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Ed’s Corner

Walking recently in the crisp Fall air, with multi-colored leaves crunching underfoot, I was struck, as I often am, by the undeniable truth that surrounds us in nature. As I walked, the lyrics of Malvina Reynold’s 1964 folk song, “God Bless the Grass”, came slowly out of the recesses of my memory. I thought I’d share them with you here:

God Bless the Grass

God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that’s gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man’s door,
And God bless the grass.

Black Walnut Riches

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes the ways he makes the most of this sure sign of autumn.

Every fall, beginning in mid-September, I gather the black walnuts that litter the ground like green and black tennis balls all around our neighborhood. I try to gather the green ones, as they are less likely to contain the ubiquitous husk maggots. I remove the husks (usually by rolling them underfoot until the husks split) and put the nuts on a tray to dry them out, either in a low oven or in my dehydrator. After the initial drying I leave them sitting on a wire rack, to cure for about six weeks. Around Thanksgiving time they are ready to use.

To make use of the husks, I put them into a large bucket and pour on hot water. After a while, the water turns a deep, blackish brown. I pour it through a strainer into a second bucket, then use it to dye clothes or to stain wood. It makes the best tie dye effects.

Once the nuts have cured, I begin using them in my recipes. If I need nuts in my pastries, I’ll use either hickory nuts or black walnuts (or both), secure in the thought that they are fresh and haven’t been irradiated, like so many commercial nuts. Besides, black walnuts taste great!

The most challenging part is opening these tough shelled nuts. I use a strong knife and a hammer to split them in two, and then some snippers to remove the remaining shells (see below).

I encourage you to explore the many uses of one of nature’s many autumnal gifts.

Maple Sugaring at The Nature Place

On a particularly frigid March 4th we tapped maple trees during two sugaring programs. While the cold kept the usual hordes at bay, many brave maple fans came out to learn all about how to tap trees, collect and boil sap, and to enjoy thick, sweet syrup over crushed ice, accompanied by a dill pickle.

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Early Signs of Spring

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden describes how to spot one of nature’s first signs of spring (not an edible sign!)

Last Wednesday, we had almost spring-like weather (before the big blizzard hit and turned the world into Narnia). We knew the snow was coming and so took the opportunity to take a walk in the woods. Since it’s February, we were pretty sure that we’d find the early flowers of the skunk cabbage, popping up through the marshy ground. We weren’t disappointed.

It is a funny thing about skunk cabbage flowers: at first they are hard to spot, but then once you’ve found one, others begin to appear, until you see them coming up everywhere. Each bloom is unique, ranging in color from deep maroon to combinations of red, yellow, and green.

Skunk Cabbage 1

At the moment, the flowers are resting under the snow. However, these plants are thermogenic, and are capable of raising their temperatures considerably, melting the snow that surrounds them. They will soon be peeking out of the holes they make. At that point, they are really easy to spot.

Anyone coming across these strange, exotic creatures for the first time may wonder whether they landed here from another planet. However, after a few weeks, the flowers fade away and the bouquets of green cabbage-like leaves appear. Don’t be fooled by their luscious appearance. They are not edible.  Seconds after putting a piece of the plant into your mouth, it is like having a mouthful of hot needles. Rather, enjoy them for the beautiful things they are – a feast for the eyes and for the soul.

Skunk Cabbage 2

Ed’s Corner

Fake News

These words have been bandied about over the last six months. People are questioning what they can believe; what’s made up? Is the ‘truth’ from yesterday a lie today? What are we not being told? Our own Scott Dunn went out to Standing Rock, North Dakota, for two weeks to stand with the Lakota people in their effort to stop the potentially hazardous Dakota Access pipeline from going under and through sacred areas. Underlying this is the indigenous people’s right to self-determination regarding the little land they still have left. When Scott returned he remarked how the major media did not really cover the nine months of protest until the dramatic end, when President Obama temporarily put a halt to the project.  So, it wasn’t fake news – it was NO news.

Conspiracy theories spread. We are even going back in time. More than one person has come to me lately asking if I thought the lunar landing back in 1969 was all filmed in the back lot of a Hollywood studio!

For many of us the future – no, really the present! – feels a bit shaky. What can I truly believe in?

Our answer to the last question (no surprise to those who know us) is to step out into nature.

We might call it a Fake Break.

I’m going to now close the computer on this, the 15th day of January, at 12:30 pm, and take a half hour walk – just outside my office. I’ll report back what ‘truths’ I discover. I did not plan on doing this when beginning to write this month’s Ed’s Corner an hour ago, so let’s see what happens.

I’ll be back. I’m going on a Fake Break…

…Whew. I’m back. I’m sweating because I tried to be quick about it and hurried. So, what truths did I find?

  • Warmth when I stepped out the door.
  • A rooster crowing from a distance.
  • In the small garden in front of my office there were dried, long stems from an ornamental grass, matted down in beautiful forms.
  • A slight breeze, bringing different earth odors as I walked around.
  • A surprising amount of the color green – on rocks, walls, tree trunks, and plants.
  • A few turkey vultures circling overhead.
  • Wet tree bark making the green lichens on them really stand out.
  • A slight sun shower, the drops falling into the Fairy stream, making for many beautiful concentric circles on the water.
  • Some clouds moved away, the sun was very bright, the sky opposite full of dark clouds. The perfect set-up for a rainbow! I turned so that my back was to the sun and my eyes, scanning the dark clouds, were hoping for a rainbow. None.
  • I saw a tree whose bottom trunk and branches appear as if they were a strong person making muscles/showing their biceps.
  • I lifted up/rolled away a cement-based stop sign and saw what looked like small ants with wings, hunkered down in crevices and moving slightly. I said ‘hello’ and put back the round base of the sign exactly how it was. But I am curious as to who they were. I’ll come back soon with a magnifying glass.
  • I now hear some blue jays, their calls, at least to me, always sound as if they are complaining about something.
  •  Big deer tracks in the mud on the pitcher’s mound in Mary Dailey Field.
  • A small oak tree on the edge of this field still holding on to its dead, brown leaves, appearing as dry leather and making a sound by rubbing together when the wind blows.
  • The warm sunshine on my face when I stepped out from the shade of a tree.
Muscle tree

Muscle tree

 

Deer hoof

Deer track

 

I know that there are many more truths to be found when out in the natural world. So I suggest taking a short Fake Break when you need to.

Margaret Fuller said “Nature never did deceive the heart that loved her.”

Ed’s Corner

So far this autumn we have had quite a few magnificent blue-sky days. The kind of days that beckon us to come out into nature and to be a participant, to witness, to be part of the changing seasons.  Even just a twenty minute stroll through a nearby nature place – it could be your backyard or Central Park – will make a difference. “A difference in what?”, you may ask. For me, it’s a difference in my general state of being, mood, sense of self, balance, and most of all, an increase in the level of connection I feel – connection to the greater world, to others, and to something more timeless than myself.

This fall has provided more reasons than beautiful days and our hectic lives as reasons to get out-of-doors,. The political climate in this country is one of tension, anger, fear. There are wars, fighting, displaced persons around the world. Global warming reveals itself again through weather extremes.
Yikes, enough already. Let’s go out! I know for myself that the day after each ‘debate’ I need at least a 3-hour hike along the trails in Harriman Park.
In the last two years I have discovered the wonderful poetry and writing of William Stafford. His paragraph below describes to me what can and does happen to us when we are out in nature. May you, too, find your own moments of grace. Go quietly, go slowly, but bottom line,  go.
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If Only for a Moment, by William Stafford
Each of us is blessed with moments of grace, moments when our soul becomes clear and quiet. Our worrying stops. Our yearning and planning and waiting for fulfillment stops. There is nothing to be done since everything is already happening. Grace uncovers the mysterious essence that unites us with all beings.  Through its gift, the place, the time, the sky, and ourselves are revealed in right relation. What is inside of us and what is outside of us comes together, if only for a moment.

Ed’s Corner

I hear people discussing it in our co-op grocery store. Or while waiting to pick up their children from the school parking lot.

The fall –  how long it has lasted, how gentle the temperatures have been and the colors, especially those colors. The reds are so deep it seems like if you touched one your finger would just keep sinking in. And the yellows! Touch one and it feels like your finger might spark! And many trees are holding their leaves longer, releasing them not in a windy maelstrom of hundreds at a time, but slowly, sometimes in small groups; at times, one or two.

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There is lately, in the public school arena, much talk and strong feelings about the Core Curriculum: what should children know? Let’s test them! And then have teachers teach to the test, and then, be sure to test the teachers to make sure they are doing just that.

This kind of fall reminds me of a fleeting and wild thought I had years ago: every school curriculum, call it ‘Core’ or something else, should include, at each grade level, a course or set-aside time, outdoors, naturally, throughout the school year, in every season. Through interaction and experience with the earth – its seasons, customs, and rhythms – each child would have the opportunity to develop a true sense of place and belonging. Of course there would be a test, to be taken frequently:  a) Show up  b) dress for the weather.

My wife, Jill, attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. One day each fall the school’s chimes would ring out at 8 am, the signal for a tradition called Mountain Day. Everyone knew it would happen in autumn, but not when. On this day all classes were canceled, and students climbed up nearby Mount Holyoke for a day spent outdoors, sharing time in nature with friends.

I have often thought that in businesses, schools and such, the concept of a ‘Well’ Day’ is equally important as that of the ‘Sick’ Day. Strongly recommended in this ‘Well’ Day would be a nature component, visiting a nearby park or tending a community garden. A ‘Well’ Day might sometimes include taking your child out of school for the day to accompany you outdoors.

I have a feeling that incorporating ‘Well’ Days into the year will result in less ‘Sick’ Days being used.

Perhaps you have seen recently in the news that all REI stores will be closed on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.

And, the company is specifically encouraging its employees to get out into nature on that Friday!

Yea!, REI.

Why don’t you join me and all the REI employees as we forego shopping on that day too, and go outside instead?

Burning Bush

Ed’s Corner

When the Earth Hummed

At the beginning of this month we offered our annual Spring Peeper ‘hunt’. With flashlights in hand and rubber boots on feet, families ventured into the wetland to find this thumbnail-sized frog called the Spring Peeper.

The males make a somewhat loud peeping noise, many together can make a very loud sound (some say like sleigh bells) that can be heard from up to two miles away! It took a while but finally we started to ‘catch’ some – in our flashlight beams as well as actually in-hand.

Peeper

The wetland was very dark but the rising almost-full moon provided a hint of light, not to mention it’s beautiful reflection in the open water in the middle.

And then, starting very slowly from this open water, there came, hesitatingly at first, and then with a let-er-rip feeling, a sound that can only be described as ethereal, ancient, deep. All we could do was stop, listen and and allow our bodies to be part of this earthly surround-sound experience.

A child asked ‘Is that the earth humming?’ Maybe it is. Or could be. Why not? How magical and full of wonder! If the earth were to hum I could not think of a better place than where we were, another season or a different sound.

I would be happy to leave you with the thought of a humming earth. We looked into the water with our flashlights and saw nothing.

But I would be remiss.

The sound was the mating calls of toads, doing the same thing in the same wetland that the peepers were doing. Knowing this does not negate the imagination or sense of wonder that brought forth the question about the earth humming. One does not have to restrict oneself to one way of looking at the earth. There does not have to be an either/or. As we say at camp, “Open your mind and say ‘Ahh'”.

There may still be time after you receive this Dirt to go out to a wetland at night and be part of the humming. You will never forget it.

Good luck.

 

This is the last issue of The Dirt until September. Camp is about to begin and we have many outdoor things we’ll be attending to with our campers; maybe even discovering other ways in which the earth hums.

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Have a great summer! We plan to.

Ed’s Corner

Happy Earth Day this coming Wednesday, April 22nd! At The Nature Place we have many ways we celebrate the earth.

Earth Day

What planet are you on?

Most of the time I’m not aware of standing on a planet,
a mote of swirling Milky Way careening through the void.
I don’t have much context or a solid frame of reference
in which to clothe such dizzying contemplations.
I read about, sing songs about, this marble circling the sun,
this spaceship earth resplendent in a garden universe,
but whatever I might think I know with my minuscule mind,
the reality is mostly, still, poetical abstraction.

In the dark, round cool of Hayden Planetarium I can
lean back in vibrating chairs, look up, watch and listen
as aisle lights fade and fleets of stars wink on and off above me,
while an omnipresent, god-like voice thunders in my ears.
Planets veer toward and past me, orbit in and out of view,
meteors come sizzling through the startled atmosphere,
all is motion, whizzing, speeding, as the music swells and crashes
(as if this orchestrated movement needed any sound at all)!

Why not go outside at night, find a dark and quiet spot,
lie back and look up at the real thing, you might ask? I do that, too.
I take in the quiet beauty, the vastness of the countless stars,
but at such a far remove the starry welkin scarcely moves.
I don’t have the dynamic sense of wandering, spinning spheres.
But I can imagine it, get some feeling for it, when I stop
to wonder at the cycles and rhythms of earthly seasons,
the subtle, incremental change from winter into spring,
the swifter, more decisive shift from nighttime into day.
There are no godly voices, nor symphonic lights and sounds,
but there are whispers in my soul…I am truly thankful
for the complementary gifts of planetariums and planets.

Making a Bird Feeder

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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!