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From the woods a cobbler calls

On nature

POSTED: June 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
I first noticed them one Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, when my husband and I guided Jesup friends into the Moody preserve, a 4,000-acre tract of land owned by The Nature Conservancy and the state of Georgia, located in northern Appling County.
The forest borders over three miles of the Altamaha River, and that day we hiked to a floodplain slough where cypress and tupelo over 600 years old can be found. Coming out, hot and tired, we came upon the first ripe berries.
For two weeks we tried to go back, but you know how life is. There's always something calling you away from the joys of the world, and it's mostly work. Finally one evening we did chores early and gathered baskets. We drove the five miles to the forest and hiked riverward, wearing hog-boots in hopes that any snake would not be able to penetrate the rubber.
I tromped along, enjoying the evening tranquility and the last signs of spring -- young longleaf pines sending up new bunches of emerald-green needles and wiregrass, shin-high and soft. A lavender flower I didn't recognize was blooming. Wild indigo was setting seeds.
I began to smell smoke and see patches of blue-gray clouds through the trunks of trees.
At first I thought the woods might still be afire, there was so much smoke, and I thought about where I might run. But when I got to the burn itself, I touched the ashy, charred ground and it was cool. Still, some trees were still smoking and in a few places across the vast woods I could see flames -- ancient longleaf stumps still afire.
The ground was black, trunks of trees charred. Fire had climbed one snag, where woodpeckers had been feeding, and I could hear the tree burning, high over my head. Now the dead tree was weakening, leaning.
The blackberry patch had been located in the place where the snag would fall. Now most of them were gone, leaves singed and brown, berries roasted to purple on the canes.
But in the center of the thicket, where the canes were sturdy and over head high, the fire had not penetrated. I worked my way through the brambles. Here the blackberries were black and succulent, an inch and a half long, hanging in delicious clumps.
Our cool, rainy spring has been good to the fruit.
I picked enough blackberries for a cobbler or two, or maybe a cobbler and a pie.
Fire is a natural phenomenon in the pine flatwoods. The ecosystem evolved with lightning, and it continues to thrive only with fire. Fire brings life in this system, not death, although the pine snake I saw lifeless in the char brought a wave of sadness. And the gopher tortoise, rushing back to its burrow, brought a wave of joy.
Next year, because of this fire, the blackberries will be better than ever. As will the wiregrass and all the dozens, even hundreds, of plants and animals that benefit from the burning.
And I get to enjoy the flavor of a smoky blackberry pie.

A naturalist, Ray is the editor of Moody Forest, a collection of local stories about the preserve, just released.
 

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