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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Spring Turkey Season Signals Return of Young Hunters, Old Memories

   My cousin Peggy greeted our group of turkey hunters as we returned to her farm’s driveway April 12 after our prep work for Wisconsin’s youth-only hunting season.

   “I know spring is here when the young hunters come up for the hunt,” Peggy said while greeting me, Ya Yang, his daughter Mykaela, 13, and her two friends who were hunting Doug Duren’s farm up the valley near Cazenovia.

   We had set up two blinds for Mykaela on wooded hillsides to the north and south, and slid two seats inside each. After finishing those chores, I agreed to lead the youngsters up a woodland tractor trail to a long-abandoned mobile home. Kids find intrigue in ramshackle buildings, and so they perked up when overhearing me tell Yang how Peggy’s dad had bought the trailer-home for $1 in the late 1980s from a neighbor who just wanted it gone.

   Though already dilapidated, it survived that move from the nearby valley to the hilltop hickory grove. Even so, hauling it there took work, planning and a borrowed tractor. Another neighbor let Uncle Terry pull the rusty, rickety structure across his back pasture, through a squeaking gate, and down a faint trail to its final resting place.

   It’s sat there ever since. My uncle visited it occasionally the first few years to snack on Snickers while looking out the picture-window for deer or turkeys, but the novelty faded. The access trail eventually ceded to brush and deadfalls, and Uncle Terry deeded the trailer to squirrels and raccoons by ceasing its upkeep.

   Too bad he wasn’t around decades later to see how three kids aged 9, 11 and 13 could be so taken by rumors of a haunted house-trailer. Though they showed only passing interest in our turkey-hunt preparations, they begged to hike uphill to this old pest- and ghost-infested mobile home.

   When we arrived after our 15-minute ascent, Yang and I were relieved the trailer-home’s access door was blocked from the inside by caved-in debris. Without attempting forcible entry with our shoulders, we coaxed the kids to let the trailer’s rodents, raccoons and spirit-world rest, and settled for a walk-around before descending the hill for dinner.

   Though everyone saw turkeys Saturday morning, the hours passed without any kid firing a shot. After lunch, Yang and I led Mykaela northward to her other blind to try again. While we watched between our best yelps, clucks and purrs, I studied the nearby brush that burst with greenery.

   I recognized the shrubbery from childhood but didn’t recall what my paternal grandmother called it. I just knew it held as many prickers and stickers as it did green leaves and red berries, and that Granny had pruned it into a thick hedge along her driveway in the 1960s.

   Pulling out my smartphone, I tapped the “PictureThis” app, photographed the nearest shrub and awaited the app’s search. Seconds later I learned it was Japanese barberry, aka, Thunberg’s barberry, red barberry or just plain barberry. It’s an invasive shrub in the U.S., and here in 1864.

   Heck, Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote a poem about it:

   “The bush that has most briers and bitter fruit,

   Wait till the frost has turned its green leaves red,

   It’s sweetened berries will thy palate suit,

   And thou may’st fine e’en there a homely bread.”

   The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, however, finds nothing poetic in the shrub’s briers, fruit or leaves. The DNR wishes wintry frosts could kill it all because Japanese barberry quickly spreads by root and seeds, densely infesting many Wisconsin woodlands. It can grow everywhere from dry roadsides to damp ditches and lowlands. And though it prefers sunlight, it endures heavy shade, allowing it to outcompete native plants while providing ideal habitat for white-footed mice, a common host for deer ticks, the most common carrier of Lyme disease.

   It’s officially listed as “restricted” statewide under Wisconsin Invasive Species Rule NR40. Still, landowners don’t risk citations for harboring Japanese barberry. A “restricted” classification merely acknowledges it’s well-established, and can cause “significant” harm to human, environmental or economic health.

   After all, besides aiding the spread of Lyme disease, this shrub grows dense enough to divert animals from game trails, and inflicts pain to any deer trying to eat its pricker-packed twigs. That forces hungry deer to focus on native plants, further increasing Japanese barberry’s competitive advantages.

   Landowners can control it by yanking out its roots or burning it each spring, spraying its foliage with herbicides, repeatedly cutting or mowing it, and applying herbicides to the stumps. You get the point: Japanese barberry seemingly spreads overnight, but can take years to vanquish.

   My reintroduction to Japanese barberry reminded me that the longer you hang around a given land, the more you must work to notice its relentless changes, subtle or obvious, and deliberate or accidental. But the more you notice those shifts, the more you appreciate Duren’s pledge to land and family: “It’s not ours. It’s just our turn.”

   Japanese barberry likely wasn’t invading rural Richland County when I first visited my cousins’ farm as a preschooler in the late 1950s. Heck, even Cousin Peg and Cousin Mike weren’t around back then. Neither were wild turkeys. The farm belonged to their maternal grandfather, and he was milking cows the first time I toddled into his dairy barn, which still stands today.

   During grade school, after hearing rumors of trout in the farm’s Upper Willow Creek, I floated worms under its banks with a cane pole without success. But by that era, trout were just that—rumors—and never returned to the little creek. Wild turkeys, however, returned with the DNR’s help during the 1970s. Deer rebounded, too, and we’ve been arguing about them ever since, even as chronic wasting disease kills them in growing numbers.

   Meanwhile, we seldom see ruffed grouse anymore, and I spotted my first and last covey of bobwhite quail in a fencerow in the late 1990s.

   Likewise, Uncle Terry and Aunt Mona haven’t roamed the farm they inherited for well over a decade now. Their ashes lie boxed and buried in a memorial plot above the hillside home they built in 1995, just uphill from where I spotted those quail.

   And so we wonder what changes today’s young hunters will notice on this land a half-century from now, assuming they return each spring to hunt wild turkeys and honor our ghosts.

Ya and Mykaela Yang pause for a photo at sunset while hunting turkeys in Richland County. — Patrick Durkin photo

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