Hedgerows and Bramble Patches

FOR 18 years, I carried the rural mail route out of Issaquah, Washington, a town east of Seattle where Highway I-90 begins climbing the Cascades to Snoqualmie Pass. Each year I noted anew that the finest flower and vegetable garden along my route was grown by a man who loved hedgerows.

The weeds between his lush and even rows he kept down; but the insects, cutworms, mites, which would otherwise tatter his cabbage leaves and riddle his roses, he left to the birds. They nested in tall bushes and viny tangles he had left on three sides of his gardens. (The highway passes above his house and gardens, on the fourth side.)

When I paused at his mailbox, he might be sitting in his own nest, a decrepit davenport on the front veranda, reading his weekly Norwegian newspaper; I could sense his satisfaction in a many-fragranced growth that swept about his feet like a beneficent inland sea and brought to his eyes and ears the beauty of a plenitude which the birds aided him in cultivating.

Had he followed his neighbors' style, he could have rooted out, burned, and poisoned the temperate-jungle brushland that surrounded him, at a slight distance, on three sides. But he was civilized enough to desist, just this side of his garden's rail fences.

He always waved as I paused at his mailbox; and I knew that, inside, he waved many times a day to his friends, allies, and musicmakers - the birds.

PUGET SOUND country pioneers, in the late 1800s, planted evergreen and Himalaya blackberries in the late 1800s. Once cultivated, these have since gone wild, like the hop vines that once flourished in Issaquah Valley.

Unlike the hops, which slowly died out when their cultivation ceased, the large-seeded, imported blackberries (not the small, tart wild blackberries native to western Washington) have taken fence rows along the main highways and have exploded into huge, circular, thorn-pronged mounds in many pastures.

Inside such ``pleasure domes,'' the China pheasants (likewise an import) nest and hatch their young. But the top-knotted California quail and the smaller, drabber native quail are the special inhabitants of such berry thickets.

At certain places along the mail route each spring, I could expect to see a new quail covey. Because I knew where to look and because quail have habits as timely as the daily mail delivery, I recognized them, like familiar boxholders, year after year.

Each season they ran out, like toys on ball bearings, onto the road ahead of me: fancy topknotted father, five to 14 replica chicks, mother ``riding drag.'' If I approached abruptly, the father flew and they all followed, whizzzzzzzing forward to the brushy sanctuary they were heading for across the road.

ON my own rocky ranch the evergreen and Himalaya blackberry mounds, bird-seeded to begin with, grew and flourished everywhere on the bare, logged-off land where, in some places, nothing but unnourishing moss had grown.

But under the blackberry clumps, bright grass took hold. Moisture was shaded there; silt that would otherwise wash down the field as down a sloping roof in times of torrential Pacific Northwest rains was captured by the berry stems; whatever warmth the day had brought was sheltered after the sun went down.

As if spaces underneath the berry thickets were a glassless conservatory, temperature was better controlled there; the evergreen leaves and branches overhead kept frost off, sometimes for all winter.

Of course, the dormant insects and snail eggs did not freeze there, either, but no matter - they merely became a small part of the warm months' diet of birds that nested there.

From what, to some, would be an untidy bramble patch arose a daily hallelujah chorus of green growth and renewed birdsong.

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