By Sandy Stott
“Your Land: Blue bounty at Crystal Spring Farm”
We all noticed it during spring walks. The leafing-out looked vigorous, promising, and then the flowers came. My inner bear keeps instinctive track of the little white bell blossoms that signal blueberries-in-the-making. Walk here waddle there, in the spring wherever I see clustered white, the site goes into my berry-memory. I’ll be back, I say, amusing myself mildly with Arnold-speak.
That was the scene this spring at the north end of Crystal Spring’s sandplain grassland barren, which the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust burned over in April 2021. Everywhere on those 14 acres, tiny fists of white speckled and, in some places, bent, the resurgent blueberry bushes. In a lifetime of blueberry tracking that’s verged on worship, I’d never seen such flower density.
Retired Bowdoin College Ecologist John Lichter helped me understand the gifts of a controlled burn. Bushes, like most of us, seek balance — what’s above the surface should roughly match the root network below. When a burn removes much of the bush and the competing weeds above ground, what remains draws upon a root system that teems with nutrients; growth aiming for balance can then be explosive.
Dial forward to July’s second half: Berry promise has become berry bonanza. I’m back! So too, given the Trust’s invitation to pick on some of those 14 acres, are many of you.
What’s also drawn me out on this late July day is something larger than my own berry-mania. It’s the promise of watching part of a blueberry harvest on 35 of 70 leased acres of sandplain that adjoin the acres preserved by the Land Trust. Those acres are cultivated by Crystal Spring farmers Seth Kroeck and Maura Bannon, and each year, thousands of pounds of blueberries get raked up and sent to Merrill Blueberry Farms, an organic processor in Hancock. There they are cleaned and sorted, and then frozen and shipped back to Crystal Spring and the farm’s freezer.
From there they go out to markets and restaurants throughout southern Maine. These commercial blueberries and products made from them are an important part of what makes Crystal Spring Farm a thriving operation.
Kroeck’s explanation of their berrying brought me to think more fully about the plants offering me (for that’s how it looks as I bend to pick) their berries. As he noted, “These berry plants are likely much older than I am, and they are likely to be here long after I’m gone.” Blueberry plants, Kroeck explained, “grow in circular clones from underground root networks that can be up to 50 feet across. Seen from the air, the barren sometimes looks like a patchwork of different-colored circles.” A sort of large-scale pointillist’s dream, I thought as I imagined this.
“And,” Kroeck added, “in the past, people wondered how these old fields just gave and gave.” Yes, the usual post-harvest mowing or burning added back some nutrients and encouraged regrowth, but the giving surely outweighed the getting. Enter the discovery of mycorrhizal fungi that partner with blueberry plant roots, increasing their reach and breaking down minerals for them. Blueberry plants, in symbiotic return, provide the mycorrhizae with carbohydrates.
So much going on beneath the surface. Another lesson, I reminded myself, in learn from your land.
Crystal Spring Farm’s 10-day blueberry harvest started on July 26. At midday on the 27, I stopped by to watch. Kroeck was driving the tractor with its two harvesting drums attached to the left side; his son Griffin was working a deck on the back of the tractor, where the just picked berries arrived via conveyor belts and dropped into a box that holds roughly 20 pounds of berries. Griffin tended each box as it filled, removing sticks, wads of grass and leaves — and the occasional snake — then stacked the boxes on wooden pallets. Kroeck drove carefully at somewhere under .5 mph. And the harvesting drums, which feature 12 rows of slim tines, raked the berries off efficiently. Following along in their wake, I saw few remaining berries and no evident damage to the plants. “Yes,” said Kroeck appreciatively, “the folks who invented these are pretty remarkable.”
Coda: The Gift: Earlier in July, while looking over the berry-bounty of the recently burned acres, Kroeck and BTLT Stewardship Director Margaret Gerber, thought, they are so many; some of these berries could help nourish those who are hungry. Kroeck volunteered a day’s harvesting, which he estimated could add up to 2000+ pounds. These berries would then need processing and freezing and distributing. In Auburn, they found the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which could oversee the processing and storage and, in Portland, the Preble Street Food pantry, which could distribute the berries. A fitting tribute to Crystal Spring Farm and the land’s stewards, and a berry fine use of a season’s bounty.
By Sandy Stott
A cool spring morning, with rising wind. It is the season — post-snow and pre-spring-growth — where what’s been thrown and blown away is easy to spot, and I’ve come to this part of Brunswick Landing with 30+ others to clear the area of this hand- and wind-scattered trash.
At my back, a one-story building, its long windows opening out toward a field, houses the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust (BTLT) and the Cathance River Education Alliance (CREA). Often working partners, these two conservation organizations help preserve and manage lands, bring people to those lands, and promote the spirit that adheres to and rises from those lands. Close by the building lie the plots of the New Mainers Garden, where sign of that spirit will poke soon above ground. CREA has organized today’s clean-up, and their executive director, Caroline Eliot, has welcomed our mixed lot, including a number of families (thank you, parents), and, with expansive gestures, she’s turned us loose to clean.
Armed with a picker-upper and an empty bag, I begin to work through the grasses and small pines above a crushed rock berm at the base of a thin pond. Snagged among the grasses: 2 paper coffee cups (company name withheld), plastic lid and straw, two linked post-it notes (task completed, I assume), white chunk of shipping foam, wad of paper towel, bottle cap, ah, the companion plastic bottle, a once-upon-a-pencil, bags 1, 2 and 3, (plastic). And on.
I near the water. I look back upfield, and I can see no remaining trash. Soon, I’ll join the others as they fan out into the woods and along nearby roads to fill their bags further. By morning’s end we’ll have tens of bags full. But first I turn back to the pond. I know this water. The eastern branch of the Mere Brook watershed, it too needs (and is slated for) cleansing work.
Named Pond B, the water before me has been put to work. Not far upstream sibling Pond A pools behind its own dam, and just above that the waters emerge from twin culverts that run beneath Brunswick Landing. Ponds A and B, and downstream relatives, Pond Area C and Picnic Pond receive and process 80% of the stormwater that runs off the Landing. It’s all headed finally south for Mere Brook, and then, Harpswell Cove.
Such water from a heavily-peopled, asphalt-rich site carries within the chemical equivalents of the thrown and blown trash we’re all gathering today. A full catalogue of this water’s trouble would burst the seams of this column. But before I head into the woods in pursuit of more visible trash, I want to describe briefly how the Ponds Stormwater System works, and how, over time, its waters may be redeemed.
When it rains heavily, run-off water rushes throughout the Landing. That hurried water picks up whatever’s available — grit, pollutants, bits of trash; it all courses through the system, swelling, rising. When that water reaches the ponds, it does what we all do in quieter water — it slows down. And, as it slows, it lays down some of its burden, the grit and particulates, the pollutants; that load sinks to the bottom, over time layering it. The now partially-cleansed water flows on seaward. A modicum of success.
But time’s accumulations finally make these pond-bottoms toxic, no-touch sediments that should be cleaned. Such a remediation is at hand for the Ponds system. The Navy, which put the system in place in the mid-90s, has contracted for roughly $5 million to have these sediments removed this summer and fall. A layer of clean sand will then be laid in place. The Ponds will then go back to work slowing and sorting the stormwater, which, given the successful repurposing of the former Navy Base as Brunswick Landing, will be substantial work.
Here, beside this working water, I’m thinking about the dilemma of our presence. We slough off so much, visible and invisible; how we manage our slough, how we minimize our trail of discard is an essential challenge on this Earth Day and every day.
It’s an hour later, and I’ve followed the deliberate course of my trash picking into a little draw. A tiny, transparent stream runs along its bottom toward Pond area C; on its banks, my favorite spring harbinger spirals up, maroon surprise. Before it becomes a green fan of leaf, Skunk Cabbage begins as twisting eruption from the newly soft ground; it is sculpture of the highest quality. Nearby, mid-stream, lies the thin manilla fin of a sandbar shaped by the running water. The sand’s surface is stirred and I bend to it; there, in a two-way script, go the paw prints of fellow travelers — raccoon (I’m sure), fox (I think), and the plush pads of a rogue cat(?). Here, in this little draw, slowed by my work of finding trash, I’m finding also the prints and presence of fellow animals. We are all of this earth. I owe them this effort to clean the seen and unseen litter of my life.
Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, and a member of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. He writes for a variety of publications. He may be reached at email@example.com
December 3, 2021
The following column is the 7th in a series about our Mare/Mere Brook Watershed. December 6th’s Brunswick Town Council meeting will include a presentation of a watershed improvement plan from the Mare Brook Steering Committee. The plan recommends ways to attain a watershed-wide Class B stream designation, a significant upgrade from Mare Brook’s current “urban-impaired” status. Interested citizens are encouraged to tune in. Detailed information about the watershed and plan may be found at brunswickme.org/233/Mare-Brook-Watershed-Planning
For those of us who have worked on the Mare/Mere Brook watershed plan, this slim waterway has become a presence. And a few of us — well, one at least — make regular visits to talk to and with it. Water-talk isn’t as unusual as it may sound; brooks do, after all, babble. And so, it turns out, do I.
On this November day, down in a Meadowbrook gully, I ask, “What’s the brook-news?” And I hear in return about the recent rains, the chill settling out of the nights, and the passages of foxes, deer, raccoons, opossums, and even the rumor of returning moose and bear. “They’re here…or near,” the brook says, and I bend at a crossing to read their print-script.
“What about your oxygen level?” I ask. DO, or dissolved oxygen in brook-speak, is vital to life within, and the brook’s monitors measure it regularly. “Okay, it’s okay. Summer can be tough, when I shrink and grow warmer, but this year’s rains kept me going, flowing.” The brook answers further by sending two fingerling trout through the little pool beneath my feet.
“Could do with a little less runoff, however. When it rains hard, the water just pours off the roads and lots and into me, carrying all sorts of stuff. That clouds me, and it washes away colonies of my little critters [macroinvertabrates].”
“Yes,” I say, “I can see how that happens. There’s so much tarmac and roof-slough around you that the rain can’t soak through; instead it runs off to find you. We’re going to try to help some your neighbors figure out plantings and pitches that absorb or slow this runoff.
“So, I have a question for you,” the brook says. “During the open months when it rains, I often get washes of lawn stuff. Sometimes it gives me a case of the algae, which I don’t like. Then there are the poisons that get into everything. The birds tell me that some of you are avid about having one kind of grass only. What’s that all about?”
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