Bittersweet Morning

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 22, 2010

and rheumatism. However, bittersweet is listed as a toxic plant by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it should only be administered by health professionals—if at all.

I don’t collect bittersweet to cure an ailment—at least not any physical ailment. I gather it because it’s pretty, and it makes me happy to do it.

Back in the field

We reach the wood’s edge and find ourselves up against an impassable shoal of briars. Basie can smell that the quail are in the area. She keeps trying to go into the woods, but gets in only a few feet before backing up.

This is not a dog that’s shy about busting cover. But if you can imagine thousands of strands of concertina wire twisted 3 or 4 feet high and 20 or 30 feet deep, running for about 50 yards either side of us, you’ll have some idea of what she’s up against.

Besides, I know enough about quail to know that they hit the ground running. I suppose I could take a 50 percent bet and go one direction or the other to try to intercept them. But now my mind is on bittersweet. I’m glad to give the birds a break.

We head east, along the edge of the big woods, around the other end, to the north side where the bittersweet grows. I collect enough to finish my wreath, roll it carefully and put it in my game bag.

We follow the wood’s edge to a sedge-grass corner where there are sometimes birds, but Basie finds nothing. We cut through an open, wooded bottom back to the big soybean field and walk along by the woods. Basie must sense my dreamy lack of focus, because she trots along a few steps in front of me, not really hunting.

There’s a narrow, deep draw, a gully really, that I call Orange Gulch because of the Osage orange trees that gird it on either side. I generally walk down the dry creek bed at the bottom and let Basie work the whole thing as we go. For form’s sake, I do this today.

Basie senses we’re really hunting again (for once I’ve fooled her) and she works the cover eagerly, dashing up the steep gully sides and leaping with abandon, ears aloft, over the creek bed. The bell on her collar sings.

Several times I stoop very low to get under fallen limbs, stubby branches scraping my back, or I have to plow through briars or low branches that block my way. Basie covers the hollow as well as a dog could cover it, but we come out at the bottom without any sign of quail. I unload my gun and we walk down the sparse fence line between pasture and soybeans.

Back at the truck I get Basie some water and remove her bell. I case my gun and pull off my vest. When I put my hand in the game pocket to take out the bittersweet, I’m in for a surprise—it’s disappeared. The vines must have been lost in that last draw as I was getting past some branch or going under a log. My wreath is lying in a dry creek bed a quarter of a mile away. I’ve got nothing to take home to my wife.

I’m disappointed, of course. It’s just such a waste. I didn’t really need that bittersweet, but I wanted it. Something about collecting it made me feel more in touch with the season and with the earth. Now that I’ve lost it, wasted it, I wish I’d never cut it. It’s a less extreme version of the way I feel when I kill a bird and can’t find it.

I load Basie into the truck. Later, as we turn onto the blacktop, I think better of my disappointment. Maybe I’ve provided an unexpected feast for a covey of quail, a passing rabbit, or a turkey getting fat for winter. Maybe I’ve helped out a songbird that’s lingered too long in this country and is in need of a square meal.

Whatever eats those easy pickings I’ve left, in a few hours they’ll be spreading bittersweet seeds encased in fertilizer up and down the gully. Who knows? In years to come, perhaps I’ll walk down Orange Gulch and find a riotous carnival of bittersweet. Gathering, after all, begins with sowing.

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