WHEN IT COMES to the outdoors we live and play in, it’s always a good feeling to harvest part of the bounty it provides: a couple of walleyes for the frying pan, venison for a roast, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and other wild delights, mushrooms and the list goes on.

It also feels good to put something back into the outdoors we treasure and if collectively we don’t do that, we will be much the poorer for it.

I have been lucky enough this spring to have time to catch some trout, along with several meals of bluegills. On walks along logging roads I see the brown briars that bore heavy fruit last summer and I can’t help but see visions of more berries free for the picking this year.

I see wild ducks and geese on many of our lakes and streams while fishing or hiking, and I can’t help myself but dream of delicious roast dinners that a few might provide in October, while savoring perhaps even more their great beauty in spring plumage.

I have been a harvester of the outdoors all my life. Along with picking berries, hunting — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — for wild game, fishing and even gathering wild hazelnuts, I also have worked to put good things back into the outdoors all my life.

It began when I was a little child. Back in the ’50s, the old Wisconsin Conservation Department used to pay people for picking pine cones, the seeds from which would be planted in their state nursery to provide seedlings for replanting logged-off areas of forests that had been clearcut years before.

If my memory is correct, Norway pine cones brought the best price, $5 per bushel. For a child like me that was a fortune to be spent on fishing lures, soda pop and candy bars. For families like mine whose members supplemented meager regular wages with money earned from any number of odd jobs, the extra cash meant paying the mortgage on time or having pork chops once every couple weeks instead of hot dogs or Spam® every day.

At the time, the mortgage of $2,500 dollars, which was what it cost my dad to build our house in 1950, was a large sum of money and every bushel basket of Norway cones we picked made it that much easier to make another payment or two.

The way our picking worked is my dad would climb the trees, many of them in the neighborhood of 75 feet tall, and with a hardwood sapling of 10 feet or so with a small branch at one end partially cut off to be used as a hook, he would pull the pine branches in enough to pick the cones. He’d drop them, and it would be my job to gather them and fill the bushel basket. More than once, I got thunked on the head with a falling cone for my efforts.

In the Sayner grade school which I attended through eighth grade, we learned early on to give back to the outdoors. With beloved janitor “Uncle” Bud Stern leading the way, each spring, those of us in grades five to eight would get an afternoon off from school to head out to the school forest 3 miles north of town.

There we would plant pine seedlings, mostly Norways, maybe some white pines. I like to think some of those seedlings came from the cones my dad and I harvested.

Back in those days, we also improved small pieces of habitat for the benefit of plants and animals. Much of the area at that time was in a second-growth state, recovering after the lumber barons denuded the northern pine forest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

We’d probably be shot or guillotined or at the least, imprisoned for life for improving the habitat the way we did, but it worked for us, and the plant and animal communities. Our work was carried out in early spring when only south-facing hillsides were bare of snow. 

At that time, we would go out with a pack of matches and burn off selected sites for habitat improvement. Dead grass and shrubs, along with fallen sticks and such provided the tinder. A few tree trunks might get blackened a bit to a height of 2 or 3 feet, but had no damage done to them.

What the fires did do was provide the right type of soil enhancement to produce blueberry bushes especially, that would be fully loaded with berries later in the summer; ditto for raspberries and blackberries. Picking berries with Grandma Maines, who could pick more berries faster and cleaner than anyone on earth, was always an adventure.

Not only did we literally enjoy the fruits of our labors, but so did chipmunks, squirrels, birds, bears and other wild critters take advantage of the bounty we helped to provide.

The only thing about spring burning was remembering to keep our fires surrounded with snow. A couple of young lads, about 10 years my junior, found out the hard way when I was in college that starting spring fires after all the snow was gone wasn’t a good idea. They got off with only stern lectures from firefighters and the Department of Natural Resources firefighting boss after a 5-acre or so blaze they started was extinguished.

Nowadays, I continue to give back as much as I can to the outdoors, hopefully as much as I take. As a member of Ducks Unlimited (DU), a passionate member at that, the thousands of dollars I have given to DU over the course of 40-plus years has helped to fund habitat preservation, conservation, and improvement projects all over duck country, including right here in our North Woods.

As a sometimes member of the National Wild Turkey Federation and other conservation groups, I have helped maintain and improve habitat for many species of plants, animals, amphibians, reptiles and what-have-you, if not by physical labor, at least with cash.

I think it’s extremely important to be a user and harvester of the outdoors. With that in mind, I think it’s time right now to head out to a secret little bluegill lake to practice being a harvester for a little while.