When I was walking the dog, I came upon two boys standing under a mulberry tree on the old railroad right-of-way. One of them had a few mulberries in his hand and he asked if they were “safe” to eat. I told him I had never had any ill effects from eating them. He and his friend stripped a number of berries from the lower limbs and seemed to thoroughly enjoy them.
The narrow strip of land where the trains once ran is also home to a few raspberries, blackberries, wild strawberries, and dewberries. In their 1991 publication, “The Prairie in Vermilion County,” Marilyn F. Campbell and Doris L. Westfall identified more than 60 native prairie plants they had observed on the small strip of right-of-way east of the village of Bronson. The Vermilion County Conservation District obtained a garden lease on the property in the 1970s to protect the native plants, but they continue to struggle against invasive Eurasian species and chemical spray. The last stand of Prairie Blazing-Star failed to make an appearance in 2012.
As I watched the two boys walk away, I thought of their counterparts who would have been here when the rail line was new nearly a century and a half ago. Even in their dreams, they wouldn’t have pictured the miracle of the cell phone one of the boys I met was carrying. But they would have known all the fruit trees and berry bushes; where a persimmon tree grew, where to dig sassafras root, and which crawdads made the best fish bait. They would have known the seed pods of the rail-line burdock plant would cling together and could be fashioned into images of animals by children. They might have been aware purple pokeberry ink could be made from the berries of the ungainly pokeberry plant. According to folk lore, the Declaration of Independence was written with pokeberry ink.
On that late June day, the prairie dock and compass plants were opening their first blooms on the right-of-way. A number of coneflowers were already on display. Yellow blooms were just beginning to appear on spheres of mullein as they stood like sentinels along the abandoned rail line. A patch of nearby coneflowers didn’t seem to mind the immigrants from Europe as they nodded their yellow heads in a gentle breeze. An army of goldenrod and other plants will bloom later, and the right of way will be a blaze of late summer color.
One thing the boys from the past and those from the present would have shared was the joy of eating a few “safe” berries discovered while roaming the countryside on a perfect summer day.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.