The wild blueberry barrens are an interesting feature of this Northeast corner of the world. I had never heard of barrens until I moved to Maine, but I quickly learned about them, as they are simply part of the everyday vocabulary in these parts.
Wild blueberries are a low, spreading, native crop. They creep through forests, and are well-adapted to shallow, acid soils, so you’ll find them spreading in the hills as well as in the fields. They’re not so very different from the wild blueberries that we often enjoyed trailside at Mt. Baker back when we lived in the PNW!
When they are cultivated, farmers clear the forest back to give the blueberries sunshine, and then clear all the stones and boulders out to make way for agricultural machinery.
When these cleared areas are located on the hilltops, they are called barrens. Our small town has a wide section of blueberry barrens, primarily owned by two large local companies. The dirt roads that cross the blueberry barrens are owned by the town, but the land itself, and the access roads into it, are private, and require permission to enter.
As with any large agricultural operations, there are benefits and drawbacks. The companies that own the land are local, having their roots in family businesses of long ago that grew and developed, as companies do, until they owned large tracts of land and centralized most of the blueberry business. The nature of farming often progresses towards industrialization, so only large companies have the capital for the machinery that reduces their overall cost, and the traditional, small-farm methods of raising blueberries have trouble being profitable. The price of blueberries fluctuates, so that even large operations fall on hard times when prices drop, and the business is so centralized that the economic impact is considerable. The pressure to produce means that these wild-blueberry lands are somewhat less-wild, being widely irrigated and sprayed. Both the irrigation and the spray annoy the nearby neighbors, whose wells dry up in hot summers when the blueberries draw down the water table, and who don’t want to be sprayed. In our visits, it seems that wildlife is very sparse, and it seems likely it has to do with the pest-management, since those pests form the basis of a really terrific food chain!
You can learn more about Maine’s wild blueberries here.
Still, whatever the pros and cons, the barrens are unarguably beautiful!
They are set up high, with wide views and big skies.
They are green in the summer, blue with ripe fruit in the fall, and brilliantly red in the winter.
They are dotted with small lakes, and the first time we visited in the winter, we saw a flock of snow buntings, which we always hope to see again!
At night, they provide a wonderful location for star-gazing. And bordering the edges of the cultivated barrens, there are still stands of forest, and a really interesting ecosystem called the Great Heath.
The Great Heath is a peat bog extending 7,000 acres. It’s a lush wetland, traversed by a winding section of the Pleasant River, and preserved as a “Focus Areas of Statewide Ecological Significance.” It’s easy to spot on a map, being a gigantic greenspace, but we found it a little trickier to visit. The thing is, if you’re from-around-here, you just know how to get there. And when you’re not from-around-here, and you ask for directions, it might take a couple of tries to follow the directions (given by people who are from-around-here, remember), along the unmarked dirt roads (spanning acres of private farms with their own unmarked dirt roads, remember), until you get there!
“Wait, is this a public road, or blueberry land? Are you sure? This one looks private. Maybe it’s the next one. Should it be this far? Do you think this counts as the second right?” GPS was very helpful!
You can learn more about Maine’s Great Heath here.
And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests…(Matthew 8:20, KJV)
There was not much stirring in the wide winter landscape, but it was definitely worth taking a closer look at the heath.
In the summer, they say you can put out into the river at the Great Heath, but of course, this is not the season for that.
He hath made every thing beautiful in his time…(Ecclesiastes 3:11, KJV)
The corkscrew stream that wanders through the heath was undergoing a fascinating ice transformation. Though the current was strong, and the water flowed rapidly, it seemed entirely encased in ice, with crystalline ranks advancing on all sides. Being a wetland, it easily overflows its channel, leaving behind glassy-smooth banks and skating rinks, for the cautious and parentally-watched-and-guarded.
You don’t really think of winter as being a colorful time of year, but a blanket of snow turns all of the shadows to shades of blue, and the bare trees turn golden in the sunshine, and it really turns out to be quite a scene!
Everywhere you look, little surprises await the ready camera…
And all-in-all, a little drive out through the barrens is always a pleasant family outing, in any season!
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.(Psalm 145:3, KJV)