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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.

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Fish 0 Monarchs 12

The October days of late have had cool nights, blue sky days with lots of puffy fair weather clouds and a sun, that when you’re out in the middle of the day, shines on you with the kind of warmth that makes you say “ah-h-h”, does that feel good!  Yes, it’s the same sun that in the summer on a 90 degree plus mid-day would make us seek shade and elicit quite different kinds of verbal responses.

Ed and Nathaniel

Ed and Nathaniel

I had promised I would take Nathaniel and his two friends fishing.  So off we went to the newly-discovered-for-us fisherman’s parking lot and access to the Ramapo River. The Ramapo River flows along the western side of Harriman Park and while going to and from the park trails we have passed this access area before but never drove down into it. It’s quite beautiful, almost nobody else there, open areas along the shoreline where kids and adults can easily cast their lines. This is a wide part of the river and the few times we have been there it felt like a pond -  the water was still because of lack of recent rainfall. And the view across to the eastern bank, with trees, shrubs,  wetland vegetation of all types and darting dragonflies, reminded me of scenes I encountered during some of my Canadian wilderness canoe trips. Wild, colorful, beautiful.


This site would definitely qualify if I were asked to imagine “what might the perfect fishing hole look like?” Now mind you, not “perfect” in numbers of fish caught – the last time we were here Nathaniel caught a solitary sunny.

And not perfect in terms of noise. In fact upon first stepping out of your car you feel as if you are within some kind of surround sound booth whose dial has been turned to highway, car and truck noise plus occasional railroad trains speeding by!

You are in the middle of and very close to (without leaves you can see right in front (or back of you) the following north-south noise corridors: the very busy NY State Thruway, to the east. To the west is busy NY Route 17 and on many weekend days ‘very’ can be added as people go to and from The Renaissance Fair in warm weather and two family ski areas in the winter.

And wait, There’s more. The tracks of the Erie Railroad Main Line are parallel to Route 17 at this point, in fact they are between you and 17. And I would call them active tracks, i.e. trains seem to speed by on a regular basis.

Now I have to be fair, even though it’s not a noise producer except in times of heavy rain, there is the north-south flowing (at least here) Ramapo River itself.

Oh yes, the fishing trip that day. We went up the Thruway, got off at 17 north, through Sloatsburg and Tuxedo and then we had to wait in a long line of cars going to the aforementioned Renaissance Festival. Everyone turned left at the Route 106 intersection. We were the only car that turned right. We immediately crossed over the railroad tracks and then an immediate left down to the river access area.

The boys threw out their lines. Nathaniel, having to use a borrowed pole that day, was a bit down and not into it but he helped the other boys with their hooks, bait, etc.

And then we saw the first one – a monarch butterfly, majestically orange and black, heading southward! I saw my last monarch two years ago. You can read about the plight of the Monarch butterflies in a previous piece we wrote in the Dirt, which you can read here. Just recently I read that the monarch will probably be put on the endangered species list.

Then we saw another, and still another – stopping along the shore for a nectar break; resting on a leaf; wavering a bit to and fro and sometimes up and down while flying – but, ever southward, each of the 12 we saw. The boys, especially Nathaniel, turned to looking for monarchs since the fish were not biting. My heart was filled with joy, the boys were excited, all of our senses focused on each passing monarch. Nothing else existed for us during each sighting – truck, car, train noises included.

While driving home I began to think of another (the 5th) north-south corridor at this spot besides the roads, tracks and river: the path/route/aerial highway that the monarchs are following south. We were on or in or part of that pathway today. I wonder what other kinds of pathways or ‘flows’ of nature we are in or sometimes part of : solar rays, energies of different types, gravity, the earth’s magnetic field, water cycles, weather patterns, nature spirits, spirits of place. And if we consider the electronic transmissions that must pass through us by way of all of our electronic devices… well, there’s a lot going on, happening to us, just by the fact that we are on earth.

As my imaginations about this were really pumping up, the boys reminded me what was just ahead: Auntie Ell’s garden and farm center, and – the reason for traditionally stopping – it’s bakery with great homemade doughnuts. Okay, the boys want me to tell you, apple turnovers, too.

It was a great day. Someone once said they all are. Maybe we just have to look at them in a different way.

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Ed’s Corner

Bang! Clunk!

When I hear these sporadic and loud sounds on  my outside deck I know, 1. that the oak trees are beginning to drop their acorns, and, 2. It’s time to get the apple press out because the apples are ready now just as the acorns are. The apple and the acorn are both fruits, that is, they developed from flowers and contain a seed or seeds that can grow into new trees. But it’s the fruit from the apple tree that I will seek – the apple.

As I lug the press out of storage in the barn it feels good that cider making marks for me the changing seasons and allows me to connect with and participate in the year’s movement. I want to be more than a bystander as the earth revolves around the sun. I feel as if it is a celebration of sorts, a ritual, an anchor to fall, something dependable that also ties me to the past. Why do I do it? Because a year of seasons has passed and now its fall, again, and time for cidering.

Ed Pressing Cider

Ed pressing cider – photo by Fernando Lopez

And the cider is delicious! I like to use a variety of apples and press them all together. The amber liquid that gushes from the bottom of the press into our waiting pot seems happy to have been released from it’s former apple homes. Do you know that if you sip your cider slowly you’ll be able to taste fall, winter, spring and summer, for it takes 4 seasons to make an apple. You might even taste the rain from the storm that fell on the orchard last July.


This amber liquid is called apple cider. If I filter this cider then it is called apple juice. You can think of cider as apple juice with the pulp.

There are many stories and sayings about apples: the tempting fruit in the Garden of Eden; the fruit that conked Sir Issac Newton on the head and started him thinking seriously about gravity; the poisoned one that caused Snow White to take a long chill until a handsome prince came along; ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ (you know, this could be much cheaper than the current Obama plan.)

And there was, of course, Johnny Appleseed. Supposedly, according to legend, he was friends and talked with the wild animals; wore no shoes; wore a pot on his head; preached the good words of the Bible to whomever would listen. He walked and walked all around the mid-west, handing out apple seeds and trees. The Native Americans were known to be kind to him, and to leave him alone. They stayed clear of people who seemed a little ‘off’. I’m not saying that he was, but …

We will learn about Johnny and apples and cidering during our apple cider pressing programs we have scheduled this fall. You’ll even get a chance to meet Johnny!

I hope to see you at one of our upcoming events.

Turning the press

Turning the press

Here’s a bushel of nifty apple information:

  • The early Native Americans had only crab apple trees to pick from, the apples probably being small, hard and not sweet.
  • European settlers, as early as 1630, brought seeds and small trees to this country that provided the first sweet, juicy, flavorful apples we know today.
  • So, when we say “As American as apple pie”, there is really, in the bigger picture, not a long history to that statement. We could say instead, “As American as maple sugar and syrup”, for the Native Americans were making maple sugar well before the first Europeans set foot on the continent.
  • Those first European apple trees were probably not too productive for there were no honeybees in this country to serve as pollinators. Later immigrants brought over with them the first honeybees.
  • The Native Americans called these first honeybees ‘English flies’.
  • In colonial times apples were known as ‘winter bananas’ and ‘melt-in-the-mouth’.
  • There are over 10,000 kinds of apples in the world.
  • The birthplace of the modern apple is Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
  • Charred apple remains were found in a stone-age village in Switzerland.
  • In 1796 a farmer in Ontario, while walking the “back 40″ of his property, came upon a kind of apple tree he had not seen before. He decided, because the apples had such a special flavor, to propagate the tree and to plant more. His name – John McIntosh.
  • Each year, China grows half or more of the world’s apples. The U.S. is second.
  • In the U.S. Washington State grows most (60%) of our country’s apples.
  • Apple ‘cider’ is what we call the juice that comes directly from pressing the apples, without doing anything to it. Apple ‘juice’ is that same juice, only filtered.
  • ‘Hard’ cider is cider that has been fermented and contains alcohol.
  • The most common drink during colonial times was one that was plentiful and could keep/not spoil: hard cider – morning, noon and night, adults and children!
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Ed’s Corner

At the beginning of each camp day we – campers and counselors –  might share a special or unusual natural happening or event that we experienced the day before. We call these sharings and the actual event or thing, Natural Moments. As we are out and about in our world, which is also the world of nature, there are many opportunities to see, hear, smell or touch something ‘cool’. It’s a moment that might make us just whisper inside ourselves, WOW, which I contend is the acronym for ‘With-Out-Words’. A Natural Moment takes us out of ourselves and makes us feel part of a bigger something.

To increase the chances of Natural Moments, two things have to happen: A) be outdoors and B) pay attention.

A Natural Moment that I recently experienced:

I took my youngest, Nathaniel, to a local mall for a bit of Mother’s Day shopping. When we got out of the car we saw, no, we were in the middle of, waves, close-to-the-ground, of delicate white petals being blown first in one direction and then in another. We just watched for two minutes as the waves of petals scooted across the strip mall parking lot, around cars, some being ‘caught’ in puddles. Nathaniel said it was like snowflakes that never melt. We wondered where the final resting places would be for the petals. Or even it there is such a thing as a ‘final place’.

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There is no ‘right’ place for nature, for Natural Moments, for the chance to say WOW. Every place, even the mall parking lot, can be a nature place.

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Ed’s Corner – They’re Coming…

Sometimes it feels that opportunities for earth art present themselves everywhere. One of these moments will soon be on your lawn or at least somewhere close to your home. You just may go out one day soon, look down, and feel like you have run smack dab into a wall, a sea, an avalanche (you get the point) of yellow! You will see hundreds of golden dandelions just starting to grow, and without much of a stem yet. There will be so many that you won’t feel guilty picking as many as you want. It might feel like you’re holding hands-full of sunlight, or tiny, bite-sized suns.

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What to do with them:

You can lay them on the lawn, next to and touching each other, and make a long, meandering yellow chain, or snake, or just a beautiful meandering line of yellow, over hill and dale and rocks. Watch what happens to your art over the next few days.

Make a spiral with them, starting at the base of a tree and spiraling outward.

Rub them on a piece of white paper against a hard surface such as the sidewalk and see why they can be called ‘yellow crayons’.

Wait to pick them until they have a long stem. Peel the stem into 3 or so long pieces, all still attached to the flower end. Dunk the stem pieces into water (submerge them) for a quick one or two second dunk, pull quickly out and hold them in front of you and just watch. If they could shout we would call what they are doing ‘twist and shout’. Or better still, ‘curl and shout’.

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Different parts of the dandelion can be used for food, medicine and dye. Read about these usages here, in Paul Tappenden’s dandelion article.

A long time ago people used to pull grass from their lawns to make room for dandelions!

The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent de lion’, which means lion’s tooth. Look at the leaves on the ground directly at the bottom of the stem and you’ll see why. Growl.

Dandelions are not native to this country but came to us from Asia.

The little dandelion seeds on their little white ‘parachutes’ have been known to travel up to five miles!

Look at dandelion plants growing in mostly sunlight and then at those growing mostly in shade. What do you notice that’s different about their leaves?

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