Outdoors North: One can only hope to live on through nature
“I want to die along the highway and rot away, like some old high-line pole,” – Merle Haggard
There’s a place I know where the jack pine grow, where the ground is covered in reindeer moss and red and green-leafed blueberry bushes. Growing here too are thousands of bracken ferns.
These familiar ferns, with their as-yet-unleafed and curled “fiddle heads” and three big, triangular-shaped fronds, are plants I recall from my earliest days growing up here.
Native Americans ate them and so do many other people today who enjoy them cooked, comparing their taste to that of asparagus and almonds. In some countries they are considered a delicacy.
For me, these ferns — which are very common across this region — are one of the characteristic plants of the Upper Peninsula outdoors experience.
This place I am describing is somewhere I love to go on summertime days in late July or early August to look for blueberries. If it’s hot outside, the bracken ferns feel like cool comfort as they brush up against me, stirred by a late afternoon breeze.
As I sit amongst them, I often hear the flutelike songs of hermit thrushes, singing over and over across this peaceful and green countryside.
If I lie on the ground, feeling the crunching, cream-colored reindeer moss beneath me, I can look up to the underside of the beautiful green bracken fern fronds. They shade my eyes and face from the sun.
When I was very young, the ferns were almost as tall as I was. They could stretch their leafy arms out about as far as I could. Maybe farther.
Their stems are firm, and they bend gradually as the fiddle heads unfurl to form the leaves of the plant. The unrolled leaves derived their musical nickname from their shape, which resembles the curl on the end of a violin, right up there by the tuning pegs.
There’s something about these plants that seems to suggest a cheery disposition. I’ve never really heard of anyone not liking bracken ferns. Maybe it’s because they grow tall and green and seem to be bursting with life.
They have no thorns or stickers, or snag my fishing line like dogwood or cedars, nor do they present other problems for humans.
All through the years I was growing up, the bracken ferns were a constant, no matter what else was going on in the world. They remained a familiar feature of the environs at the places I loved to go.
When I was still a kid, but a little bit older than when I first recall these plants, we would go out to a place called the “Elks 40.” It was a place where the local Elks Club, of which my dad was a member, would go for their annual summer picnics.
It too was under the jack pines, not far from our little mining town – out past Deer Lake and a right-hand turn just past the Little Dead River.
There would be dozens of chickens barbecued over an open pit fire for lunch. There was also horseshoe pitching, kids in a scrambling search for coins in a sawdust pile and live country music played by the Joe Arkansas Band.
Growing up amidst all this were the bracken ferns.
I remember they were there too when the sun was going down one evening over the forest, not far south from the Lake Superior shoreline.
I was lying in the sandy soil, just off a trail that snaked along a river up to a lake. The ferns gave me a little bit of cover while I waited for a woodcock to twitter and shift haphazardly in its mating flight back down to earth, landing just a few feet from me.
Down the trail from here, I would walk off into the bracken ferns, up and over a hill and then down to a spot on the river where big steelhead would gather in the spring and fall.
In a red pine stand, just up the road and around a big corner from this place, I remember one single bracken fern. For here, among thousands of green bracken ferns standing under these pines, this fern had been bent over and had browned.
The resulting shape of the fern was kind of like a lean-to, with the crumpled rust-colored leaves resting on the forest floor.
Under these fronds of the fern, a hermit thrush – he of the beautiful flute sound – with a mate, had decided this would be the best place to build a nest to lay a clutch of eggs.
This was a quiet spot for them, out of the view of predators. Above the nest and the bent and browned bracken fern, lush, green growth of more ferns overlaid and further protected the nest.
I find bracken ferns while I’m cutting the grass in my backyard. They grow up as individuals trying to set up a colony along the edges of our lawn. I don’t like to run them over with the spinning mower blades, but I do.
A few months ago, as the fall was setting up well over the landscape, I had parked my Jeep and wandered down an overgrown road I remembered from my childhood. I had my waders, fishing pole and camera.
I wanted to return to this old haunt – formerly a home to brook, brown and rainbow trout – to see what I might find.
I discovered the steep, sandy bank down to the river still there. I waded out into the river, with not much of an available shoreline to stand on.
The black water of the river swirled around my boots. I tossed a cast downstream where a small brook trout hit my lure. It was followed by a few others.
It was a peaceful night and the river slurped as it slipped by, looking exactly as I remember it being all those years ago. It seemed, in that moment, that the only things that had changed were the world and me.
A while later, I climbed back up the steep bank. When I got back to the top of the slope, I realized the brush had knocked the lens cap from my camera. I went back into the brush to see if I could find it but didn’t.
While I was standing there thinking about this, I noticed a quiet alcove there under the poplar trees. The ground beneath was covered with bracken ferns, but they were not as I had often clearly and fondly remembered them in my mind.
These were browned and fallen, bent over and drooped with the autumn. I took pictures of them as even in decline, they beautiful ferns meant something personal to me. They were a part of this place that I have recalled and loved for more than two generations.
Rather than die, bracken ferns kind of sleep during the winter until new growth forms on them in the springtime. The new green shoots form the fiddle heads.
My mind floats over the idea of how peaceful it would seem to be to take my final nap lying down beneath the bracken ferns. Thinking this, I realize that a cemetery is one of the few places where I don’t ever recall seeing bracken ferns growing.
Then perhaps it won’t be a cemetery for me at all.
Ashes to ashes and rust to dust. I could lie out there somewhere, ashes sprinkled over the jack pine barrens, where the hermit thrushes sing, the blueberries grow wild and sweet and the bracken ferns abide.
Like the cold, refreshing crispness of an autumn morning, the sound of white-throated sparrows in the air and the lakes and rivers that surround this beautiful place, the bracken ferns will be here forever.
Maybe there’s room for me too, just up the slope from the river, or a winding little creek, where my memories could float on downstream every night.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.