Low-impact larceny

June 30, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- One of the minor pleasures of this season, as June blends into July and the accountants wish one another a happy new fiscal year, is unfortunately criminal. But I furtively engage in it just the same.

The black raspberries are ripe now, along roadsides and in overgrown briary places with the right combination of soil and sunshine, and if they're not picked promptly they'll go to waste, or to the blackbirds. So to ensure that they go to the highest and best use, the conscientious harvester often has to do a little trespassing.

My stepmother grows red raspberries in her garden, and shares them generously. They're very nice. But the wild black ones, though smaller, are sweeter, particularly if they're stolen. We usually have some growing on our farm, but some of the best patches in the neighborhood are elsewhere, deep in clumps of honeysuckle, multiflora rose and poison ivy where the landowners don't seem to venture.

I've been rustling raspberries in such places for years.

That's disrespectful, I suppose, of property rights. And if I looked out my kitchen window and saw a trespasser in my berry bushes I'm sure I'd squawk. But as Aldo Leopold points out in his ''Sand County Almanac,'' those who own the land aren't only the ones whose names are in the courthouse books.

''Books or no books, it is a fact, patent both to my dog and myself, that at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded. Expanses unknown to deed or map are known to every dawn, and solitude, supposed no longer to exist in my county, extends on every hand as far as the dew can reach.''

That's good enough authority, it seems to me, for slipping under a fence or across a stream or through a thicket to fill a baseball cap a couple of times a summer with black raspberries. This is low-impact larceny. ''Leave only footprints, take only memories,'' an old backpacker's credo, and I guess it can be amended to allow the taking of a few berries without destroying its spirit.

The raspberries were unusually plentiful this year as an incredible long green spring faded imperceptibly into summer. Maybe it was the regular rain, or perhaps it was the weather, mountain-crisp and entirely unlike the usual humid and breathless Maryland June. Whatever the reason, there has been a freshness to this season that we'll remember nostalgicly in more typical summers to come.

Of course, no farmer can ever accept the weather entirely uncritically. We've had some hay ruined by rain we weren't expecting, and the flies, which plague the cattle every summer, seem especially plentiful this year.

We've also had a couple of cases of foot-rot, which I associate with wet weather, and one of those involved the bull. (How to get a sore-footed and ill-humored bull weighing approximately a ton into the barn for an injection of antibiotics is a story for another time.) Anyway, despite the pleasant weather I haven't had any trouble filling my quota of weather-related complaints.

It does seem that this spring there is more new life than ever, scrambling to survive and make a place for itself wherever you look.

Nomenclatural conundrum

We have a pair of Canada geese and four goslings on our pond, part of the estimated 70,000 geese biologists estimate have decided to swear off migration and take up permanent residence in Maryland. I'm not at all sure this is a good thing; if the Lord had wanted these birds to live year-round in Maryland he wouldn't have named them Canada geese. But anyway, there they are.

We have the usual bumper crop of groundhogs hard at work subdividing and developing our fields, and although the dogs have picked off a few, I've been too busy this spring to do much more than swear at them and their construction projects.

The other evening, though, I took the time to sit with my rifle at the edge of a field from which we'd just taken the hay. There were several holes in the field, some big enough to break a hay-wagon's axle, and I was waiting for one of the occupants to emerge. Naturally, none did.

But then I saw movement, and under the fence and up the slope toward where I was sitting came trotting a healthy-looking red fox. I'd seen her before; she and her mate have a den in the woods beyond the field, and I imagine there's a litter of pups there. I didn't move.

When the vixen got to within about 100 feet of me she stopped, stared and then made a big detour, keeping an eye on me all the time. But she never dropped the young groundhog she was carrying in her mouth. I suppose I should have told her she was trespassing.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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