Ed’s Corner

The Fifth Season

Well, we all know we have winter, spring, summer and fall, but did you know there
is a fifth season? It’s Sugaring Time. Coming right between winter and spring, it can last for 2 weeks or close to two months.

It’s all dependent on the weather. Cold nights and warmer days are what’s needed for the buckets on our maple trees to fill with the clear, sweet liquid we call ‘sap’. We then boil the sap until it turns into that amber aristocrat of all sweets – maple syrup!

I hope you can make one of the two maple sugaring programs we will be offering this Saturday, February 24th. The purpose of the program is to give you enough information to identify a maple tree, show you how to ‘tap’ it, how to collect the sap, and how to boil it down to maple syrup. Each family will take home a sheet of instructions and your very own spout.

Sugaring is a great family activity – everyone can get involved in some way and the syrup you’ll make will be the best syrup you’ve ever tasted in your life!

Looking forward to seeing you as we celebrate our fifth season.

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.

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.

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.

Mystery at Lake Antrim

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To Be Continued this summer at The Nature Place…


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.

Dougy Cramshaw’s Wee Folk

Collecting fairy house material

Collecting fairy house material

There was an old lady in the village by the name of Hoffman. She was a friend of the Cramshaw’s grandmother. We thought of her as being kind of magical. She told us to leave food out at the end of winter for the ‘wee’ folk. We used to leave out bread crumbs. Mostly we found that the birds, squirrels and chipmunks came for them, but she said the wee folk also came. These were like leprechauns and fairies, but when we searched for their tracks in the show she told us they were careful not to leave any. She said they sometimes rode on the backs of the animals to get around. While I believed in a great many things that were magical, I drew the line at these wee folk. Dougy, Ricky Cramshaw’s little brother, drew no such line.

Up on McGregor Hill above our street and below the Motel on the Mountain, Dougy happily searched for signs of the wee folk in late winter. He was worried that the old bread crumbs and stale cereal were hoarded by the animals and the wee folk did not get their share. He stashed the food in rotted tree stumps, hollow logs, and where the moss grew thickest. He revisited and studied the animal tracks looking for sign. And then one day, after an early morning flurry, he found it. There in the cotton-soft snow were little tracks, human-like, no more than half an inch long. He pressed his finger near to one and held it there until the melting snow chilled his finger numb. He put his finger to his mouth and blew his warm breath against it. The tiny footprints disappeared under a log and as he studied them his finger burned, losing its chill. Then he knew what he must do.

With an old scissor he cut various shapes from a scrap of bicycle inner tube, then struggled to fold and glue together a tiny pair of winter boots. The glue did not bind the little snippets of rubber together. Next he tried to mold electrical tape around the foot of a small rubber dinosaur but the tape collapsed when he slid it off. Then he took two of his mother’s fake finger nails and curled tinfoil over top of them, but the shape was all wrong; they looked more like skis than shoes. Finally, he went to his grandmother and told her of his problem. She went into a small chest of drawers, rummaged around and brought him a tiny pair of black plastic boots. They were perfect. He thanked her and ran off with them. He was so excited it never occurred to him to ask what their origin was.

Back at the hollow log, he scattered some bread crumbs and then carefully placed the miniature footwear just inside the log. That night he was in trouble for wasting his dad’s electrical tape and for playing with his mom’s plastic finger nails, but Dougy didn’t care. He knew somewhere that night on McGregor Hill a happy little wee folk would keep his feet dry. That was all that mattered.

Grandma Cramshaw’s Valentine’s Medicine

A grapevine forming half a heart

Grapevine forming half a heart

Every Valentine’s Day Walt went down to Trudie’s Drug Store in Suffern and bought Tessie a big heart shaped box of chocolate stuffed with various gooey, nutty, sugared innards. For a few days afterward we all pinched and poked the underbelly of the little chocolates seeking caramel or nut and avoiding coconut and strawberry, until the once paper-collared candies looked like the scattered fragments of a mistake. This Valentine’s Day was different. My mom Tessie was in the hospital as her thyroid had been acting up and they wanted her in for a day of observation. I did not know what a thyroid was. Walt told me it meant she was low in iron. This only confused me more. I tried to explain to Ricky Cramshaw that my mom was low in iron and he thought I was low in brains.

“Folks don’t got iron in them. If they did, magnets would stick to them.”

I told him it was her thyroid that wasn’t working right so he went off to ask his grandma what that meant. Old Grandma Lillian Cramshaw knew a lot of strange things. We figured if my mom’s thyroid needed to get some iron in it the old grandma would know how to get it in there.

Walt was taking Ricky and me to pick my mom up at the little Tuxedo Hospital on Valentine’s Day. He suggested I make her a card. The only thing I could think of for a card was a drawing of a heart but I also thought there should be some sort of iron in this heart, too. Walt went into Suffern and picked up her heart shaped box of gooey chocolates, and by the time he returned I had decorated the rim of my heart shaped card with staples, in keeping with her theme of needing some iron. I knew staples weren’t exactly iron but I figured the idea was similar.

Rick and I jumped into the Chevrolet and he pulled from his coat pocket a little jar of some gritty, smelly stuff. He said it smelled like Christmas and shoved in under my nose. He was right – it had the thick odor of Christmas trees. He said his grandmother made it to help Tessie get iron back into her blood. When we arrived at the Tuxedo Hospital up on the hill over the village, we found Tessie sitting in a vinyl chair by a window in the sun. She was smoking a cigarette. She was annoyed. She had that “I’m fed up with the world” face on. She told us she wanted some tea before leaving, then she got up and crossed over to the white Formica coffee table and stamped out her cigarette in a plaid, bean bag ash tray. The top of the little bean bag had a metal ash tray in it. When she pressed the cigarette into the tray the bean bag squashed to one side. Walt got her a cup of hot water but before he could put the tea bag in it Ricky gave him the little jar of pine stink. He said Tessie was supposed to drink it in hot water. Walt took out his knife and dug a dab of gritty pine goo out of the jar and stirred it into the hot water. It didn’t mix in well but the water did turn a muddy color and it offered up a thick aroma of pine sap. Walt handed the cup to Tessie. She stared down into the nasty drink and shook her head.

Walt said, “Ricky’s grandmother says it’s good for your iron-poor blood.”

“What’s in it?”

“Looks like pine tar.”

“Tar?” Ricky said, “You mean like road tar?”

“No, it’s a sticky sap kind of tar”

We all stared at the strong bitter sludge in her plastic cup. Walt said, “It’s good for patching a hole in your boat, too.”

Tessie looked at him and said, “A hole in my boat?”

He said, “Yup. Sip a little, it can’t hurt you.”

She raised the cup to her lips and took the tiniest sip. She told us it was bitter and could use sweetening. Then she got brave and took a big sip. Suddenly she coughed violently and out flew a chunk of pine tar. It shot across the coffee table and landed like a bullet in the metal top of the bean bag ash tray. We all stared at it and Ricky shouted, “Good shot, Tessie! Happy Valentine’s Day!”

Ed’s Corner

Why I tap maple trees
In about a month from the time you receive this Dirt – around mid-February – we will begin tapping our maple trees. Since the first of the year we have received catalogs from some of the sugaring supply companies. A definite reminder that we need to order buckets and spouts.
Ed next to a magnificent maple

Ed next to a magnificent maple

Since I came to Rockland County in 1970 I have always been involved with maple sugaring in some way or another. If I didn’t tap trees, collect the sap and boil it down into syrup during this time (approximately mid-February until the end of March), I would definitely feel something was missing.

Just this morning I made French toast (from good Challah) and we used our home-made maple syrup! Last year was a very good maple season and we made enough to last until this upcoming season. Not that it would be just the syrup I miss, but maybe more importantly, the tradition, the ritual, and the feeling that I am connected to nature’s yearly rhythm. Perhaps sugaring helps me set or become aware of my own biological clock, and that I am part of something bigger.
If one looks at a maple  tree now it can be hard to imagine all the activity that will soon be happening around it and in it. The sap we collect this year from a tree was made last growing season. Some of the water part of the sap might be from a late afternoon thunderstorm last July 27th. The sugar in the sap, which accounts for its sweetness, was made by all the green leaves photosynthesizing – making sugar from sunlight, air and water – all season long. The more leaves on a maple, the sweeter the sap, theoritically. 
I look at a maple tree at this time of year and imagine if it could talk, would it tell me about its life during each season, how each leaf was busy each day, how it feels when the buds finally open,  how many times has it been tapped, and just how and where inside itself is the sap stored all winter? And as the day-times become warmer, and sugaring time comes upon us, how is that sap moving up/down/sideways within the tree’s trunks, roots and branches? 
The best news:  you, too, can begin to make sugaring time a tradition at home. Come to one of our sugaring programs and we’ll start you on your way. It is a delicious journey!