Sunday, June 17, 2007

Net Progress?

When we covered the blueberries today we found some dead bird remnants in the netting - the desiccated remainder of a tiny head with a still largely intact beak, a few gray feathers, and a part of a claw. I am amazed that we didn't clean it out last July when we put the covering away for the duration - but obviously somehow we just didn't notice it. I am even more surprised that we caught a bird. The new bush-coverings that we use now are nowhere near as good a trap as the old tobacco netting that protected our blueberries for many, many years in the past - now that was a real bird-catcher!

We put in our first bushes thirty years ago, the same summer that we moved into our house. Our next-door neighbor John who was working at a nursery at the time, saw me planting the bushes, and nicely offered to get me several pieces of the white gauze cloth to protect them.

I was beyond thrilled. Tobacco netting, the widely acknowledged key to the success of Connecticut agriculture and its most visible and recognizable symbol, was coming to my very own little plot of land. Now I would really be a horticulturalist.

At that time tobacco netting was still a, possibly THE, major fixture on the summer Connecticut landscape.

"The Connecticut River Valley is noted for its shade grown tobacco and if you ever travel along Interstate 91 from Hartford to Springfield in the summer, chances are you'll see enormous fields, white with gauze netting, undulating in the breeze." (

This nicotine rich member of the Nightshade family is normally associated with southern states such as North Carolina and Virginia. Their tobacco leaves however were condemned to the lowly life of a cigarette - chopped and stuffed ingloriously, by machine, into (of all things) a cheap paper wrapper to be ignited and consumed in less time than it takes to say "The finest Connecticut shade grown tobacco". Which of course was what we grew.

Meanwhile our carefully picked and stored tobacco leaves traveled in luxury to the skilled hands of cigar rollers in exotic locations like the Dominican Republic, or Honduras - or perhaps (Urban Myth?) Cuba. There they were lovingly and skillfully turned into wrappers for the finest cigars to be savored by the finest people, at the finest parties, in the finest places.

And the white...gauze netting, undulating in the breeze, filtering the sunlight, were the churches under which this broadleaf transubstantiated from lowly weed to legend and, in the process, fueled the economy of our state. It made us smokers feel like we were Thoreauean back-to-naturists breathing in healthy farm air every time that we inhaled our pipes.

Unlike the tall spires on which the tobacco cloth was draped, the cheesecloth at my house was directly laid onto and wrapped around the blueberry bushes. As a result my back yard looked more like a meeting place for overweight burqa-wearers than a horticultural shrine. Nevertheless IT WAS GAUZE! - and the netting did its job. Year after year after year we were able to fill our cereal bowls and pancakes with fresh backyard blueberries with just a minimal loss of the crop to our avian visitors.

And I really came to like the look of the white bundled bushes.

Still several times a year I would walk into the back yard to find the netting heaving and bulging as if it were visibly acting out its own internal conflict. I would carefully peal back the cloth until the captured bird figured its way out and then rewrap the bush. Frequently this involved three or four aborted flights with accompanying squeals of panic. Fortunately I never had to detach any flying fledglings from their gauzy prison or take away any panic-induced corpses from the inner sanctums of the bushes.

Every time that we removed the covering however we did take a little of the bush with it - a part of a branch, a few crushed berries, a random collection of bird feathers - and ripped a part of the cloth in the process. Each incident by itself, or even in total, was not enough to damage the plants but, as it accumulated over the years, it was enough to ultimately remove any vestige of the white...gauze netting, undulating in the breeze ambience.

A few years ago I reluctantly decided that I really needed to replace the old netting. My neighbor was no longer a nurseryman so I set out on my own to purchase it. And I soon discovered that along with the demise of the tobacco industry in our state - not due to health concerns but rather to the invention of an artificial cigar wrapper by (another urban myth?) a Connecticut native - the white netting had also disappeared.

And been replaced by black plastic mesh - just as tobacco has been superseded by Indian Casino gambling as Connecticut's newest, and apparently much more successful, cash crop.
The black plastic is undoubtably more efficient also - it lets in more sunlight and air, and considerably less birds. In fact today's post-mortem forensic find is the only such incident that I can remember with the new coverings.

But better isn't necessarily always better. Life's just not that black and white.

1 comment:

Sherry said...

Jim, having lost the lower half of my blueberry bushes to the bunnies and the upper half to the birds. How do you put the netting around the bush? Do you leave it on all summer or take it down once the blueberries have been harvested? Originally bought 3 large bushes, our crop this year will barely be enough for one pancake. Without some help I'll be pulling up the blueberries and putting in peonies=:)