19 September 2014

bittersweet morning

overnight, it's gotten cold and i wake to an early, spotty frost. even though it seems too soon in the season, i know it's time to go collect bittersweet for fall decorating. if i wait, cold will cause the golden casing on the berries to split and eventually fall off, and the remaining orange fruit inside will freeze and thaw continuously until it too drops. if i cut it now and bring the vines inside, the berries will pop in place, remain intact, and look colorful throughout the winter.

so i bring tea and off i go, wearing muck boots and flannel and my gardening gloves. for the first time this year, i can see my breath as i walk. the early morning is quiet with occasional blue jay shrill and solitary cricket song. already it's sounding like fall, feeling like fall.

i know just where the bittersweet is - i can see it from the road, its vibrant green leaves a dead giveaway even in this early light. i walk to the patch, balance my tea on a mossy spot, and i begin to cut.

i reach as far into the tangle as i can in order to get the longest vines. my clippers are newly sharpened, ready for the season's work, and they easily bite through the twists of vine. my sleeves catch on nearby rose hips, so i clip some of those, too, for the basket by the back door. i work silently, with last night's bothersome earworm, a children's song, my only distraction. as i cut, i gently pile the vines in an open spot so as not to disturb the precious berries. when i think i have enough, i pocket my clippers and stoop down next to the pile to begin the tedious job of stripping the leaves from the vines.

even though i'm good at this and can work quickly, it's still the most time-consuming part of the picking. bittersweet leaves are huge in comparison to the fruit. they dry brown and crumpled and look unsightly. so i begin pulling the stems from the vine, one leaf at a time, leaving only a few small ones to yellow and dry in place. slowly, the leaf pile grows and the vines become lost in it. i am at it for so long, i can feel the sun start to warm the back of my neck. i silently pray i'll be able to stand without support after stooping down for so long.

in the distance i think i hear the honk of geese. i look up and am disappointed to see no flying, no V formation. perhaps they are over the river, not yet ready to go. maybe this chill is just reminding them that their leaving time will come too soon.

finally, the stripping is done and i carefully bring the vines home. i lay them on an old bedsheet in the grass to contain stray berries lest they make their way into the soil around the house. i love bittersweet, but it's invasive and could climb and eventually overtake trees that i love more. best to leave bittersweet to the woods.

i lift the big trencher down from the top of the living room cupboard, carry it out into the bright morning light, and begin to load it with the prized vines. once i'm satisfied with the arrangement, it will be put back on the fireplace wall, high up near the beams. this time tomorrow, the berries will have popped and the brilliant gold and orange display will brightened this dark corner of the room. it will remain there, undisturbed, through the next chill weeks of autumn and the long, bleak, cold months of a winter yet to come.