Thursday, October 8, 2009

Square 66: Elderberry

Square 066

Across the road from our house, my parents owned a vacant field that verged on a marsh. There I planted several native shrubs, like snowberry, in hope of attracting wildlife. Then I discovered something growing wild there, one of the things that birds like best: an elderberry bush. I tried making jam from the berries, but it failed. It was full of the seeds, and the sugar crystallized. I didn't make successful elderberry jelly until many years later. But this plant remains for me an icon: nature feeding us, feeding itself, sustenance, sweetness, the cycle of life. Coincidentally, the dark purple Cascade yarn I chose to use as a common thread throughout this blog blanket is precisely the colour of ripe elderberries.

So it was with particular guilt that I cut down an elderberry bush at Danny's house yesterday. In this small Toronto backyard it was not just growing, but burgeoning, taking over its corner, threatening to shoulder the house aside. Elderberries favour moist, rich soil, and I think this part of the city used to be part of Lake Ontario, so the roots must have lots of rank, dark, dirty depths to thrive upon.

The birds came to feed on the berries every summer. I've made jelly from them, and Danny has dyed yarn. The greenish-grey fibre in this square came from that dye pot. So we owe that shrub a lot of thanks.

Instead, we cut it down. Sometimes plants get in the way. It's a fact of life in the city, where space is limited.

When I approached the shrub with gloves and saw, I startled a robin and some white-throated sparrows (Bill has also seen a tribe of Baltimore orioles there). They hesitated to fly away, hovering around as I began hacking at the branches. They couldn't believe it. But by the time the brush all lay in a pile, they had given up and gone away. Later in the afternoon, a forlorn wood thrush appeared on the fence and looked around, casting a mournful, beady glance in my direction, flicking its rusty brown tail in indignation. It circled the yard once or twice before fluttering away in silence and despair.

Guilty. I am guilty.

But as a phoenix rises from the ashes, so a hacked elderberry will re-emerge from the muck, if not here then somewhere else. This particular plant has been cut to the ground several times already. Our world will not soon be rid of them. Ontario will have plenty of fruit for jelly and dye, and for the wild ones to eat.

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