Ed’s Corner

Listening to the Sun

Every year around mid-January I begin to feel that the sunlight has a different quality about it, compared to, say, a month ago. It could be that there’s more of it: in January we gain 1.5 – 2 minutes of sunlight each day, during February we add 2.5 minutes daily. But what I feel in the sunlight seems more related to quality rather than to quantity. The light seems to call to me to get outside, into nature; to take in and partake in the slow reawakening of the natural world.

Being outside in nature at this time of year offers a quiet, slower-paced environment to explore, with or without snow. A prolonged stillness as we head toward the Vernal Equinox.

Beginning sun

Yet within the feelings of stillness and quiet bestowed by the woods in January there is tremendous movement occurring, just outside the scope of what we can observe. Movement within the earth is already brewing to bring forth the snow drops and crocuses of late winter, and the actual movement of our earth rotating through space is adding time and luster to the sun’s rays each day. Even when we are still, we are anything but! Consider some of the things that the earth – with us upon it – is doing:

* spinning around, once in 24 hours, making day and night
* revolving, orbiting the sun, one complete orbit called a year
* spinning around the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, where we are located in one of it’s ‘arms’
* our solar system moving along with our Milky Way galaxy as it speeds through space
* and presumably on and on…

It makes me dizzy just trying to think about it. Dramamine anyone?

Imagine that the earth’s movements listed above had audible sounds connected with them! This time of year would be anything but quiet. Perhaps we’d think of winter as that special season when our world gets quiet enough for us to hear the music of the spheres.

Brightest

The Stars in Winter

Winter is a great time of year to go out and look up at the night sky: darkness comes early, winter nights are often crisp and clear, and some of the brightest stars in the sky make their appearance at this time of year. The constellations are also outstanding and many are easily recognizable. One of my favorites is Orion, the mighty hunter. My youngest son, Nathaniel, was born with Orion looking down upon him, and so his middle name, Orion, came down from the skies to us.

Stars

There are many books, star charts, apps, websites, etc. that can help lead you around the winter skies. So if you can find a fairly dark spot, go there, and before you go to one of the charts or guides, just look up, with wide eyes and with silence for at least a few minutes. And while you’re looking up remember this quotation from Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, popularizer of science and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC:

“I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of these facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, because they are small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”

Mostly January

Storyteller Chuck Stead spins us a tale for the season

Mostly January was cold and hard, the ground frozen with bits of crust to trip over. Mostly it snowed a good deal in January and we scored at least three snow school holidays. Mostly January found my mom, Tessie, struggling with the idea that spring was still mostly three months away.

When I was a kid folks knew winter was coming and they accepted the cold, the snow, the blistering wind, the distant sun hanging in a chilled sky. The men in the village loaded antifreeze into the car radiators and tied a slice of cardboard in front of the radiator so as to keep the cold from chilling down its boil. They backed their cars into the yard and jacked them up to wrap and buckle snow chains around the tires. Some old timers slipped aluminum foil into the bottom of their snow boots for insulation and debated whether shiny side up or down was the best. Women gave up nylons and wore knee high wool stockings under their pants. Folks who didn’t have triple track storm windows sandwiched cardboard between the glass frames and sometimes taped a Sunday Comic sheet to the top window for a little color. All this was done in preparation for the long cold season; but not my mom. No, Tessie refused to make accommodations for the season. She told us that if you prepare for a cold snap you will surely get one. So she never prepared for the cold and the cold came anyway, sometimes with a vengeance.

Ricky Cramshaw and I were rolling a giant snowball along Mountain Avenue. It was already as big as we were and getting bigger, which meant getting harder to push. We had packed it down with every new layer of snow it gathered as we rolled the snowball closer and closer to the top of First Street. It was hard to move or even talk it was so cold, and our breath came clouding out and up our faces. We were wrapped in layers of wool, booted and mittened such that our arms and legs were thick and awkward. Our plan was to roll the giant snowball down the First Street hill and have it crash into the thruway fence, but as we neared the top of the hill we gave up. The giant snowball was no longer possible to move. It was too big and too heavy. We stopped, stepped back, and stared at it. After some minutes of exhausted silence Ricky spoke. “Well, that’s that.” And so we walked around it and headed down the hill to my folks house for hot chocolate.

My mom Tessie came rolling along Mountain Avenue in her ‘58 Chevrolet Wagon, accompanied by the muffled thumps of her tire chains on the snow-packed road, until she approached the top of First Street where a giant snowball blocked her way. She stopped the car and stared at the massive white ball of winter in the road. She no doubt thought about ramming it but there might be a child on the other side. It was snowing so visibility was not good anyway. She honked her car horn and waited. The snowball did not move. Reluctantly, she opened the car door and got out. The world outside her car was cold and soft and silent, yet active with big, white snow flakes dropping from above. She stepped up to the giant snowball and touched it. It did not move. She walked around and saw that it was smooth and hard and well packed. She faced the snowball, and putting both hands against it, pushed as hard as she could – but it did not move. Determined, she got back into her car and crept the ‘58 Chevrolet slowly up to the edge of the giant ball of snow and ice. Her car touched it. She accelerated and nudged the snowball a few inches. Winter would not get the best of her. She pressed her foot down hard.

Snowball

My dad Walt had made hot chocolate for Ricky and me. We had pulled off our outer layer of clothes and piled them on top of the steam radiator. Walt had us sitting in the dining room with our mugs, which were still steaming. He sat at his desk and was telling us about how when he was a boy, they put special shoes on horses so the animals could trot over the ice of frozen lakes and rivers. I imagined heavily spiked horse shoes that would leave massive dinosaur-like prints in the snow. Walt bent down and picked up one of our gloves, and was just putting it on the radiator when he noticed something out the window. He stopped talking and stared as he watched something roll on by down the hill. We looked up at him and he said to us, “Looks like Tessie’s having fun without us.”

We got up and went to the window and saw out at the bottom of First Street, Tessie sitting up in her ‘58 Chevrolet Station Wagon up against the thruway fence, the front of her car having just skied down the hill with a giant snowball stuck under the wheels. She was trying to back up but the car was stuck with its front end up off the ground. In frustration she honked the horn three times and then three times again.

Ricky, trying to read her horn code, said, “Three beeps and then three more beeps, does that mean, ‘come and get me I’m stuck on a giant snowball?’”

Walt thought about this and said, “Nope, I think it means it’s time to make some more hot cocoa.”

Hot Soup on a Cold Day

Soup for a Winter Day

Nothing tastes better on a cold winter day than a bowl of steaming hot soup. It is true today but it was especially true in former times when a heated house meant a fire burning in the fireplace or in the wood-burning stove. Aromas filling the not-so-warm room and the expectation of a tasty, hot bowl of soup must have been truly comforting. Of course, good hot soup is something to look forward to even today.

The best choice for the season is a filling, hearty soup. In old days at this time of the year there were dried legumes and herbs in the pantry, sauerkraut in the cellar, cabbage, potatoes and root vegetables in the root cellar. If available, cream, milk, sour cream, cheese, or smoked meat provided the luxury of extra protein. Soups became even more filling if pasta, dumplings or grains (think barley, rice, wild rice) were added.

Making soup could be a fun and satisfying activity even for inexperienced cooks.  Although we tend to perceive soup making as a lengthy process, most soups require only several minutes of prep time. While it is true that a good chicken or beef soup benefits from a long slow simmering and it may take half a day to cook, vegetable soups usually require much less cooking time.

So why not to reserve a little time for some unhurried cooking and make a big pot of soup. Maybe we can try to transform the mundane activity of cooking and establish a family ritual of, let’s say, Soup Saturdays. Part of the process can be finding an exciting new recipe or accepting the challenge of improvised cooking and simply making a soup out of what we can find on the shelves of our kitchen cabinets or in the refrigerator.

Potato soups (creamy or chunky), bean and lentil soups, carrot, winter squash or sweet potato cream soups (mild or spicy, made with coconut milk or without), minestrone and borsch (vegetarian or not), cabbage or sauerkraut based soup are all good candidates to become your family’s next favorite winter meal. Make a big pot, most soups taste great reheated next day when the flavors truly come together. Making a bigger batch usually doesn’t mean much more work but it will feed the family more than once.

Keeping with a family tradition, we cooked lentil soup on New Year’s Day. Lentils, looking like tiny coins, are perceived as a symbol of money.  Legend has it that eating lentils on the first day of the year will assure prosperity and financial safety.  There are, of course, no guarantees. Still, on New Year’s Day we nourished our bodies with a satisfying, tasty meal and honored the tradition of our ancestors.  And that is good enough for me.

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Lentil Soup

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup diced onions
½ cup diced celery or celeriac
½ cup diced carrots
1 ½ cup French lentils
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 clove of garlic
¼ black pepper or to taste
few pinches of nutmeg
2 cups diced potatoes
1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
salt to taste
water or stock

For more protein and an extra layer of flavor smoked meat can be added.

Soak lentils overnight (or at least for 5-6 hours) in water. Drain.

In a heavy-bottomed pot heat the vegetable oil. Add the onions, celery or celeriac, and carrots. Sauté until golden. Pour in the water or the broth, add drained lentils, thyme, bay leaves, garlic, pepper, nutmeg, and smoked meat, if using. Cook covered on medium heat for about 40 minutes.  Add the potatoes and cook an additional 15-20 minutes until lentils and potatoes are tender. Add the vinegar and salt to taste. Adjust spices if necessary. Serve with quality bread or rolls.

Preserved Food

Wild food forager and Nature Place activity leader Paul Tappenden tells us what’s local and wild in and around our area. 

Now that winter is upon us, foraged foods are few and far between. So what did our ancestors do at times like this? They couldn’t pop down to the supermarket or eat out in restaurants. In fact, the vast majority had to live off their wits and experience. If they didn’t prepare for the winter months, many of them would die.

Although this prospect doesn’t face most of us today, many still need to preserve foods for use at later times. As a forager, I like to practice these survival skills, and as someone concerned about eating nutrient-rich foods, I like to ensure that I have them on hand to supplement my regular diet year round.  For this reason, I preserve the wild foods I gather in a number of different ways.

Probably the easiest method is to dehydrate them, although this doesn’t work for all foods. It also tends to rob them of flavor and texture. However, in most cases, it does preserve the nutrients. It is a particularly effective way to preserve mushrooms and roots.

Preserved foods

Preserved foods

A popular way of preserving foods is by canning, but this uses high heat, which kills many of the nutrients and requires special equipment, so I don’t go that route. A better approach all around is to ferment food.  Not only does this preserve the goodness (taste and nutrients), but it increases the natural enzymes, and often adds a delicious piquant flavor. A similar approach is to use vinegar to pickle food. I’ve found this to be the best approach with bamboo shoots, field garlic bulbs or ramps.

With nuts, seeds and acorns, I’ll often dehydrate them and grind them into flour, although with acorns, I leach the tannins out of them first.

I store a lot of things in the freezer, which, of course, is a modern luxury that has replaced the root cellar.  I could exist without one, but until that time comes, I’ll enjoy the convenience.

To freeze

To freeze

Winter Tales with Chuck Stead & Open House this Saturday

Listening to stories in the rain? Sounds great if we’re inside and cozy.

Join us at 12 pm this Saturday, 1/16, for Winter Tales with Chuck Stead. We won’t be out in the rain like this group at camp, and we’ll have some snacks to help keep away the cold and damp.

The weather looks like it will clear up just in time for our open house afterward, beginning at 1 pm.

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