Cranberries in the Dunes

Nov 21, 2017

On a sunny and breezy day last month, Kathy and I walked out into the dunes to pick some wild cranberries that grow in the wet bogs there. I’m always newly surprised at the extent, the sweep of the dunes, the expanse of ridges and valleys they contain.

They are in many ways the largest of our landscapes, here in the narrowest part of this narrow land. The berries, we know, are just an excuse to come out here.

As we descended the far slope of the Big Dune, I noticed the touching ways in which the bleached seeds of the beach grass plants, blown in the wind, gathered in the hollows created by our footsteps. In places we came upon dark, snakelike bands of soil, fragments of the original forest floor that once covered these dunes before the settlers cut them down for firewood, lumber, and to make pasture for their livestock. Even when these ancient soil horizons are not visible, one can indirectly detect their presence by lines of certain plants, such as cotton grass and an occasional aster that would not survive in pure sand but are nourished by the buried loam. So the past history of this land still survives in hidden pockets.

We found the cranberries in the first swale to the left on the way out, and still more in the fringe bogs that line the main path out to the dune shacks. Most people are surprised to find these bog-plants growing out in the desert-like dunes, but the bogs here are actually exposed portions of the freshwater lens that underlies the dunes. In drought years, the bogs are pretty dry and the berry crop small.  But in wet years like this, the berries are plentiful and the bogs look like small lakes, reflecting the bright autumn sky.

Most of the berries we found were in the lowest, or wettest parts of the bogs. Our shoes and pants got soaked as we picked, but they dried out quickly in the sun and wind. Kathy remarked on the striking variety of size, shape and color of these wild berries, which, presumably, are the origin of all cultivated species. As the berries ripen to a dark purple-red color, so do the vines, making the berries harder to find.

Just in front of the dune shacks we stopped to pick some rose hips on the beach rose bushes growing on a wide accreting shelf of glistening, fluttering sand.  Then we walked out to the beach and stopped for a lunch of fruit and cheese. Now is the time to see the ranks of sea fowl and late-migrating shorebirds in easy squadrons out over the water and along the beach: loose sleeves of black-and-white eiders skimming low, back and forth over the dark October waves, gulls arcing and screaming high up over the breaking swells, dunlins and sanderlings trucking like little mechanical toys along the rim of the swash and wrack lines, then suddenly leaping up in small flocks and resettling nearby; and huge crowds of migrating tree swallows swarming high up over the dunes. On that day of bright sunshine, brisk winds, shining berries, and plump red rose hips, birds and plants alike all seemed like animate expressions of the energy and enthusiasm of wind and wave. We felt like running all the way back to the highway.