just enough space in between for trails to spy on the cardinals from.
Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) - a ubiquitous small tree around here, bearing blue-black drupes with an interesting flavor like a mixture between prunes and Oolong tea.
Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) - A viburnum of watersides and moist places, providing birdfood in the form of blue fruit.
Blackcap raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)- like our familiar red raspberry (also native, mainly found north or here), but black.
Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) - Sometimes delicious, sometimes seedy and bitter. They taste great along the Baldpate powerline cut...
Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) - an eccentrically formed beauty with peeling bark and scarlet fall foliage--wild progenitor of many cultivated blueberries. Found most abundantly in acidic, sandy soils such as those on the coastal plain, but also inland in red maple swamps and boggy fields.
Bayberry (Myrica=Morella pensylvanica) - sweet-scented leaves used like culinary bay; waxy fruits the specialty of yellow-rumped warblers. Also a coastal species but well-entrenched in NJ piedmont oldfields.
American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) - a native hazelnut differing from store-bought only in its somewhat smaller nut size. Look for its long yellow catkins in early spring, blooming on roadsides, to find it.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) - a beauty in flower and form, and a crucial migration food for southbound birds.
Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) - a somewhat red-barked denizen of moist meadows and marshland, also an important source of migration food.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) - A broadly distributed shrub that I see seldom around here (that is, the NJ piedmont). The Endless Mountains of PA, however, are so laden with chokecherry fruit it's a wonder they don't sink below sea level.
Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) - This ubiquitous oldfield conifer provides fruit in the form of cones (not for people) as well as fine winter cover for wildlife.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) - I seed collect a lot of wild species, and no fruit disappears as quickly as sassafras into the bellies of birds. The roots make a wonderful tea -- and root beer.
Wild Plum (Prunus americana) - This is supposed to be common in some places, but I've only seen it wild once, and that after concerted searching. If you know of one and are willing to share, please let me know!
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) - A small apple-like fruit on a very thorny small tree. I find it most often in the Catskills, more infrequently down "south" here. Usually pithy and hard, but I found two different locations in north Jersey this year with sweet, soft, succulent fruit... If the seeds germinate, I'll let you know.
Chokeberry (Aronia spp.) - Sebastian at Bowman's Hill is obsessed with this "superfruit". Gave me some sweet, dried ones, and I have to admit they're delicious. Gorgeous fall color, too.
Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) - A personal favorite, seems like we're one of the few growers that propagate these. Like a blueberry but less acid, and with a bit of crunch. Denizen of sandy, acidic places-- like south jersey.
Wild Grape (Vitis spp.) - You probably won't have to plant these, as the birds will do so for you. I've seen pileated woodpeckers doing acrobatics in the November canopy, swallowing wild grapes whole. Only fox grape (Vitis labrusca) seems like a good edible for people to me, though Sam Thayer has good instructions on how to process the other species.
There are so many more... persimmon and carolina rose and crabapple and coral honeysuckle... but it's 9:00 pm and my toddler is still not asleep-- time to sub Momma out!