In Like a Lion

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious snake-related business…

Staring out at the roaring rumble of a mixed snow/rain storm from the paint shop window, uncle Mal said, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!”.

Jeff Masters said to him, “That aint always true.”

Mal looked at us kids, winked and said, “But a dry March means a wet May, fill barns and bays with corn and hay!”

Jeff laughed and said, “Malcolm, you ought to be a poet weatherman!”

Ricky, Cindy, and I were all sitting on a heap of canvas drop sheets with Mike, the shop dog. We were waiting for our soaked gloves to dry out. Mal had pinned them up over the shop heating vent. We had walked over to the shop, through the village, in a wet snow storm and now it was a snow/rain storm dropping wet white weather all over our world.

Jeff poured himself a little more coffee from the shop pot, returned to his stool and said, “I’m telling you, that scientist, or whatever he is, was up just below the Torne ledge late last night, taking temperatures of the rocks there along the bottom of the cliff.

Mal said, “Well wait now, how do you know he was doing this late at night?”

Jeff explained, “I went in to bait some coon traps along the Torne Brook after dark and I saw him hiking up, to the bottom of the cliffs. Then this morning, at sun rise, I was down at the Red Apple for coffee and there he was, sitting there eating eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. He had the same wooden box I seen him carrying up there the night before. So, I go over to his table and I say to him, ‘You been traipsing around the foot of Torne Mountain last night, I seen you.’ And he says to me that he was there to check the midnight temperature of the underside of the rocks where he figures snakes is hibernating. So, I ask him why, and he says it’s because he wants to know about the temperatures under the rocks as the spring comes in!”

Mal shook his head and said, “Sounds like a scientist. They are a strange tribe. Don’t work with much reason or sensibility.”

Jeff said, “So, I asked him if he was watching for the snakes to come out. And he tells me that he is doing just that, but that he hopes I won’t bother with them, as he is studying them.”

Mal laughed, “Well, why would you bother with them?”

Jeff said, “Up in Warren County they will pay you five dollars for a dead rattler snake. That’s as much as you get for a coon skin. I know fellows who will kill them down here and take them up there for the reward.”

Mal asked him, “Would you do that?”

“No, snaking is not what I do. I’m part Indian and we made our peace with the snake people.”

Ricky said, “Snake people? Who are they?”

Jeff told us, “All the animals got a people sense about them, just as we got an animal sense about us. So, my people, using their animal sense, talked with the snake people who used their animal sense to understand that we didn’t have no argument with them.”

Mal said, “Was that before or after Goldilocks ate up all the bears’ porridge?”

Ricky said, “No, Uncle Mal, she just ate up the baby bear’s porridge, is all.”

Jeff said, “Either way this fellow with the scientific tool kit was up there in the night taking temperatures of under the rocks!”

Mal said, “I don’t like it. First come the scientists and pretty soon the tourists are coming in. Once the tourists show up its all over!”

I said, “What’s all over, Uncle Mal?”

He looked at us kids and said, “Our way of life! There will be souvenir stands, parking lots, trailer camps, kiddy rides, before you know it they will be building a replica Village of Hillburn right next to the real one, anything for a buck!”

Ricky said, “What’s the replica Hillburn going to be like?”

“Well it will be like what Hillburn was like in the old times. If they build it right I might move into it myself!”

Jeff said, “Mal, they might pay you to live there like folks lived in the olden times!”

Outside the storm howled and blew hard against the shop window. We all stared out at the harsh weather and Mal said, “Maybe, I’ll skip living in the old-time village. Winters were pretty hard to take back then.”

Jeff said, “Oh Mal, you’ve just gotten soft in our old age. Winters are no different now than they were then.”

“Maybe not, but I’ve grown accustomed to centralized heat and hot water. No sir, I wouldn’t want to do with-out my civilization!”

Jeff stared out at the storm and said, “Yeah, well your civilization also means snake scientists creeping all over the mountain.”

Mal said, “And nothing good could come of that.”

In the February Thaw

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious happenings in the Ramapo mountains…

There had been an early February thaw long enough that most of the snow had melted off and there was a lot of critter movement. Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, had come out and wandered about, staring at their shadow in the bright winter sunshine. Then they went back into their dens, because seeing their shadow meant winter would last another six weeks. But if it is a long mid-winter thaw, the groundhogs hang out for a few days and poke around for something to eat. Deer mice come out and hurry about looking for food with no fear of snakes, as the snakes don’t travel far from their winter dens. The mice do need to keep a watch out for raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels and hawks—but at least not the snakes. Raccoons and skunks take long naps in the cold weather; not quite hibernating, but long enough to make them very hungry when they come out from time to time. Trappers of these animals bait their traps with oil of anisette, which smells like licorice and is a delicious attraction for hungry coons and skunks.

Geoff Masters went walking along beneath one of the terraces of Torne Mountain to ‘freshen’ up a few traps with some lore he carried in an eye-drop bottle. It was a mixture of anisette, tea tree oil, and skunk urine. The coon population was very much on the rise, so he was doing his best to capture and kill as many of them as he could. The fur was worth as much as $15 an animal, and the meat was the secret ingredient for the Ramapo Burgers, cooked up at his cousin’s Burger Shack. It was the second day of a February thaw and it was early, just past sunrise, when Geoff came around a clutch of boulders along the south slope of the ridge, and nearly walked headlong into a man coming from the other direction. They were both startled and they both stepped back and stared for a moment. This man wore a canvas backpack and was carrying a wooden handle with a curious metal hook at the end of it. The man smiled and said something about it being a nice day for a hike. Geoff agreed and they walked past each other.

But Geoff only went a few feet and then hunkered down and waited behind a large egg-shaped boulder. He feared that this man was a trap stealer and that his curious stick with the hook on it was what he used to snap up the traps he stole. So, after a few minutes, Geoff followed back to track the man. But as he came around the place where they first met, he saw that this man had not gone on down the trail, but instead had gone up the cliff side. Geoff followed up the cliff just a bit and then, out above him, he saw the man setting up a little place, and then proceeding to sit down and watch the broken load of rocks, with the sun on his back.

Later, Geoff said to Uncle Mal at the paint shop, “Mal, I spied on this fellow for at least half an hour and all he did was sit and watch those rocks.”

Mal said, “Was he crazy?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “Except for the watching the rocks thing, he seemed sane enough.”

Me and Ricky where listening to the two men talk about this from where we sat on a heap of canvas drop sheets petting Old Mike, the Shop Dog. Ricky said, “Uncle Mal, how could you tell if a fella was crazy?”

Mal said, “By his behavior, by the way he acts.”
“My Gram says, one man’s crazy is another man’s normal.”
Mal looked down at him and said, “Your grandmother talks to trees so I don’t think she’s a good judge of crazy.”

“She says crazy is something only people can be, animals don’t go in for being crazy.”
Geoff laughed at this. He said, “She’s got a point there.”
Ricky looked into Old Mike’s fuzzy, black face and said, “You ain’t much crazy, Mike!”

Mal said, “Yes sir, the old lady’s right about that. Crazy is something we humans take credit for.”
He then looked at Geoff and said, “But I wonder if this here fellow sitting up on those rocks in the thaw ain’t watching for snakes…”

“Snakes?” Geoff said, “Why would a man watch for snakes in February?”
Mal shrugged and said, “I don’t know, but last month the boys found a froze-up black snake down by the river and that don’t seem right either. You think this fellow might have something to do with that?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “I don’t see how the one thing is connected to the other.”
Ricky looked up and said, “My Gram says everything is connected to the other.”
Mal said, “And she’s the woman who talks to trees, boy!”

And Ricky said, “She likes the oak trees and says they’re the smartest. Pine are serious and the Birch are silly.”

Mal shook his head and told us to go out and talk to some trees. We did, but I couldn’t help to wonder if he wanted us out of there so they could talk some more about this mysterious stranger, up in the mountain staring at snake dens.

Winter Snake

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a mysterious tale of an unexpected winter discovery…

It was cold, cold, cold, and it was dry. It hadn’t snowed in three weeks. We could deal with the cold when there was snow, but without it, the ground was frozen hard and everywhere you stepped felt like you walked on jagged rock. The temperature hung around twenty degrees by day and colder by night. The animals don’t move much when the cold sets in like this; they conserve their energy. The fish drop low in the water and the ice fishermen don’t stay long when the winter wind picks up. So, the last thing you expect to see in these conditions is a snake.

Usually by November 1st, snakes go in under the rocks and don’t come out until after April 1st. Sometimes, if there is a mid-winter warm-up, a few snakes come out to look around and then rush back in under the rocks. Uncle Mal used to tell us, “No self-respected snake comes out in the winter time, because they are naked as a jay-bird.”

Ricky Cramshaw told him, “Uncle Mal, jay-birds ain’t naked—they are covered in feathers!”
Mal said to him, “That is not the point.”
Ricky said, “And jay-birds do come out in the winter!”
Mal said, “Ricky, it’s just a saying!”
“Yeah, and you is just saying it!”

Ricky and I were over at the Paint Shop because we found a frozen black snake down by the river and brought it to Uncle Mal. He stared down at the black snake that was frozen stiff in a neat straight line, like a piece of frozen rope. It was about two feet long, so Mal figured it was a young snake, as they can grow up to six feet or better. Mike, the shop dog, came along and sniffed the snake a few times, and then walked away. Mal rolled it over and we saw that it was white on the underside. He told us it was a Black Rat snake and that if it was black all around it was called a Black Racer.

Ricky said, “So why did it come out and freeze up like this?”
Mal said, “I don’t know. Sometimes they come out if it gets warm but it ain’t been warm in weeks.” He thought about this and then said, “And the thing is they don’t tend to hibernate under rocks by the river; no, they go up to the south side of the mountains where the rocks will keep them warm and dry.” He rolled it back over onto its belly so that its black side was now up again. He said, “No sir, this here snake did not get to the river on its own.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I figure that somebody tossed him down there.”
Ricky said, “Who would put a froze-up snake down by the river?”
Mal said, “Maybe someone found it somewhere else and thought it ought to be put down there?”

I wasn’t sure, but it kind of seemed like the frozen black snake wasn’t as straight as when we found it. I told Uncle Mal that, and he told us a story about one time in the late winter, when Uncle Dutchie found a big frozen Copper Head snake. He picked it up and walked along with it until it warmed up and came back to life!
Ricky said, “Hey, could this snake come back to life?”

Mal wasn’t sure, so he got out a five-gallon bucket and put the snake into it. When he picked it up I saw that it was no longer stiff as a stick, but more rope-y. We put the bucket near the hot air vent and sat by it, keeping an eye on the snake, as it slowly became more rubbery. Mal told us about how Native Americans believe that snakes come back to life all the time.

He started telling us ‘snake-come-back-to-life’ stories and we got to listening to the warm sound of his voice and to thinking about the people and the places in his stories. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a sound from inside the bucket. I jumped up and looked in, and there was the black snake, moving around in the bottom of the bucket! Mal got up and put a screen over the top and placed a hammer there to weigh down the screen. The black snake was now clearly wiggling around. It had come back to life!

Mal told us reptiles slow down and hibernate in the winter, but that if we hadn’t found the snake when we did, it would most likely have died. Ricky was thrilled and he named the snake ‘Blackie’. Mal told us it was not easy to take care of a black snake, especially in the winter time when they want to be asleep.
Ricky said, “He can sleep at my house!”

Mal didn’t agree. He made a few phone calls and then he drove us, with Blackie The Snake, up to the Bear Mountain Zoo, where they had a place to keep snakes in the winter time. There was this man there who knew all about snakes and he examined Blackie and said he was in good shape. He told us we had saved his life. We watched him put Blackie into a special indoor snake den where there were other black snakes sleeping under rocks. This man thanked us again and he walked us through the cold, over to the Bear Mountain Inn. He brought us hot chocolate at the Inn and then he and Mal talked about how long it had been this bitter cold. Then the man said, “You know, Mal, that snake could have only been out there a day or so.”

Mal said, “Yes sir, that’s what I figured.”
“So, somebody must have put him there.”
Mal said he figured that, too. Then both men got quiet and we finished our chocolate and Uncle Mal said, “Somebody is messing with the snakes.”

 

Mistletoe

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells a story of mistletoe missed connections and suprises…

We three kids (Cindy Maloney, Ricky Cramshaw, and myself) sat at the Soda Fountain counter, watching folks come in off the street. Just to the right of the door, a small branch of mistletoe, with its dark green leaves and translucent white berries, hung from the ceiling. We watched to see if anyone kissed under it. My uncle Mal told us that when you stood beneath the mistletoe, the next person to come along was obliged to kiss you. So far, no one stood beneath it. The girl behind the counter was new; we’d never seen her before. She brought us three mugs of hot cocoa and a little plate with three marshmallows on it. We stared at the plate and figured she’d never served cocoa before. She saw us staring at the plate of marshmallows and she said, “They’re marshmallows.”

Ricky said, “Yup, we know that.”
“They’re for your cocoa.”
“Yup, we know that too.”
She said, “Don’t you like marshmallows?”
I said, “Yeah, we like them in our cocoa.”
Ricky said, “But they look silly on a plate.”
Cindy took one of them and dropped it into her mug of cocoa. She said, “We never got them on a plate before.”
The girl said, “Oh. Well, I am new here. My name is Trudy.”
We told her our names and Ricky said, “Trudy, did you hang the mistletoe?”
She said she had hung it.
He said, “Well, it ain’t working. No one goes under it and no kissing happens.”

When he said the word ‘kissing’, he spread it out and made it sound like “Keeeeeey-sing”. Trudy smiled, and I saw that she had dimples in both of her cheeks.

She said, “Well, should we hang it someplace else?”

We all looked around at different places. I thought it could go over the entrance, but that could be a problem for people getting in and out, while kissing-people stood in their way. Ricky suggested over the bathroom door, but then we agreed that it might be smelly there. Cindy suggested a place in front of the juke-box. Trudy went over and got a short step-ladder, took down the mistletoe from where it was, and hung it over the top of the juke box. She put it just a bit in front of the jukebox so folks could get caught standing beneath it. She put the little step ladder away and went down the counter to take a man’s order. We kids took our mugs of cocoa and sat in a booth near the juke box. Still no one walked beneath it.

After a while, Cindy said, “My mom says mistletoe is poisonous.”
I said, “Yup, my mom said you need to be careful about getting kissed by the wrong person under it.”
Cindy said, “How can you tell who the wrong person is?”
“I don’t know. I guess you find out later.”
Ricky said, “Then how can you be careful?”
“I guess you just don’t go under it.”

We finished our cocoa and still no ‘persons’, wrong or right, went under the mistletoe. Finally, Trudy came back to us and said, “Any luck?” We shook our heads.

She stared up at the mistletoe and said that maybe we needed to move it again. She looked at Ricky and said, “Come on little man, help me take it down.”
Ricky slid out of the booth and Trudy brought the step ladder over to the juke-box. She then hefted Ricky up in her arms and she stepped onto the ladder. Ricky stretched his arms upward to the mistletoe overhead. Trudy looked at him and said, “Oh my, we’re under the mistletoe!” He looked at her, mortified, but it was too late, and she kissed his cheek. Cindy and I howled and laughed and shoved each other around. Trudy put Ricky down and he charged directly to the bathroom, where he scrubbed her red lipstick from his cheek. When he came out of the bathroom his face was beet red and he was sporting an over-exaggerated frown.

Trudy came to our table with three more mugs of cocoa—on the house! That made Ricky a little happier. Again, she brought us the marshmallows on a separate plate. Before she left our booth, she winked at Ricky and said, “I’ve never kissed anyone beneath the mistletoe before.”

Ricky looked up as he dropped his marshmallow into his mug and he said, “And you ain’t kissing me again!”

She smiled her double dimples and went back to the counter and there, just over his cocoa mug, I could see he had a little bit of smile going, too.

Truth to Power

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts an early lesson in speaking his truth…

When I was sixteen years old, back in 1969, Richard Nixon was still in his first year as president of the country and, having campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, he had yet to do anything but justify its continuance. I snuck off to Manhattan on the weekends and attended some anti-war rallies and walked among beautiful young hippies who sang folk songs about love, and peace, and justice. The year before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both killed trying to bring peace and justice to the nation. So, my visits to Washington Square Park were to be in a place of hope for a better future. It was there I first met some of our returning veterans who talked of speaking truth to power. It was all so worldly and so beyond my experience growing up in the Village of Hillburn, but I remember the veterans emphasized that the only way to speak truth to power was to do it on a personal level, from the heart.

That Thanksgiving, we were having relatives join us from Nova Scotia, Canada. Among them was an in-law named Hughie. Now, this Hughie was a great admirer of my dad, Walt. Hughie was a hunter and he loved Walt’s hunting stories. Hughie sponsored hunting trips in Canada for his father-in-law and Walt to go on. He regularly sent wild game down from Nova Scotia for Walt. And when Hughie came down to hunt in the states, he regularly defied the hunting laws. He was a big, powerful presence and had little regard for local regulations. And Hughie considered me the inheritor of Walt’s role in Ramapo Woodlore; I was (in his mind) the one who would carry on Walt’s traditions.

However, I was deer hunting only a week before Thanksgiving, when I was shot at by careless hunter. It was a close call and not my first. I declared that this was nonsense and that too much of legalized hunting was carried on by dangerous weekend pioneers. I quit hunting right then and there (and, anyhow, I was losing focus thinking about Vietnam and all this ‘speak truth to power’ stuff).

So, there we were around the Stead Thanksgiving table: my family and our Canadian cousins. Walt was at one end of the table and my Mother, Tessie, was at the other. My sisters and a brother-in-law sat with me on one side, and Hughie’s wife and his daughters were all on the other side facing us. I was at the middle of the table and Hughie sat directly across from me. The eating of the meal had gone well and was pleasant enough, but I detected that Hughie was preoccupied with something. Then just as the coffee and apple pie were set out, he spoke.  Looking directly at me he said, “I hear you don’t hunt no more.”

The room fell quiet. The gentle sound of silverware clinking and spoons being stirred in coffee cups disappeared and a heavy expectation fell over the whole scene.

I said, “Yup, I quit.”
“Quit? What on earth for?”
I said, “Because there are too many people walking around in the woods shooting at each other.”
He smiled and said, “Oh hell, that don’t make no difference.”
I said, “Yes, it does.”
He lost his smile and said, “Why?”

And there it was, that personal moment of truth to power. I knew Walt was watching me now. It seemed like everyone was waiting for my answer. I said, “Because that is my decision. We don’t need the meat and I don’t need to be shot at.”

He looked down at his plate of Tessie’s apple pie. I waited for somebody else to say something, but the room was so silent now it felt like a loud silence. Without looking up he said, “Then I sure hope you don’t go to Vietnam.”

And before I could think of what to say I said, “I’m not going. It’s wrong and I’m not going.”

That was not one of our friendly Thanksgiving meals. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that. We eased back into a ‘let’s not talk about things’ mood.

Later, after everybody left and my sisters were talking with Tessie in the kitchen, I sat in the living room with Walt, watching an old black and white movie on the television. It was a war movie and, after a while, he said to turn it off. I got up and went over to the television set and switched to a different channel that had a Thanksgiving special with the singer Perry Como. But Walt said to turn the whole set off. I did, and returned to the upholstered chair where I picked up a weather-beaten paper-back book of poetry by e. e. cummings. Walt picked up his monthly issue of New York State Conservationist magazine. We read in silence: him smoking his pipe and me chewing a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. The voices of the women in the back kitchen teased and reminisced. The bad time of my talking with cousin-in-law Hughie was slipping away.

That was when Walt looked up from his magazine and said, “You know, Hughie don’t like you much.”

I said I knew that.

He then said, “But he respects you for speaking your truth.”

That was when I learned that few people like you for speaking truth to power, but they just might respect you.

Time Off

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, gives us Ricky Cramshaw’s musings on ‘time’…

 

Uncle Mal looked again at his wristwatch. shook his head, and said, “That Indian is never on time!”

Me and Ricky Cramshaw and Cindy Maloney were on our way down to the river to look for floating stuff. It had rained hard the night before, and that meant the river would have new floating stuff coming down from up north. We got as far as the Fourth Street World War One monument when we had found uncle Mal sitting on the stone bench there. He was wearing tan trousers, a cotton collared shirt with a light blue jacket, and a white cowboy hat. He sat on the edge of the stone bench, because the seat still had a puddle from last night’s rain. I asked him who the Indian was that he was waiting for.

He answered, “Jeff Masters, he’s part Injun from his mother’s side.”

Ricky said, “You mean she’s only Indian on her side?”

Uncle Mal ignored that and said, “So anyway, he told me to meet him here at ten this morning…” He looked again at his watch and said, “…and now it’s ten after ten!”

Ricky said, “Ten after ten?”

“Yeah Cramshaw, its ten minutes after ten o’clock!” He looked again at his watch and said, “When are you going to get yourself a wristwatch, Cramshaw?”

Ricky said, “Never!”

“Never? Why not?”

“If I had one of those, I’d be looking at it all always and getting mad at the time all the time.”

“What?”

“You know just like you, yelling at it for being later every time I looked at it.”

Mal shook his head and said, “I don’t know how you get anything done!”

Ricky said, “By not having a watch to tell me it ain’t done yet.”

Mal stood up quickly and said, “I ain’t got time for this foolishness!”

And Ricky said, “Sure you do! You got a whole lot of time in that watch!”

Mal marched off down the road talking to himself. Me and Cindy sat on the edge of the stone bench while Ricky stared at the names of the people who had died in the World War.

Cindy said, “You know, Ricky, you really annoy Uncle Mal.”

Ricky said, while studying the names, “All these folks thought they were going to live longer than they did. I wonder if they were as worried about time as Uncle Mal is.”

Just then Jeff Masters came walking along Fourth Street, saw us, and asked if we’d seen Uncle Mal. We told him Mal just left—angry that Jeff was late. Jeff said, “Your Uncle Mal needs to take some time off.”

And Ricky agreed, saying that time off was the best kind of time of all. Jeff smiled and walked on in the direction Mal had gone; and the three of us continued on to the river to find floating stuff.

Back to School

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recalls daydreaming during class in Catholic School, and what his Third Grade Nun had to say about it…

It happens at the end of every summer. Come September, there is the ritual return to school. The beginning of my third year at Catholic School was much like the year before. Marching in well-ordered lines from the playground/parking lot into the tan-bricked school building and up into our first-floor classroom, we were returned to our formal training. Ricky Cramshaw, Cousin Buzzy, and Cindy Maloney were across the street at the public school, which was called the Washington Avenue School. But I was sent to the Sacred Heart of Jesus school, where my mother Tessie hoped I would be inspired to lead a sacred life. My dad, Walt, didn’t care which school I went to, as long as I skipped as many days possible and spent them in the woods.

Our teachers were called Nuns, and they were women who wore black and white robes with hats that were called Habits. Ricky observed that they looked like penguins (and they did, sort of). My First Grade Nun was an elderly woman who didn’t seem to know why she was there. My Second Grade Nun was an exceptionally short woman, who was one of the toughest Nuns I ever met. But the Third Grade Nun was just the opposite. She was tall and gentle and she sang out constantly—beautiful psalms and hymns while we were doing lessons. She even taught us to sing. She was the first woman teacher at this school whom I was not afraid of.

During the first week of school, I found myself assigned to a desk near the window. The maples had yet to turn and the squirrels were busy running about the branches and pulling on fresh, new acorns. No matter what the subject, my thoughts drifted away and out the window, first to the squirrels in the trees and then further on to the woods back home. At mid-morning of each school day there was a recess, wherein all the kids were marched out to the hall and then each one took a turn to visit the bathroom, whether you needed to or not. On the third day of third grade, when we marched out to the hall, this singing nun (whose name was Sister Barbara Ann) stopped me and looked into my face and said, “Master Stead, for the past three days I have seen you stare out the window and drift away into the trees out there.”

 

I nodded my head in agreement, since there was no sense in hiding what she already knew. But then she said this, “And I can see by your face that you go beyond the trees to some other place.”
Again, I nodded, but I was now scared that she could see inside me.
She said, “Where do you go?”
I spoke slowly and said, “Up the mountain to look for animal tracks.”
“What kind of animal tracks?” she asked.
“Squirrel, opossum, coon, cat and dog.”
“Why?”
I told her, “Because that was how nature writes its story.”
She looked at me and her face was full of wonder. She said, “I’ll tell you what, Master Stead, when I see that look in your eyes and think you are searching for animal tracks, I won’t call on you, OK?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
Then she said, “But sometimes I will need to call on you to help me answer things about places and arithmetic and about double negatives…”
I said, “I ain’t got no double negatives.”
She smiled and said, “I don’t got no negatives neither.”

She then stood up and sent me to the bathroom. And for the rest of the year, I knew there were times when she saw that I was looking out the window, and she did not call on me. Sister Barbara Ann was my first favorite teacher, for letting me go away when I needed to.

Mystery at Lake Antrim

Last month, Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, told us of his day sponging up water from the floor of Mrs. Sutherland’s basement, and the brief glimpse he caught of an old garage on her property. Read on, as the story continues…

 

After Uncle Mal and Slip McCloskey fixed the leak in Mrs. Sutherland’s basement, Mal decided we ought to do a spring clean-up in her back yard. I was eager to do this because when we were there a month ago, I noticed an old garage full of interesting looking stuff. I got Ricky to come along with us by bribing him with an ice cream reward.

We rode over in Mal’s pick-up truck. He backed the truck down into the yard and stopped a few feet from the open garage door. We jumped out and ran around to the big open doorway and fixed our eyes on all things metal and wooden and old and mysterious. Uncle Mal came around the other side of the truck and handed us two pairs of small canvas work gloves. He said, “We ain’t going in there. We’re doing yard work!”. Reluctantly, we followed him to the right side of the building and into the back yard, which sloped down to the shore of Lake Antrim. It was a great place to have a back yard, right there on the lake. The only thing was that half of the lake was filled in by the New York State Thruway. The Thruway was as tall as a two-story house. It was close too; if you jumped into the water you could swim to the gravel in a few minutes. And it was loud—especially when a big eighteen-wheeler truck went by. Where we lived in Hillburn was close to the Thruway, but not this close.

Uncle Mal stood clear of us and swung away with a grass sickle. We had a couple of leaf rakes and were pulling the leaves away from the side of the building. Where the yard dropped off to the water line, the garage had a lower room facing the lake. We walked around this back area and discovered that this end of the building looked like a little house. It had a couple of windows and a door in the center. We looked into the first window and saw some furniture arranged in there like someone used to live inside.

“That was a very special place,” Mrs. Sutherland said from behind us.
Mal walked over with his sickle in hand and said, “You two get away from there!”
Mrs. Sutherland said, “No, Malcolm, let them go inside.”

Uncle Mal walked around the old lady and opened the door with some effort, as it was jammed. He got it full open and told us not to touch anything. We stepped into the dank musty room and saw that cobwebs, like a hundred miniature fairy curtains, were everywhere–draped over wicker chairs and a plank table. There were three old steamer trunks, a bunch of garden tools, and an old-fashioned icebox. We stepped into the middle of the room. There was a feeling in this space, a sad feeling.

Ricky said, “This place needs to be happy.”
Uncle Mal said, “You two need to rake up them leaves!”
But Mrs. Sutherland said, “The boy is right, Mal. Enough time has passed. This was such a good place. It needs to be happy again.” She looked at me and Ricky and said, “This summer, you boys come back and I’ll pay you to fix up this place.”

Uncle Mal told her we only needed to be paid in ice cream, but she said she would pay in dollars. As we walked back outside, the old woman said, “And bring your friend Cindy. This place needs a girl’s touch!”

She then looked across the lake at the Thruway and said, “Yes, this place has been sad for too long a time.”

 

To Be Continued this summer at The Nature Place…

 

Listening to the Land

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts a day spent coping with the floods of spring and learning an important lesson.

After the winter thaw, there come spring showers. They are gentle and deceptive and very inviting. The thing is, the earth is still saturated with a soaking from melted winter thaw, and spring showers have no place to go but over land, downhill. By the third week in the month, vernal ponds and freshets emerge all across the woodlands and eventually make their way into neighborhoods, flooding yards and seeping into basements. This is the soaking that brings forth a celebration of life, but it can also undermine the concrete and stone beneath our houses.

freshet

Uncle Mal had us kids (Me, Ricky Cramshaw, and Cindy Maloney) climb into the back of his International Pick-Up truck, where we found three red rubber buckets and three oversized sponges. He told us we were on a mission of good will and that we were to be rewarded with ice cream at Hagedorn’s Soda Shop. We drove down Fourth Street, over the Thruway Bridge, across the railroad tracks, and onwards to Suffern. We sat against the back of the cab and waved at the people driving behind us, as we watched the red buckets roll around in the truck bed. As you drive into the Village of Suffern, the road wraps around Nordkoff Mountain, takes you under an over pass, up Wayne Avenue, and under another over pass. Each time we drove under one of these, we looked up and watched the pigeons sail about just under the massive steel girders. The air along the road was a sweet mixture of early spring fragrance laced with concrete dust and a dank iron odor. Uncle Mal pulled the truck into a short yard that had a steep driveway dropping off toward Lake Antrim. We climbed out of the truck and found we were at the home of Mrs. Sutherland. Mal handed us each one of the buckets and one of the big sponges. We then followed him to the front door where he knocked twice and then opened the door and called out her name, “Mrs. Sutherland, we’re here!”

She came from the back room kitchen. She was a smallish woman who looked as if she didn’t want company. She was shaking her head and staring at us. I could not guess her age as she seemed older to look at but was younger to listen to. She said, “Oh, now look at this crew. What are they up to?”

Uncle Mal said, “We’re going to take a look at that big puddle in the basement and figure out where it’s coming from.”

She looked up at Mal and said, “Oh now I can’t have these kids getting all dirty down there in that old basement.”

Mal said, “Maybe you can’t, but I can!” Before she could protest he pushed his way past her and had us follow him into the kitchen, through a door and down a set of plank steps. We arrived in a basement that was walled in concrete and stone and only partially floored in concrete, with the rest being the dirt. Half the floor was covered in water which was the color of cocoa. Mal took up a mop and bucket with a double roller ringer on it that was sitting at the edge of the big puddle. He started sloshing it around, soaking up the cocoa colored water and ringing it out into the bucket, which he quickly filled. He told us to wait until he got most of the water out and then we were to sponge up the rest. He dumped out four buckets full of water before we could get started. He had us pat the floor water with the sponge, which caused the water to soak quickly.

Mal went back upstairs to talk with Mrs. Sutherland while we, down on our knees, continued our work. We kept getting little bits of grit, stones, and sand soaked up with the water, and our bucket mixture looked darker than the water Mal had mopped up. It was hard, dirty work, but it didn’t take all that long. Mal came clamoring back down the plank steps and was very pleased to see that we had completed the task. He then got down on his own knees and studied a seam in the floor right along the edge of the concrete. He pulled out a flashlight from his baggy trousers and scrutinized the seam with the light beam. He looked back at us and said, “That’s where it’s coming through. Only thing to do is seal off the rest of this floor.”

We went outside and dumped our buckets while Uncle Mal explained what he had discovered to Mrs. Sutherland, who was now smoking a cigarette by her back door. She thanked us and told us we were good workers. We walked back to the truck, and I noticed that down the narrow driveway there was an old open garage that was full of interesting looking stuff. But it was time to go. We climbed back into the truck and Mal rode us into the town.

At Hagedorn’s I ordered Vanilla, Ricky order Chocolate, and Cindy got Strawberry. Uncle Mal got a cup of coffee and drank it without any milk in it. He told us that Mrs. Sutherland’s husband had passed away and that he and a couple of fellows were going to fix up her basement, because it leaked every spring and sometimes again in the summer. I said I didn’t think Ricky, Cindy, and I had been of much help and Mal said, “Well what do you want me to do, take the ice cream back?”

Ricky said, “No!”

Cindy said, “All’s we did was sponge up some water and you probably could have done it faster than us anyway.”

Mal thought about this and nodded, “Well, maybe I could’ve…” he said. He sipped his coffee and then said to us, “But you see, you kids got to learn something about the old ways. You see, we’re a people of the land. And we act according to what the land is doing. It’s cold and freezes and we got to cope with it; it gets warm and floods and we got to cope with that. And some people, they don’t cope as well as others. So you got to pay attention to the land and it will tell you when you need to go out and help those who need the help. You see, it ain’t us against the land, it’s just us listening to what the land has got to tell us.”

We finished our ice dream and uncle Mal paid the bill. He turned around on his swivel stools and he said, “The world is changing and I think the old way of listening to the land is being forgotten.”

And even though we really had no idea what he was talking about, we promised him that we would never forget it. Mostly I think we promised this because the ice cream was good.

Maple Water

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a tale of Maple Water in the mountains and gratitude for Mother Earth.

We always hated to see the last of winter. Along with snow holidays off from school, the seasonal blanket of white turned the woodlands into an Artic adventure. Come evening, the very earth itself seemed to be illuminated with a fairy landscape that hinted at nature’s mystery. There were so many stories to follow in the tracks of wildlife that even the sleeping forest was awake with animal speak. But as March moved us toward April, the snow started to melt, and the creeks ran high, and the early buds snuck out from their tiny stalks. Dainty white Snow Drops and bright purple crocuses suddenly appeared even before the last snow fell. The Black Capped Chickadee changed his sweet mournful two notes that seemed to tell us “Spring Soon,” to an excited four note celebration “Spring is Com-ing!”. My friends and I saddened as winter slipped away. But then! There was Jeff Masters’ annual tasting of Maple Water! This was the official recognition that winter was on its last legs.

We followed Jeff up a trail to one of his favorite sugar maples. He somehow moved fast, but looked like he was walking slowly. His was a long-ambled stride that seemed easy and relaxed, but actually moved along pretty fast. My uncle Mal used to describe Jeff’s walking style as ‘country’ or ‘mountaineer’ walking. He said my dad walked that way and that I would too eventually. Cindy Maloney was behind me and hers was a focused, purposeful walking style, while Ricky Cramshaw followed us with his easy-going wander that meandered more than directed. As for me, I couldn’t figure out how I walked, seeing as how I couldn’t see myself from a distance, but I once saw a home movie in which me as a littler kid walked by. I was startled at seeing how I looked and refused to look at it a second time. I think it scared me.

We got to the top of the small ridge and crossed over to the southern side where the winter sun had turned the snow pack into mush. We reached Jeff’s favorite tree. He hunkered down and with his brace and bit tool, he pressed the long curly metal bit against a good spot in the tree bark and began to drill. He cranked the open handle around many times until he got deep enough into the tree. Then he removed the drill bit and took out a small metal nozzle, which he pounded into the hole in the tree with a hammer. Almost immediately, drips of sap came down the open nozzle and Jeff hung his metal bucket on the nozzle. We all looked in and watched as the tree let out one drop after another. “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!”. The sound spoke out to us. Jeff stood back and said, “Come evening, when the temperature drops, it will slow down. Then, as long as its real cold tonight and then warm tomorrow, it will pick up again.” We followed him to a second tree where a bucket was already hanging. Here, he took out four little tin cups from his pack. This bucket was more than half full and Jeff easily dipped the cups into the bucket and gave us each a half cup of Maple Sap.

maple bucket

Sugaring bucket hanging from a maple tree

He said, “Now don’t drink it just yet. We gotta thank the earth mother for sharing with us.”

Ricky quickly said, “Thank you, Earth Mother!”

Jeff said, “Look up to the sky and thank Creator.”

We did this.

He then said, “Look down to the earth and thank the ancestors.”

We did.

He then said, “Thank you Earth Mother for all you share with us.”

I said, in this moment, “Amen.”

Cindy said, “Amen? What do you think? We’re praying?”

Before I could answer Jeff said, “Well, yes we are.”

We all sipped our sap. It’s Maple Water actually. If you boil it down, 40 quarts of this Maple Water will yield one quart of maple syrup—after most of the water has been boiled out of it. Jeff told us that the elders used to gather the maple water and let it freeze, then remove the ice on top, which was another way to extract the water part. The sugar would settle at the bottom, and would not freeze with the water. It took a lot of refreezing to get down to a sweet syrup.

boiling sap

Maple water boiling over a fire

The maple water tasted just a bit like maple syrup but was cool and delicious to wash across your tongue and very rewarding to swallow. This sweet drink was like a promise from winter that things would be good when spring came. Nature would take care of us now that we survived a long, cold winter. Ricky looked at the grand, grey maple that reached out over our heads and he said, “So when you tap the maple water, does it all come down from way up there?”

Jeff smiled and said, “The tree gathers up water from the ground and even from the leaves. When the maple water gets made, it moves through the tree just like your blood moves through you. It moves up and down throughout the tree.”

Cindy asked, “Does the tree have a heart?”

Jeff looked at her and grinned, “You mean does a heart in the tree move sap like our heart moves our blood around inside of us?”

She said, “Well, yeah I guess, but I also mean, is it a living thing like us?”

Jeff put his open palm on the tree and said, “Well no, it does not have a heart like we have to pump our blood around. The whole tree helps in moving the maple water just by the way the tree breaths.”

Ricky shouted, “Trees breathe?”

“Yup and it is a living thing, not just like us, but kind of like us. It needs air and water and food, too.”

Ricky observed, “Well this tree has been eating well, because this maple water is tasty!”

Jeff looked at me and said, “You ain’t said much. What do you think of our maple water this year?”

“Good” I said, and then added, “Amen.”