Moving from a city-sized, 25-ft.-x-125-ft. Chicago lot to my current 1.3-acre site has meant a mindshift for me. In my former home, I could see the entire backyard from a single spot – hell, I could almost spit from the back door to the detached, lot-hugging garage with a little effort. Here, I feel a bit like one of those ranchers in “Giant,” whose spreads stretch out as far as the eye can see. O.k., so the house itself is basically riding 6A’s breakdown lane. The backyard, though, stretches back through a full acre of trees, raspberry vines and wild grape – lots and lots and lots of wild grape.
I’m not sure what, if anything, the land was originally. A good portion of it was once cleared, so it may have been farmland at one time. But I think it’s been pretty much left on its own for the last 10 or so years. Just re-establishing some of the old paths is like acting out a part in some National Geographic special. I keep wondering when I’m going to come across an ancient tribe of head-hunting Puritans, or a colony of sea captains gone missing on their way over to Harwich’s harbors.
The local conservation officer tells me the wild grape is a native plant here, but it sure acts invasive on my property. It has climbed up over the field of bush honeysuckle that has taken over a good 50 percent of what I grandiosely call my “back 40,” to create a sea of broad, waving leaves. The vines also have reached up most of the trees, as well, spreading out across branches and smothering out all available sunlight. Some of the vines are almost as big around as one of my arms (granted, I have kinda skinny arms), and have begun pulling over the weakened, sunlight-deprived trees.
There certainly are other obnoxious plants on the site. The green briar and bittersweet climb just as high, and the green briar’s thorns are sharper and longer than my 12-lb. cat’s claws. There also are big patches of wild raspberry, which were flavorfully productive this summer, but are running out of control in broad swaths. But, while these other feral varieties each seem to thrive in relatively restricted areas of the yard, the grape grows everywhere – sun, shade, dry or marshy, every location seems to be right where it wants to be.
Over the summer and into the early fall, as I’ve been opening the old, previously established paths back up, I’ve been cutting many of the tree-climbing grape vines at their bases, hoping that the trees’ leaves will once again be able to see sunlight and photosynthesis will once again allow the trees to prosper. Then, as grapes began to ripen in fat, juicy clusters, my realtor, who has become a good friend and doubles as a local Martha Stewart, suggested we harvest some of the crop to make our own jelly. So, I slowed down on the clearing to ensure better picking.
Well, life got in the way of domestic productivity and the grapes started to pass their prime before we were able to gather their bounty. But a few days ago as I was wandering in the back, trying to figure out which of the overgrown pathways to attack next, I caught the most amazing scent. It was like I was walking past one of Welch’s factories. For some reason, I always thought that grape jelly smell was something manufactured, a byproduct of artificial coloring and high-fructose corn syrup. What I smelled in my woods was a lighter version of that sweet, fruity aroma, but it was still there, like one of those undertones connoisseurs speak of when discussing fine wine. It flowed with the breezes, wafting and fading with the rustling leaves, a new sign for me that fall’s turning leaves and frosty weather are soon to come.
Now, going forward, I think I’ll be approaching the grape vines with more respect. I still want to rescue my trees from the smothering coverage and provide walkable routes to the back of my land. And, given the sheer quantity of vines, it would be unlikely that anything short of an aerial Round-Up bombardment could rid me of them, anyway. But, even so, my clear-cutting ways are over. In addition to providing for a potential jelly crop, I want to make sure there are enough of those bulging purple pearls to ripen and burst in odorific splendor. The smell is addictive, but fleeting – the kind of thing mass-market candlemakers attempt, but fail to master. And, I predict, enjoying its passing presence will, in time, be added to my list of seasonal pleasures unique to Cape Cod, along with exploding springtime daffodils and lazy summer swims.