Coming to terms with Luther

Not Martin, Burbank.

Luther Burbank brought us the frying potato, among other things. He developed over 800 varieties of plants through cross breeding. He also brought the Himalayan blackberry to the Northwest. Over the years I have cursed Luther Burbank over and over; in groves of reprod Doug firs webbed with the thorny bushes. Later the trees shade out the sun-loving vines and their skeletal remains become a fairy tale like wall in the dappled forest sunlight. They will take over any open space without persistent vigilance.

Here at Bywater farm they choked the wood lot when moved here. It was nearly a year later  I arrived, bleeding and sweating at the back of my own property. Over the years I have used blades, weed whacker, mowers, Bush hogs and even chain saws in the battle. But the two best weapons I have are slow but sure: goats and winter. Unlike my old home on the Puget sound the South Willamette Valley experiences regular killing frosts each winter, causing a die-back. The goats will eat the leaves in winter leaving areas ripe for mowing in the spring. Each year I take the little used riding mower beyond the intentions of the designers; crashing over and over into the wall of blackberries until they succumb not so much to the mower as to blunt force trauma. Out of habit I take tools with me; wrenches and screws for the motor; a tire patch kit, bolt cutters for the occasional choker cable left behind by loggers. It isn’t enough sometimes. Every year I will limp down the hill scratched and exhausted to get the tractor to retrieve the mower from some hole at some point.

Unlike clearing beekeeping is a passive work. The beekeeper (“gaurdian des abeilles”  in French) creates the environment and the bees do the work.  I started with one hive and now have four after buying two swarms from a man who looked the image of a young Fred Rogers, with the same thoughtful and quiet demeanor.  We re-homed the bees one early morning and now I feed the new hives and check on the two established ones. Little to do but watch and wait until Fall. Good thing there is plenty else to do here until then

Beekeeping however has given me some new respect for the plant; after the plums and apples have  bloomed and set the blackberry flowers start. First in sunny spots on south-facing hills but by June the back hill is awash in purple-white flowers and the bees are ecstatic. Cloud like swarms surround the hives from dawn to dusk and boxes fill with the sweet nectar. They persist beyond most of the wildflowers; the salmon berries and foxglove, even the thistles turn to seed before the last blackberry petal falls. In this pastime I have come to see Luther’s folly in new light: they fill a gap in the blooms and feed the bees. I may still fight them in the back but the flowers are a welcome sight. A bee in its life makes one twelfth of a teaspoon of flower syrup; your morning toast is the result of many lifetimes of toil. At least with the blackberries they don’t need to go far for despite my best efforts they are everywhere here.





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