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79 Blackberry Winter Each year around the end of April in the southern tallgrass, white flowers appear on the dark green foliage of blackberry vines. Often the blackberries flower after several days of warm, humid weather followed by a sharp cold front that brings with it a thunderstorm, then chilly north winds the next day. For a night or two temperatures dip into the low forties,sometimes the thirties,and country folk agree that we’re in the grip of Blackberry Winter, a cold snap they’ll testify to as an annual certainty, one that’s happened throughout time on the day when the blackberries bloom. My mother prepared for Blackberry Winter as a matter of course, and for years the phenomenon seemed factual. Finally it occurred to me that lingering cold fronts dip south frequently in late April, and that the occasion was mainly coincidence, this flowering of blackberries on a chilly day. Even the Farmers’ Almanac, that forecaster of all things rural and weather-related, plays similar percentages. But for a kid, it’s easier to put your trust in a mother’s firm prediction: “The blackberries are flowering, go find your jackets.” And so we did. In April 2015, Blackberry Winter happened on the twentieth and lasted, off and on, for about a week. The north wind was oftentimes sharp, and the overnight lows dipped into the lower forties. The south- 80 Blackberry Winter ern tallgrass hosted several fronts that resulted in overcast skies and cool rains. Even so, spring continued its irrepressible march toward May. Bird migrations flowed north, maybe slowed at times by the weather yet never fully impeded by fronts, cold winds, or sullen gray skies. Blackberry Winter tends to be not much more than a slight weather hiccup when it comes to interrupting the great spring growing -season surge. Sometimes the weather moods can turn a bit freakish, and the prairies must bear up under late frosts and freezes. Snowflakes have fallen in late April, but lengthening daylight is incredibly quick at healing any damage done. Contingency plans are programmed into prairie plants and animals, allowing them to dig in for a day or two while winter suffers the season’s final death throes. Auxiliary buds replace leaves singed by cold snaps. Insects conjure up body chemistry antifreeze that allows them to wait out the return of warmth. Occasionally frosts play havoc with flowering oak trees, and an autumn acorn crop may be reduced as a result. The highly visible signature of Blackberry Winter is the number of conspicuous white flowers on prickly canes arching out of last year’s tan grasses. In a couple of months the dark purple fruit, tart and sweet at the same time, will tempt berry picker and bird, coyote and box turtle , to partake of a seedy feast. In my childhood it was time to take galvanized metal buckets out into the grasslands and come home covered with bloody scratches, the buckets heavy with blackberries that would become cobbler the following Sunday. I don’t know if many families even bother to bake pies these days, but the berries remain just as flavorful . Maybe the birds are thankful that so many country people have moved to the city,leaving more blackberries for harvesters on the wing. On a morning in late April, with the sky slow to clear and the wind blowing sharply from the north,the blackberry canes,heavy with white flowers, were arched over to blend with newly green grasses exploding skyward in the pastures. Buffalo were on the move across the rolling hills of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Cows, in bunches from fifty to a hundred or more, seemed restless. I focused my binoculars on a small herd loafing on an unburned hillside more than a quarter mile away and quickly began to pick out the shorter orange objects nestled amid the waist-high brown stalks of last year’s little bluestem. Within minutes one of the calves rose to nurse, 81 Blackberry Winter and it became apparent that Blackberry Winter this year coincided with hundreds of bison calves born on the newly greening prairie. Preserve personnel had set fire to the land in a patchwork pattern, leaving grazing meadows for the buffalo among taller nesting cover for eastern meadowlarks, upland sandpipers, northern bobwhite quail, and greater prairie-chickens, to name but a few of the many ground nesters that require clumps of last year’s dried grasses for concealment . Buffalo bulls, content to...


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