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.

Medicinal, Magnificent Mugwort

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden suggests the manifold manifestations of Mugworts medicinal magic!

After a day of heavy work, I was awoken several times throughout the night with leg cramps. Ordinarily, when I suffer from muscle cramps or pains, rubbing a Mugwort salve that I keep next to my bedside into the offending area generally puts a stop to the problem. However, when my body is particularly stressed, as on this particular night, it requires a more heavy-duty approach. At times like that, I may make a large pot of Mugwort tea, pour it into a hot bath, and luxuriate in the relaxing, aromatic liquid.

Another approach is to make some Mugwort tea and simply drink it. This is what I did throughout the day following the bad cramping. That night, I didn’t have a single problem with cramps and, as a bonus, I had very clear dreams. As well as being high in magnesium, Mugwort is calming and relaxing and kills intestinal parasites.

Mugwort has been considered a sacred herb by many over the centuries. In addition to the properties I’ve already mentioned, it can be used as a smudging herb, which when burnt, can kill 98 percent of airborne bacteria.

So, the next time you’re pulling that pesky Mugwort out of your yard or community garden, stop to consider the powers it possesses. You just might have a cure you’ve been searching for right in your hands.

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.”


Upcoming Event: Winter Tales with Chuck Stead – January 13th

Every Friday at camp, master storyteller Chuck Stead spins funny, poignant, outrageous and true stories of his childhood and growing up in the nearby Ramapo Mountains. When the weather turns cold and winter has really set in, Chuck tells us his Winter Tales – stories that sparkle and glimmer like the snow and ice of January.

Join us for this free public program from Noon to 1 PM on January 13th at Green Meadow Waldorf School (307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY 10977)! Open house afterward from 1 – 4 pm.

Garbage Can Challenge – December Update

My heart is full and my garbage can empty…well, not quite, but I have fun news to report! This past month, we met our challenge goal of filling only half of our garbage can for the entire month! Woohoo, celebrate!

I hope you too are finding ways to feel empowered and satisfied by your own trash reduction efforts. Feel free to fill me in on any progress, large or small, in the comment section below.

This month, I have begun to implement some new sustainable methods in our home. For one, I’ve committed to making hummus from scratch, starting with dry beans, and it’s been coming out totally amazing. I’m about to make my own toothpaste for the first time, we’ve been buying bread from the farmer’s market each week, and I have been consistently bringing my big glass storage jars with me when I shop so I can fill them with bulk items.

This morning I was at our local food co-op, The Hungry Hollow Co-op, which some of you may know, and the friendly cashier let me snap his picture with my jars at checkout.

All you need to do when bringing your own containers is take them to the register before you fill them up, and the cashier will weigh your jars (Tip: you don’t have to wait until your jars are completely empty to fill them up. They can just as easily be weighed with some food still in them). Then proceed to fill them up as usual. Very satisfying indeed. I had another experience this month where I brought a glass container to Fairway to try to buy fish without the plastic bag the butcher usually puts it in. It took a little longer, as it was a new experience for the butcher and there was some trial and error in figuring out how to tare out the container, but all in all it worked!

The experience of going into larger stores vs local co-ops is obviously different. I love to support my co-op and I do also purchase some items elsewhere. In those bigger stores, I’m learning it’s okay to ask for these more sustainable modifications, even though it might feel a little uncomfortable to do so. I’ve noticed that if I go in with a super positive, friendly attitude, the accommodations I request might get a funny look or two, but they are happily met.

A note on stickers….they are everywhere. In both of my pictures this month there are little stickers on each piece of produce. So annoying, right? Well, it drives me crazy! My only suggestion here is to buy more produce at farmers markets. I also try to pick through the produce and find some pieces without stickers 🙂

Temptations: This time year, the stores are full of trash producing temptations. Just today, I was so close to buying lovely organic mint chocolate truffle candies. They were on sale, right by the door when I walked in to the store. They were in my cart in two seconds flat. Then, I thought, “Wait…look at the packaging, Ayla!”… Each piece was individually wrapped and then all of them were in a non-recyclable package. Sadly, and a little proudly, I put them back on the shelf. I told myself there are lots of options for goodies that I can make. Speaking of which, Daniel’s birthday is this week and I have been trying to figure out what to make him for a dessert treat. In addition to a cake, I am planning on busting out my ice cream maker that has been sitting in a box since we got it as a wedding present! Did you know you can’t recycle ice cream containers??!!!? 🙁  I’ll let you know how my homemade experiment turns out!

While we did reach our garbage goal this month, we have not relaxed into a groove yet. It’s important to me that we maintain this goal and I would like to see if we can reduce even further. I know the longer we focus energy and efforts on this, the easier it will get and the more sustainable it will become. Thanks again for going on this journey with me!

Until next time!

Upcoming Fall Events

24th Annual Food and Farmers Festival this weekend

When: Saturday, September 23rd, 11 am – 4 pm

Where: The Hungry Hollow Co-op Market @ 841 Chestnut Ridge Road, Chestnut Ridge NY

Join us at the co-op’s annual celebration of farmers and local food producers, featuring live music, grilled local food, organic cotton candy and popcorn, nature walks, hay rides, cider pressing (with us), and more!

Admission to this fun family event is free and your support of the co-op and local food producers is very much appreciated.


Green Meadow’s Fall Fair – Hope to see you there!


When: Saturday, October 7th, 10 am to 4 pm

Where: Green Meadow Waldorf School @ 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY

Join us for Green Meadow Waldorf School’s annual Fall Fair. We’ll be there pressing apples into cider and welcoming autumn back into our lives. A wonderful family event with activities for all ages! Stop by any time between 10 am and 4 pm. Additional details can be found here.

See you there!

Our Fall Open House


When: Saturday, November 4th, between 1 and 4 PM – by appointment 

Where:  Meet at the Lower School Building @ Green Meadow Waldorf School: 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY

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.

Please email us in advance at to set up your appointment.

Sheep and Wool Festival, and Camp tours, too!

Sheep and Wool Festival!

When: Sunday, May 28th from 10 am to 4 pm.

Where: 285 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY 10977

The Fiber Craft Studio hosts their 7th annual, family-friendly Sheep and Wool Festival! Visitors can engage in hands-on carding, spinning, weaving, felting, knitting and plant dyeing. Featuring fuzzy, approachable sheep, goats, and bunnies; craft vendors and artisans selling natural fiber items; a silent auction; puppet shows; and delicious food! Plant-dyed yarns, fibers, craft kits and clothing patterns produced by the Studio will be sold at the Festival.

Admission is free. A small fee will be charged for the activities. All proceeds from the Festival will benefit the Fiber Craft Studio.

Camp Tours, too!

If you are considering camp for this summer, but have not made it to one of our Open Houses, join us for one of two camp tours at 10:00 am or 12:00 pm on Sunday the 28th. Tours will leave from the Sheep and Wool Festival and will answer all of your burning questions about camp!

We will also be hosting our final Open House of the season on Saturday, June 3rd at 1:00 pm. If you would like to join us, please RSVP to We will meet at the Lower School Building of the Green Meadow Waldorf School–307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge NY. Hope to see you there!

The Case for Wild Foods

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden reminds us that there is such a thing as free (not to mention healthy) lunch, and it’s growing all around us.

Anybody who has spent any amount of time researching and reading about today’s food industry, will quickly conclude that the vast majority of “foods” on the market, particularly those marketed to babies and children, are bad for us.

Trying to be a responsible parent in today’s toxic environment, is one of the most challenging undertakings we face. For this reason, it is important to introduce our children to the concept of growing our own food. Just being in a garden and getting their hands in the soil can be of huge benefit to young minds. The connection to the natural world is vital to complete development.

Foraging in the garden

Most non-organic foods, even fresh vegetables, are likely to contain either toxic additives or residues that build up in the body. These ultimately contribute to chronic ailments, making it even more essential that we feed our children organically grown foods.

Of course, eating healthy can be pretty costly, but there are ways to reduce costs. For me, the answer has been wild foods. If you are a regular reader of The Dirt, you will have read about many of the seasonal edibles that I gather to help supplement my regular diet.

Our gardens and local natural areas are filled with free, nutritious and tasty ingredients, there for the gathering. All we need to do is learn to recognize them and learn to use them. Even if we pick the occasional leaf and eat it, it can help to supply us with nutrients that may be lacking in our diet.

Plantago major (common plantain)

So, take the time to get to know some of the wild foods that surround us (even in our city parks) and share the knowledge with your children. Or, better still, if they attend the Nature Place Day Camp, they can teach you.

A feast provided by nature

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, and please vote for our project every day through May 12.

Many, many thanks!



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.


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.