Bush by bush, I finish the race

Like the warp stretched across my loom, rows of blueberry bushes march across our peat bog here in northern Michigan. In September, I stand on Blueberry Hill and look over a field of blazing scarlet, but come November the leaves have fallen. The dark mahogany branches of the Rubols contrast with the golden brown canes of the Jerseys. My husband's grandfather and uncles planted many of them in the 1940s, and like old apple trees, the bushes' gnarled crowns rise from the peat.

Pruning blueberry bushes is a seemingly endless job, a long-distance race that begins in November and plods into April. With more than 40 acres to tend, my husband, John, hires a local family to help, but he still prunes many of the acres himself. He leaves for me the sections with smaller plants that do not require tremendous strength to prune.

During the dingy month of February, I traipse down to the bog, still silent except for the occasional caw of a crow. The raw winds off Lake Michigan burn my cheeks. Snow mats the grass, and not even a vole rustles in the decomposing leaves. I assign myself a row, and only prune the allotted amount before I hustle back to the warmth of the stove and a cup of tea.

With the first warm rain in March, the twigs glow with fresh color, and buds swell. Now that my feet are not frozen by the cold rising from the earth, I appreciate my time in the bog. Pruning calls for the eye of a sculptor. Each bush formed of tangled canes and overflowing branches offers a unique challenge. I inspect the snarl. Do those branches laden with fruit buds originate from that moss-covered cane or the younger cane? I cut out deadwood, lop off wayward horizontal branches, and toss them into the aisle between rows. Cut and pull. Cut and pull. A certain rhythm develops as I circle the bush, struggling to leave the best canes and shape the bush so that sunlight will reach the berries to come.

As the days lengthen and warm, flocks of sandhill cranes soar overhead, their raspy cries rippling over the bog. The rich smell of peat surrounds me. Pairs of quacking mallards rise from the ditches that crisscross the fen. One day a blue racer snake drapes himself across two bushes and lounges in the sunshine while listening to the song of the spring peepers. In the woods, the red buds of the silver maples tint the otherwise gray canopy of hardwoods.

Bush by bush, row by row, I whittle away at my winter's chore. Finally, I stare at my last bush to prune. I've shed my jacket. All around me stand strong canes and new shoots. Piles of brush fill the spaces between the rows. I'll be glad to move on to other farm chores, but there is a certain satisfaction in finishing the race, nurturing plants, and sharing the advent of spring.

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