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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Keeping an important count

Partridgeberries, lingonberries, ground cranberries — depending on where you are. Russell Wangersky/SaltWire Network.
Partridgeberries, lingonberries, ground cranberries — depending on where you are. Russell Wangersly/SaltWire Network.

Count those blessings, such as they are.

The arrival of fall and Thanksgiving almost synced up this year. Usually, fall gets a little head start here.

But it was bound to be different this year, right? So much is different — for much of the country, how you can celebrate, and with whom, and with how many has changed.

But here it comes.

I was out on the high bogland, unexpectedly collecting late blueberries, fat and sweet and not in the least frostbitten, and looking for those red berries of many names — partridgeberries in Newfoundland, ground cranberries in Nova Scotia, lingonberries if you’re talking in Scandinavian terms.

Gathering’s almost done. Winter’s next.

Enough to make a sauce for turkey, though the picking this year was sparse, at least where I was — off the ATV track along the old rail bed, down in the disease-raddled pin cherry and the bright-barked red-osier dogwood.

Not a sparse year for everything else, though.

There was a small forest of confused inky-cap mushrooms around a huge stump, their edges already ragged and weeping black. Small collections of the boletes we used to call Slimy Jacks are coming up under the long-needle pine trees. My mother used to slice and dry them into yellowed cut-outs on a window screen suspended over the basement furnace, and then sneak them into meals when we least expected — and never wanted — them. Brown boletes rising from the moss, spreading their caps, and almost instantly being decimated by the ranging slugs, leaving only a slime-streaked hole in the grass where the mushrooms’ barrelled stalks used to stand.

Fall is, more than anything else, a decaying time, a time when the rich smell of leaf rot overtakes the bright smells of the now-yellowed green grasses. I love spring, but fall has a richness truly all its own, a settled and fixed finality like the pungent finish of a particular old and funky cheese.

In the Annapolis Valley, this was always Cortland apple time. Here, the crab apples are ripening, more than enough for a shirtful, showing off their colours and shaking in the southerly wind, rose hips are hippy, fat bunches of dogberries are hanging from the mountain ash and begging to be made into pale pinkish jelly, a jelly where the colour is more distinct than any real flavour.

And in the wood yard, I’m playing pick-up sticks. All summer, we’ve been scavenging firewood, leaving it lying in longers in the yard until it’s time to saw it all up, then picking up the pieces and trying to tell them all apart by sight or smell.

This heavy-cored hardwood, with its shedding beard of bark — it’s someone’s failed lilac. It will generate a surprising amount of heat in the stove.

Musty-smelling poplar, bitter pin cherry, smooth stripe-skinned swamp maple — that’s another solid burning wood, one that will reduce to coals like a jack-o-lantern’s teeth.

I found a hard keg of big spruce up near the trail — 20 inches across, a ridiculous number of branch-stubs coming out in all directions — and even the splitting axe wouldn’t crack it apart, so I had to cut it into triangles with the chainsaw, as if I were cutting up huge rounds of cheese. Cut against the grain and chips fly out, redolent with sap. Cut with the grain and the chips turn into long divots, looking more like grated cheese than anything else. The whole long, heavy with dripped and now-solid sap, the kind that will burn deep yellow in the woodstove, smell wondrous and thread long, sooty wraiths of smoke up the chimney, making me fear the chance of future chimney fires.

Gathering’s almost done.

Winter’s next.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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