did the job, except a requirement to map the pine stands that
would be targeted, a prerequisite to getting money from the
towns to support the work. Some nights, Prior found his dreams
sprinkled with currant leaves.
Prior was a roving crew leader, and at any given time had
crews working all over Vermont. “They started us in the central-western part of the state. They handed me a snakebite kit and
said that I would need this.” He didn’t know why, but found out
that rattlesnakes (along with the occasional angry bull) were
an occupational hazard for Ribes hunters in parts of the Green
Mountain State. They learned to step up on a log and look
before stepping over, and to throw a rock down in a ravine and
listen for the rattles before venturing into it. Still, he saw only
two or three dozen rattlers in his years on the job.
The work was concentrated mainly around pine stands.
Crews, usually made up of six people, would walk through the
woods six feet apart, the crew chief following behind, said Prior.
In his early years, they used the infamous herbicide 2, 4,5-T (one
of the ingredients in Agent Orange), but after questions began
to be raised about its health effects, they went back to pulling
plants by hand. Some days they might kill 50 or 60 plants, other
days thousands. Each team kept a running tally shouted out
along the line of march. Most victims were native Ribes species,
the “pasture gooseberry” being the most common. But cultivated gooseberries and currants were killed, as well. Sometimes,
said Prior, a homeowner would try to keep the Ribes crew
talking on one side of the house in an effort to keep them from
spotting lovingly tended currant bushes on the other side.
Rex Waite joined the war on Ribes in 1965 as a crew chief,
leading patrols into the woods of southern Maine, armed with
topographic maps, flyers outlining the state law giving them
access to private property, herbicide sprayers, plenty of fly dope,
and what he calls a “Ribe stick” – a walking stick that doubled as
a tool to poke through the brush looking for plants.
Gooseberries and currants were easy to spot early in the year,
he said, because they green up earlier than other plants. They
found plants growing around old cellar holes, where settlers had
planted them, and along stone walls, where bird-dropped seeds
found the perfect combination of soils and moisture to thrive.
“We were trained to check the plants for signs of the spores, as
well as looking for sick pines,” Waite said. “There we used the
classic expression ‘it looks as if a giant had grabbed the trunk
and squeezed it.’ Many times you would spot the dead tops of
the young pines or one dead branch where the disease worked
its way in.”
The Ribe-pickers, as they called themselves, got a chance to
see some great views and walk trails and old wagon roads that
few people trod. Some pickers were extra diligent about check-
ing around old cellar holes for treasures they could take away.
Others noted trout streams and bird covers for future reference.
There were also down-sides to the job. In addition to the hordes
of biting bugs in the springtime, there were “cranky farm dogs”
to contend with and cranky landowners, as well.
“Some people were defiant about their plants,” said Waite,
“despite a Maine law making it illegal to have them in southern
Maine. All you could say was they were welcome to try to change
the law, but their plants, especially near significant pine stands,
were to be destroyed. Sometimes when you stopped at a farm-
house to explain yourself, if you found an older housewife she
would whisper that she certainly had no currants, but if I went to
the next house.... A few old scores were settled that way.”
Always in the back of a picker’s mind were bears. No one
wanted to stumble through the brush into a sow with cubs.
Waite said he only saw two in his many years as a crew chief.
“One time I was walking a trail when I looked up to see one
ambling toward me, totally unaware I was there. I had a clipboard, my walking stick, and a sheath knife, none of them at
that moment big enough to suit me. With each step I began to
clap the stick and clipboard together. The bear stopped, peered
my way, and slowly drifted sideways into the brush. By the time
I got to that point I couldn’t see or hear a thing, but I kept moving at a quick step.”
Currants and gooseberries are present throughout temperate
regions of the northern hemisphere and along the mountain
ranges of Central and South America. Some 150 species have
been identified. They’ve served as food for humans for probably thousands of years and have been cultivated at least since
the Renaissance. American Indians used them. Early European
settlers imported them from the Old World.
According to histories of currant cultivation, red currants
have been cultivated since the 1400s for food and medicinal