So Long, Sweet Summer…

With school underway and tinges of yellow and orange cropping up in our trees, its plain too see that fall is upon us and summer is gently waving goodbye. And what a beautiful, magical, exploratory, nature-ific, fresh, funny summer it was. Here are a few treasured memories from this summer, to carry us through the months until we can be reunited again.

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.

Click for a Cause!

Help the Pfeiffer Center get considered for a major grant to expand Neighbor to Neighbor!

Neighbor to Neighbor is an after-school program where students from a local public middle school work, play, and grow food and community, with Green Meadow High School students and the Pfeiffer Center gardeners.

Each summer, six of these middle school students are then able to attend The Nature Place, where the sense of community deepens, and many often return to us as staff down the road.

Please, help us further connect kids to each other and to the land through this exciting opportunity.

Visit www.pfeifferkids.org, and please vote for our project every day through May 12.

Many, many thanks!

DSC_1915

DSC_8789

Chocolates and Flowers

Valentine’s Day meant my dad Walt would go down to Trudy’s Drug Store in Suffern and buy my mom Tessie a big heart-shaped box of chocolates. Inside the box the chocolates were individually wrapped in little accordion-cupped papers. There were dark, milk and white chocolates, and they were all filled with something. There were nuts, mints, jams, caramels and various sweet, chewy mysteries. Ricky and I learned from my sister Muffin how to pierce the flat bottoms of a chocolate in order to test its contents. Soft, chewy things were usually disgusting while hard ones were usually good, although this was not a fixed rule. One year the mint chocolates were not firm, instead composed of a delicious, almost honey-like substance, while what appeared to be nut-filled chocolates turned out to be shriveled, dried figs. The rule to invading the heart-shaped chocolate box was that Tessie had to have first dibs. Which usually didn’t take too long – she always opened the box as soon as Walt gave it to her.

Rose

This year Walt offered to take Ricky and me with him to buy the Valentine box of chocolate. Previously this had been something he always did alone. So we jumped into the truck and rode down to Suffern. Trudy’s was a drug store that also sold boxed candy, and was the place to take your camera film to have it developed into pictures. In those days cameras had little rolls of film that had to be sent out for developing into negatives and prints. This usually took at least a week. Sometimes you would drop off a roll of film and months would pass; then one day in the winter you would walk into Trudy’s to buy some aspirin or deodorant or something like that, and someone behind the counter would say, “Hey, you still got a roll of film back here waiting for you!” And you’d say, “I do?” And then you would pay for it and stand around in Trudy’s looking at the pictures and saying, “I’ll be damned – look at us in the summer time!”

So we followed Walt into Trudy’s and watched as he picked out a big heart-shaped box of chocolates. Cindy Maloney and her mom were in the store and they were looking at a wooden crutch, covered with a foam pad so you could lean on it under your underarm. We knew what this was about. Cindy’s dad John Maloney had badly sprained his ankle chasing her little brother Mort across the ice in front of their house. We knew this was a sore subject so I figured we weren’t going to say anything, just as Ricky, who had been studying the rubber bottom of the crutch, walked up to Lorraine Maloney and said, “Maybe you ought to get rid of that rubber tip and sharpen it to a point so he can walk on the ice?”

Lorraine said, “Maybe you ought to mind your own business.”

Ricky said, “I don’t got a business. I’m a kid!”

Cindy turned him around and moved him back beside me. “My mom is not happy about my dad’s ankle. She’s getting him the crutch so he’ll go back to work. He is driving her crazy.”

I said, “Well, maybe she ought to get him a Valentine’s box of candy…”

Cindy looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, Chucky, and what are you getting me?”

There it was. I somehow didn’t see it coming. I was just talking with them and next thing I knew I walked right into that one. I had to think quick. I said, “Well it’s nothing you can eat.” I said that because I knew if I bought her chocolate Ricky and I would eat it first.

She grinned and said, “So I’ll come over for it later today.” She turned to her mother and looked back and said, “And I’ll bring you something, too.”

Ricky said, “And what about me?”

She looked at him. “Well you’re not my boyfriend, Ricky.”

“No I’m not!” He agreed and added, “Not in a million years!”

She nodded and walked off.

Outside we followed Walt, with his Valentine’s gift, back to the truck. Walt, who had heard us kids talking, tossed the box into the truck and then walked us up to the Florist’s Shop. We went in there and he picked out two roses, a red one and a yellow one, and he had them wrapped individually. He then said to me, “Here you can give this to Cindy”, and he handed me the red one. He looked to Ricky and said, “Yellow ones are for friends on Valentine’s Day, so you can give this to her as a friend.”

We took our roses and Ricky asked, “Is Chucky going to marry Cindy?”

I said, “Nope.”

Walt said, “This ain’t about getting married, Ricky. This is about keeping the peace.”

We climbed back into the truck and Rick asked, “But were we at war?”

Walt said, “No, but this keeps you from going to war.”

Later that day, close to supper time, Walt gave Tessie the candy box. She opened it and as soon as she took off the heart shaped lid you could smell the scent of mixed chocolates. She examined one and ate it. Ricky and I were both allowed to take one. We studied the little lumps of sugary delight and then carefully made our choices. I ended up with a hard mint chocolate and Rick got a chocolate caramel. As he chomped down slowly, working his teeth through the hard caramel, we heard Cindy come up onto the back porch. I let her in and she handed Ricky and me each a small envelope. Tessie then offered her a chocolate and Cindy managed to choose one containing almond clusters. I then opened my envelope and found not a card but a black and white snapshot of Cindy standing by a tree. Ricky then said to her, “Whaa ou gaa me for? I ain’t ou oy-friend?”

Despite the hard candy he talked through she understood and said, “No, you are my friend, that’s all.”

He opened his envelope and found a snapshot of a dead fish. He was thrilled and showed it to Walt and Tessie proudly.

We then both gave her our roses and she smiled and kind of turned away. Ricky, who had by now finished his caramel, followed her around and said, “Hey what are you crying for? Don’t you like flowers?”

She tried keeping away from him but he followed her across the room, so Tessie announced we could each have another chocolate. We all returned to the box and studied it carefully.

Ricky said, “I think there’s one of them lousy coconut ones in there.”

I said, “Or maybe one of them cherry flavored ones that taste like cough syrup?”

Cindy said, “Or something crispy, but you don’t know what it is.”

That was the worse, getting something you don’t know but feeling obligated to eat it anyway. I slowly moved my fingers toward a roundish dark chocolate one and Cindy said, “I don’t think so.” So I took up a chocolate square. It turned out to be a little wafer dipped in chocolate, nothing special, just a plain wafer. Cindy found a mint and Rick eagerly grabbed up a dark round one, tossed it into his mouth and then shouted, “Coconut!”

Maple Sugaring Hints and Tips

Our two maple sugaring programs tomorrow are sure to be sweet! The first one is from 10 – 11 am, and the second from 2 – 3 pm. Toward the end of the program, after everyone’s had a taste of syrup on ice (along with a dill pickle), we hand out a sheet full of maple sugaring hints and tips. All the information we provide during the program (how to identify maples, the right type of tapping weather, how to drill the hole, hang your bucket, and much more) can be hard to remember, so this take-home reminder comes in handy.

If you can’t make it tomorrow you can still download our hints and tips here, to help you in tapping your own maple tree at home.

Download our Maple Sugaring Hints and Tips

Listen hard enough, and you might hear the sap running through the tree!

Listen hard enough, and you might hear the sap running through the tree!

 

Making a Bird Feeder

Header

December’s colder weather and the year’s turn toward winter mean less available food for hungry resident birds. This time of year offers an opportunity for us to fill some of the vacuum left by nature’s waning resources, and by doing so bring some action, drama, color, and an endlessly watchable scene of hungry visitors to our attention.

Making this bird feeder is simple, and viewing the results of your work can be an exciting and easy way to connect with the natural world during this season.

 

Materials you’ll need:

What you'll need

A plastic bottle, a screw or eye hook screw, string, a wooden spoon, a knife or scissors, some birdseed.

 

What to do:

Putting the screw in the cap

Using your knife or scissors (parents, help your children), start a small hole in the cap of your plastic bottle, and then twist your screw into this incision.

 

Tying the string around the screw

Then tie your string around the screw. The length of your string can be based on the height at which you’d like your feeder to rest.

 

Cutting a larger hole in one side

Take your knife or scissors and make an incision toward the bottom of your bottle.

 

Cutting a smaller hole in the other side

Make another small hole opposite the first incision.

 

Putting the spoon through the bottle

Now insert your wooden spoon! Our first incision is slightly larger than the second in order to accommodate the wide end of the spoon, and to serve as an opening for bird seed to fall out of, onto the waiting bowl of the spoon.

 

Pouring the bird seed

Removing the cap, fill your feeder with bird seed. Most of our bird seed ended up on the ground around the bottle before it made it inside. A funnel would have helped!

 

Complete feeder

After filling your bottle with bird seed, close the cap, and you’re ready to hang up your feeder.

 

Hang the feeder, here on a string between two trees

We tied a string between two trees, and then hung the feeder in the middle (some squirrel protection).

 

We waited for our first visitor, who arrived only a few minutes after putting the bird feeder out.

An interested chickadee

An interested chickadee

 

Going in

Eating the bird seed

 

Have fun!

Contrasts

As I write this in mid-November I’m looking out my office window at the magnificent, redder-than-red  leaves of a Japanese Maple. Others have recently said to me how striking the Japanese Maples appear this year, as if inside each there was an internal glowing furnace of red.

Maple aflame

Maple aflame

They truly may be a brighter red color than other seasons but they also may catch our attention more because of the contrasts. Most other leaves have fallen, or if they are still on their tree or bush they are of a muted color. Overcast, gray days also provide a contrast.

The natural world is filled with contrasts:  the seasons themselves, the weather, how it’s great to be out on a cold day and then soul-satisfying to come into a warm, inviting space, maybe even one with a fireplace or wood stove.


Maybe not a contrast but certainly something we didn’t notice until the leaves began to fall, is the hornets’ nest securely attached to the Ginkgo tree on the lawn behind Holder House. This lawn area serves as a daily dismissal site at the end of each of our camp days. I received no reports this past summer about the nest, nor were there any stings from this nest in the nurse’s log. So here was a new treasure for us.

 

Hornets' nest

Hornets’ nest

Bald-faced or white-faced hornets make their paper nest by chewing wood and mixing it with their saliva – giving us the idea years ago of making paper from wood. They eat flies, caterpillars, spiders, fruit, meat, nectar (for the larvae – pollen, too)  and yellow jackets. During mid-summer there can be up to 300 hornets (queens, workers, drones) in a large nest!

All the hornets die in the fall – except one or more newly inseminated queens. They don’t stay in the nest but overwinter under logs, rocks, in hollow trees, underneath the shingles of your house. When spring comes the queen(s) comes out of hibernation and begins to build a new nest and lay eggs. From these eggs the newly hatched worker hornets then continue building upon what she has started while she basically stays in egg-laying mode. The old nest is not reused.

Ginkgo tree with hornets' nest (left and middle)

Ginkgo tree with hornets’ nest (left and middle)

Perhaps you have heard stories of people, perhaps a teacher, carefully cutting down a nest in early fall to bring it inside. After all, it is a marvelous and beautiful piece of architecture. And then, because of warmer inside temperatures, some of the still-inside-but-thought-dead hornets crawl out of the nest, sometimes to actually fly around! In a classroom I can imagine this to be a teachable moment, but one perhaps filled also with shouts and screams and running around.

Many autumns ago I was driving back to Rockland after doing a day of outdoor education activities at a Westchester school. During my lunch break that day one of the teachers presented me with a huge hornet’s nest she had removed from an apple tree on her property. Always on the lookout for cool nature items to share with children, and not to turn down a special ‘gift’ meant for me, I gladly accepted it. I placed it right away on the front seat of my car, making sure I wouldn’t forget it. The day ended, I got into my car and proceeded west.

As soon as I began to cross the Tappan Zee bridge I saw just the slightest movement out of the corner of my right eye – from the area of the passenger seat. Before I looked, a thought quickly came to mind: the car’s interior, since lunch time, has been quite warm, my car having been parked in a spot that was fully in that afternoon sun. At this point I said a word that I shall not print here. Almost in slow motion I dared to move me eyes down and to the right. I could see a hornet beginning to crawl out of the hole, leg by slow-leg, as if she, too, were in slow-mo. I  then saw some other legs and head emerge. I said that word again. Two were now out on top of the nest itself, but moving, as I said, very slowly. Probably my imagination, but I felt as if they were looking at me! So here I am, in the middle of the Tappan Zee bridge, cars and trucks whooshing by, no where to pull over, and maybe soon to have MANY hornets buzzing about. And I could not imagine them being happy hornets, what with their having their home moved, probably jostled about a bit and perhaps somehow knowing that their time as earthly hornets was soon to be over.

I felt I was in some kind of monster movie – they do look very big up close. Very close. Two more came teasingly slowly out onto the nest and joined the other two just s-l-o-w-l-y walking all around the nest, circling it (making plans, a countdown?).

I pressed pedal to the metal, got to the other side of the bridge, pulled off, carefully took the nest out and put it in my trunk. Phew.

I still love hornets, give them their space, acknowledge their reason for sharing this planet with us and will no longer in fall put a hornet’s nest in my warm car.

Thanksgiving

Storyteller Chuck Stead shares a Thanksgiving tale with us for this month of November.

Chuck

Chuck

My mom Tessie was not known for her cooking. Her meat was dry, her beans watery, her potatoes lumpy but she found salvation in her apple pie. Her pie crust was light and delicate and still firm, and a slice was packed with warm, sweet apples like a little vessel from heaven. Few folks favored Tessie’s apple pie as did my friend Ricky Cramshaw. For Ricky, whose own mother and grandmother produced a delicious Thanksgiving meal each year, the end was always a slice of Tessie’s apple pie, for as his grandmother used to say, “Everything is better with Tessie’s pie.”

Thanksgiving – with the deep chill, the last of the muddy rust forest as the world adjusted to dark grays and brown in wait for the first snow – was the traditional first week of gunning season for deer. The sight of woolen wrapped men carrying shotguns into the woods, the distant sound of twelve gauge ‘pop’ and the return of men dragging a buck cleaned of its interior, this was the eve of winter. Thanksgiving, not unlike the Fall Harvest, not unlike the Algonquin Gamwing, was a ceremonial meal heralding survival, community and the continuance of family.

Tessie started her meal preparations the night before, and the first guests to arrive an hour or so after noon the next day were tasked with arranging tables and chairs, plates and utensils. Leading up to the three o’clock meal an expected bustle of energy filled the cramped little house in our village. This despite the fact that no one had any delusions as to the quality of Tessie’s spread. She was a black-hearted Irishwoman who did not cook food as much as kill it, but there was always her apple pie in the end. Everything was better with Tessie’s pie.

As we came to settle in, Walt and a couple of uncles finished their smoke and sauntered in to one end of the table. Cousins found seating and snatched a fresh roll or two while talking about their different schools, plans for the holidays and gossip about distant relatives. And then there was Patty. A friend of my sister’s, she sat across the way and was very quiet. I did not know this girl, only Terry knew her. She was invited at the last minute, something about needing cheering up and about her family not understanding. I thought she was very pretty in a far-away kind of way. As we neared desert time, the supper dishes were being cleared and the men started to talk about the Vietnam War, there was some disagreement and that was when Patty got up, left the table and went out the back door. The pies were about to be laid out along with ice cream, milk and coffee. Ricky Cramshaw walked in from the back door all filled up with his parents’ meal and looking for Tessie’s apple pie.

He came to me and said softly, “Some girl is on the back porch crying.”

We went out the back door and there we found this Patty person sitting on the edge of the porch, crying softly. I stepped closer and said, “You want something?”

She looked at me, her eyes all wet, she said, “He got killed in Vietnam.”

“Your boyfriend?”

“Yeah, I guess. We wrote letters. I only met him one time. He was sweet and he was lonely. I liked him. He got killed in Vietnam.”

I didn’t know what to say to her. She wrapped her arms around her body like she was giving herself a hug. Ricky went back inside the house. I stood very still with the sounds of Thanksgiving family coming from inside and me and this Patty girl being outside in the cold and the dark November afternoon on the back porch.

Again she said more quietly now, “He got killed in Vietnam.”

Then I heard the back door open and shut and Ricky stepped up to sad Patty and gently he placed a dish of apple pie next to her and he said, “Everything is better with Tessie’s pie.”

Fall Fruit Newtons

It is well into fall, and for the past few months I have been gathering, preserving, drying and freezing wild foods in preparation for the winter. The other day I arrived home from a foraging trip with some wild apples and a pocketful of barberries. It was a friend’s birthday and I decided to make him some pastries. After weeks of processing acorns and feeding them to my mill, I had several bags of acorn flour in the freezer. Since I’d use any excuse to do some baking, I decided to make some Autumn fruit newtons.

 

Barberries

Barberries

Autumn Olives

Autumn Olives


Back in the beginning of October I had gathered about a gallon of Autumn olives, which I had bagged up and put into our freezer. I thawed some of them out to then add to the barberries and apples for making the filling. I also had a bag of hickory nuts that I had gathered from a particularly generous tree. I mixed my fruit ingredients together in a pan, added a little water and some organic sugar and cooked it up until it had reduced down to a thick consistency. Next, I made my pastry dough using a mixture of acorn flour and all-purpose flour (to help bind it). Even with the binding all-purpose flour, it was still quite challenging to wrap the pastry around the filling without some cracking, but I soon had a tray of newtons ready to go into the oven.

Fruit thickening in the pan

Fruit thickening in the pan

It felt good to make a batch of tasty, wild fruit-filled pastries, using flour that I had made myself. Finding foods in nature can be most gratifying, feeding both the body and the soul.

Freshly baked fall fruit newtons

Freshly baked fall fruit newtons

Events, Open Houses, & Camp Fairs

Beginning after the new year we’ll be hosting public programs for campers and their families, and for anyone else interested in experiencing a ‘taste of camp’ before summer begins.

Winter Tales with Chuck Stead
Saturday, January 17th. Noon – 1 pm.

Chuck

Chuck

Chuck Stead is a master storyteller, weaving a web of characters and scenes from his childhood growing up in the nearby Ramapo Mountains. Populated by animals, spirits, mountain people, and more, Chuck’s tales are knee-slapping, laugh-out-loud funny, goose-bump inducing in their poignancy, and enjoyed thoroughly by children and adults alike.

Maple Sugaring
Saturday, February 28th. 10 – 11 am and 2 – 3 pm.

Sap sucker

Sap sucker

Join The Nature Place as we learn all about maple trees and maple syrup, tap our own trees and taste the sap, watch sap boiling over a fire, and then taste freshly made, hot maple syrup over ice (accompanied by a dill pickle, of course). Participants will take home their own spouts, along with instructions on how to tap maple trees and make syrup at home.

This year we’re offering this program twice, once at 10 am and then again at 2 pm. 

Outragehisss Pets
Saturday, March 28th. Noon – 1 pm.

Holding a python

Holding a python

If you like animals, then this program will have you barking, chirping, and roaring with glee. Every summer at camp Outragehisss Pets brings their multitude of animals to The Nature Place, and now you can get your hands furry without waiting until June. Join us for an hour of snakes, spiders, chinchillas, and an array of other surprising animals.

Spring Peeper Hunt
Saturday, May 2nd. 7:30 – 9 pm.

Peep!

Peep!

As darkness falls The Nature Place will lead intrepid explorers into the swamp in search of spring peepers – tiny frogs with big voices pealing out into the warm spring air. Using our ears and echo-locating abilities, and equipped with boots, flashlights, and a sense of adventure, we’ll search for spring peepers by following the loud ‘peep!’ of their mating call through the hillocks and brambles of a nearby wetland. Come prepared to have fun and get a little dirty!

 

Open Houses

The best way to learn more about The Nature Place is by coming to an open house. We’ll take you on a tour of camp, give you a full picture of what we do and why we do it, and answer your questions about the ins and outs of camp.

Open Houses are located at Green Meadow Waldorf School, 307 Hungry Hollow Road in Chestnut Ridge, NY, and you can stop by any time between 1 and 4 pm.

Saturday, January 17th
Sunday, February 15th
Saturday, February 28th (this open house runs from 11 am – 2 pm)
Sunday, March 15th
Saturday, March 28th
Sunday, April 12th
Sunday, April 26th
Saturday, May 9th
Sunday, May 24th

 

Camp Fairs

Do you live in Manhattan or Brooklyn and want to find out more about The Nature Place? Come meet us at a camp fair, ask us questions about camp in person, and get a feeling for what we do. All camp fairs run from Noon until 3 pm.

Saturday, December 6th
Upper East Side – St. Jean Baptiste High School
173 East 75th Street

Sunday, December 7th
Upper West Side – Ethical Culture Fieldston School
33 Central Park West

Saturday, January 24th
Upper East Side – St. Jean Baptiste High School
173 East 75th Street

Sunday, January 25th
Upper West Side – Congregation Rodeph Sholom
7 West 83rd Street

Saturday, February 7th
Morningside Heights – Bank Street School
610 West 112th Street

Sunday, February 8th
Cobble Hill – Brooklyn Heights Montessori School
185 Court Street

Saturday, March 7th
Tribeca – Borough of Manhattan Community College
199 Chambers Street

Saturday, March 8th
Park Slope – Berkeley Carroll School
181 Lincoln Place

Saturday, March 28th
Upper East Side – St. Jean Baptiste High School
173 East 73rd Street

Sunday, March 29th
Upper West Side – Congregation Rodeph Sholom
7 West 83rd Street