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Click for a Cause!

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

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

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

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

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

Many, many thanks!

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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.

freshet

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!