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.

Truth to Power

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts an early lesson in speaking his truth…

When I was sixteen years old, back in 1969, Richard Nixon was still in his first year as president of the country and, having campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, he had yet to do anything but justify its continuance. I snuck off to Manhattan on the weekends and attended some anti-war rallies and walked among beautiful young hippies who sang folk songs about love, and peace, and justice. The year before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both killed trying to bring peace and justice to the nation. So, my visits to Washington Square Park were to be in a place of hope for a better future. It was there I first met some of our returning veterans who talked of speaking truth to power. It was all so worldly and so beyond my experience growing up in the Village of Hillburn, but I remember the veterans emphasized that the only way to speak truth to power was to do it on a personal level, from the heart.

That Thanksgiving, we were having relatives join us from Nova Scotia, Canada. Among them was an in-law named Hughie. Now, this Hughie was a great admirer of my dad, Walt. Hughie was a hunter and he loved Walt’s hunting stories. Hughie sponsored hunting trips in Canada for his father-in-law and Walt to go on. He regularly sent wild game down from Nova Scotia for Walt. And when Hughie came down to hunt in the states, he regularly defied the hunting laws. He was a big, powerful presence and had little regard for local regulations. And Hughie considered me the inheritor of Walt’s role in Ramapo Woodlore; I was (in his mind) the one who would carry on Walt’s traditions.

However, I was deer hunting only a week before Thanksgiving, when I was shot at by careless hunter. It was a close call and not my first. I declared that this was nonsense and that too much of legalized hunting was carried on by dangerous weekend pioneers. I quit hunting right then and there (and, anyhow, I was losing focus thinking about Vietnam and all this ‘speak truth to power’ stuff).

So, there we were around the Stead Thanksgiving table: my family and our Canadian cousins. Walt was at one end of the table and my Mother, Tessie, was at the other. My sisters and a brother-in-law sat with me on one side, and Hughie’s wife and his daughters were all on the other side facing us. I was at the middle of the table and Hughie sat directly across from me. The eating of the meal had gone well and was pleasant enough, but I detected that Hughie was preoccupied with something. Then just as the coffee and apple pie were set out, he spoke.  Looking directly at me he said, “I hear you don’t hunt no more.”

The room fell quiet. The gentle sound of silverware clinking and spoons being stirred in coffee cups disappeared and a heavy expectation fell over the whole scene.

I said, “Yup, I quit.”
“Quit? What on earth for?”
I said, “Because there are too many people walking around in the woods shooting at each other.”
He smiled and said, “Oh hell, that don’t make no difference.”
I said, “Yes, it does.”
He lost his smile and said, “Why?”

And there it was, that personal moment of truth to power. I knew Walt was watching me now. It seemed like everyone was waiting for my answer. I said, “Because that is my decision. We don’t need the meat and I don’t need to be shot at.”

He looked down at his plate of Tessie’s apple pie. I waited for somebody else to say something, but the room was so silent now it felt like a loud silence. Without looking up he said, “Then I sure hope you don’t go to Vietnam.”

And before I could think of what to say I said, “I’m not going. It’s wrong and I’m not going.”

That was not one of our friendly Thanksgiving meals. I don’t really remember much of what happened after that. We eased back into a ‘let’s not talk about things’ mood.

Later, after everybody left and my sisters were talking with Tessie in the kitchen, I sat in the living room with Walt, watching an old black and white movie on the television. It was a war movie and, after a while, he said to turn it off. I got up and went over to the television set and switched to a different channel that had a Thanksgiving special with the singer Perry Como. But Walt said to turn the whole set off. I did, and returned to the upholstered chair where I picked up a weather-beaten paper-back book of poetry by e. e. cummings. Walt picked up his monthly issue of New York State Conservationist magazine. We read in silence: him smoking his pipe and me chewing a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. The voices of the women in the back kitchen teased and reminisced. The bad time of my talking with cousin-in-law Hughie was slipping away.

That was when Walt looked up from his magazine and said, “You know, Hughie don’t like you much.”

I said I knew that.

He then said, “But he respects you for speaking your truth.”

That was when I learned that few people like you for speaking truth to power, but they just might respect you.

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.

Back to School

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recalls daydreaming during class in Catholic School, and what his Third Grade Nun had to say about it…

It happens at the end of every summer. Come September, there is the ritual return to school. The beginning of my third year at Catholic School was much like the year before. Marching in well-ordered lines from the playground/parking lot into the tan-bricked school building and up into our first-floor classroom, we were returned to our formal training. Ricky Cramshaw, Cousin Buzzy, and Cindy Maloney were across the street at the public school, which was called the Washington Avenue School. But I was sent to the Sacred Heart of Jesus school, where my mother Tessie hoped I would be inspired to lead a sacred life. My dad, Walt, didn’t care which school I went to, as long as I skipped as many days possible and spent them in the woods.

Our teachers were called Nuns, and they were women who wore black and white robes with hats that were called Habits. Ricky observed that they looked like penguins (and they did, sort of). My First Grade Nun was an elderly woman who didn’t seem to know why she was there. My Second Grade Nun was an exceptionally short woman, who was one of the toughest Nuns I ever met. But the Third Grade Nun was just the opposite. She was tall and gentle and she sang out constantly—beautiful psalms and hymns while we were doing lessons. She even taught us to sing. She was the first woman teacher at this school whom I was not afraid of.

During the first week of school, I found myself assigned to a desk near the window. The maples had yet to turn and the squirrels were busy running about the branches and pulling on fresh, new acorns. No matter what the subject, my thoughts drifted away and out the window, first to the squirrels in the trees and then further on to the woods back home. At mid-morning of each school day there was a recess, wherein all the kids were marched out to the hall and then each one took a turn to visit the bathroom, whether you needed to or not. On the third day of third grade, when we marched out to the hall, this singing nun (whose name was Sister Barbara Ann) stopped me and looked into my face and said, “Master Stead, for the past three days I have seen you stare out the window and drift away into the trees out there.”


I nodded my head in agreement, since there was no sense in hiding what she already knew. But then she said this, “And I can see by your face that you go beyond the trees to some other place.”
Again, I nodded, but I was now scared that she could see inside me.
She said, “Where do you go?”
I spoke slowly and said, “Up the mountain to look for animal tracks.”
“What kind of animal tracks?” she asked.
“Squirrel, opossum, coon, cat and dog.”
I told her, “Because that was how nature writes its story.”
She looked at me and her face was full of wonder. She said, “I’ll tell you what, Master Stead, when I see that look in your eyes and think you are searching for animal tracks, I won’t call on you, OK?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
Then she said, “But sometimes I will need to call on you to help me answer things about places and arithmetic and about double negatives…”
I said, “I ain’t got no double negatives.”
She smiled and said, “I don’t got no negatives neither.”

She then stood up and sent me to the bathroom. And for the rest of the year, I knew there were times when she saw that I was looking out the window, and she did not call on me. Sister Barbara Ann was my first favorite teacher, for letting me go away when I needed to.

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…


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.

Maple Water

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a tale of Maple Water in the mountains and gratitude for Mother Earth.

We always hated to see the last of winter. Along with snow holidays off from school, the seasonal blanket of white turned the woodlands into an Artic adventure. Come evening, the very earth itself seemed to be illuminated with a fairy landscape that hinted at nature’s mystery. There were so many stories to follow in the tracks of wildlife that even the sleeping forest was awake with animal speak. But as March moved us toward April, the snow started to melt, and the creeks ran high, and the early buds snuck out from their tiny stalks. Dainty white Snow Drops and bright purple crocuses suddenly appeared even before the last snow fell. The Black Capped Chickadee changed his sweet mournful two notes that seemed to tell us “Spring Soon,” to an excited four note celebration “Spring is Com-ing!”. My friends and I saddened as winter slipped away. But then! There was Jeff Masters’ annual tasting of Maple Water! This was the official recognition that winter was on its last legs.

We followed Jeff up a trail to one of his favorite sugar maples. He somehow moved fast, but looked like he was walking slowly. His was a long-ambled stride that seemed easy and relaxed, but actually moved along pretty fast. My uncle Mal used to describe Jeff’s walking style as ‘country’ or ‘mountaineer’ walking. He said my dad walked that way and that I would too eventually. Cindy Maloney was behind me and hers was a focused, purposeful walking style, while Ricky Cramshaw followed us with his easy-going wander that meandered more than directed. As for me, I couldn’t figure out how I walked, seeing as how I couldn’t see myself from a distance, but I once saw a home movie in which me as a littler kid walked by. I was startled at seeing how I looked and refused to look at it a second time. I think it scared me.

We got to the top of the small ridge and crossed over to the southern side where the winter sun had turned the snow pack into mush. We reached Jeff’s favorite tree. He hunkered down and with his brace and bit tool, he pressed the long curly metal bit against a good spot in the tree bark and began to drill. He cranked the open handle around many times until he got deep enough into the tree. Then he removed the drill bit and took out a small metal nozzle, which he pounded into the hole in the tree with a hammer. Almost immediately, drips of sap came down the open nozzle and Jeff hung his metal bucket on the nozzle. We all looked in and watched as the tree let out one drop after another. “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!”. The sound spoke out to us. Jeff stood back and said, “Come evening, when the temperature drops, it will slow down. Then, as long as its real cold tonight and then warm tomorrow, it will pick up again.” We followed him to a second tree where a bucket was already hanging. Here, he took out four little tin cups from his pack. This bucket was more than half full and Jeff easily dipped the cups into the bucket and gave us each a half cup of Maple Sap.

maple bucket

Sugaring bucket hanging from a maple tree

He said, “Now don’t drink it just yet. We gotta thank the earth mother for sharing with us.”

Ricky quickly said, “Thank you, Earth Mother!”

Jeff said, “Look up to the sky and thank Creator.”

We did this.

He then said, “Look down to the earth and thank the ancestors.”

We did.

He then said, “Thank you Earth Mother for all you share with us.”

I said, in this moment, “Amen.”

Cindy said, “Amen? What do you think? We’re praying?”

Before I could answer Jeff said, “Well, yes we are.”

We all sipped our sap. It’s Maple Water actually. If you boil it down, 40 quarts of this Maple Water will yield one quart of maple syrup—after most of the water has been boiled out of it. Jeff told us that the elders used to gather the maple water and let it freeze, then remove the ice on top, which was another way to extract the water part. The sugar would settle at the bottom, and would not freeze with the water. It took a lot of refreezing to get down to a sweet syrup.

boiling sap

Maple water boiling over a fire

The maple water tasted just a bit like maple syrup but was cool and delicious to wash across your tongue and very rewarding to swallow. This sweet drink was like a promise from winter that things would be good when spring came. Nature would take care of us now that we survived a long, cold winter. Ricky looked at the grand, grey maple that reached out over our heads and he said, “So when you tap the maple water, does it all come down from way up there?”

Jeff smiled and said, “The tree gathers up water from the ground and even from the leaves. When the maple water gets made, it moves through the tree just like your blood moves through you. It moves up and down throughout the tree.”

Cindy asked, “Does the tree have a heart?”

Jeff looked at her and grinned, “You mean does a heart in the tree move sap like our heart moves our blood around inside of us?”

She said, “Well, yeah I guess, but I also mean, is it a living thing like us?”

Jeff put his open palm on the tree and said, “Well no, it does not have a heart like we have to pump our blood around. The whole tree helps in moving the maple water just by the way the tree breaths.”

Ricky shouted, “Trees breathe?”

“Yup and it is a living thing, not just like us, but kind of like us. It needs air and water and food, too.”

Ricky observed, “Well this tree has been eating well, because this maple water is tasty!”

Jeff looked at me and said, “You ain’t said much. What do you think of our maple water this year?”

“Good” I said, and then added, “Amen.”

The Time of Seeds

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, reminds us of the lore and symbolism surrounding springtime, and why it is a time for sowing physical and metaphorical seeds.

In the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, young Persephone is carried away by Hades to the underworld. Her grieving mother Demeter, the Goddess of The Harvest, refuses to let the earth bear fruit in her daughter’s absence. However, an eventual deal is struck, in which Persephone can return to her mother for six months of the year, as long as she spends the remaining six with Hades in the underworld. Persephone’s annual return to earth marks the beginning of spring and the growing season. Persephone is not only the queen of the underworld, but also a goddess of spring growth.

In The Story of the Root Children (a favorite of young children), Mother Earth opens the door leading up to the world on an early spring day, and the root children walk in a long procession from underground out to the earth, bringing with them new growth, new life.

It is not surprising that spring has a strong presence in myths and stories of different cultures. In the spring, nature transitions from cold, dark, and sleep, bringing the promise of light, warm weather, and most importantly, of abundant food. The triumph of light, awakening, new life, cyclical renewal, are all associated with spring, as are two powerful spring symbols: eggs and seeds.

For those who work the land, the early signs of nature’s transition are their cue to begin planting. The farmer puts on her rain boots and, equipped with her gardening tools and packets of seeds, goes out to the garden as soon as the soil can be worked. Life feels good. The intoxicating smell of freshly turned soil and the seeds in the basket waiting to be planted hold a promise of new life and a promise of harvest.  The farmer puts seeds into the ground, hoping that with her help their potential will unfold later in the season. It takes faith to plant…

Seeds germinate in the darkness and reach for the light as they emerge through the soil’s surface. For seeds that overwintered under the blanket of soil and snow, more light and longer days signal that it is time to wake up. Spring brings one of only two days each year when light and darkness are perfectly balanced: the spring equinox. Equinox literally means equal night. Light and darkness share the same portion of the day.  Planting around the spring equinox is a technique used by traditional farming cultures worldwide. Sowing seeds outdoors on the first day of spring may not have been an option for us this year, but we can start seeds in the greenhouse or on a windowsill in the days following that day of balance.


Lettuce sprouts

When planting, we choose to plant some seeds in the hope of an edible harvest, others because we consider the plants or their flowers beautiful, and sometimes we have other reasons. There is one plant that I plant each spring just for the sake of its seeds.

Several years ago, in a friend’s garden, I saw a flowering plant that I had not seen before. It was late summer and some of the bloom had already turned into seeds. The plant itself wasn’t remarkable in any way. It was bushy, rather weedy-looking, with small yellow flowers that stayed closed in bright sun. It was the kind of plant that looked like it would survive almost anywhere. But the seeds were anything but ordinary. They were the most unusual and beautiful seeds I have ever seen. They were large, about ¼ of an inch long, dark and shaped like an ancient Greek amphora (a vase used in ancient times for food storage). I just had to have them and I put some into my pocket. I named the plants that grew from these seeds “amphora plants”. I do not know the plant’s proper botanical name. I looked for it in seed catalogs and gardening books without any success.  But, like last season and the season before, I will plant my amphora seeds again for their promise of beauty.

Spring is here (or coming very soon) and whether we put physical seeds into the soil, or as gardeners in the garden of life we sow seeds of gratitude for life and light, it is time to go out and plant.


“Amphora” seeds


Making Seed Packets

There are many seed themed activities we can do with children. Planning the garden and preparing for planting are activities we can engage in even before the weather is right for actual gardening. On a cold afternoon, we made seed packets to give away to our friends.

For this project, you will need some seeds: either seeds you have saved from your garden or store bought ones. Choose seeds your friends could plant and easily grow. For those with gardens, beans, sunflower, squash, salad greens or annual flowers are a good choice. Seeds of basil, parsley, dill, or greens (to be grown as micro-greens) work well for containers. If you wish, you can create your own seed mix.

Use the template below to cut out the paper for the seed packets. You can use plain white paper, construction paper or even wrapping paper. Fold the paper along the middle fold. This will be the bottom of the packet. Put some paper glue on the side flaps and fold to seal the sides of the packet. Decorate the front using pencils, crayons or stickers. Remember to include the name of the seeds the packet is intended for. Fill the packet with seeds, fold the top flap and use glue or use a sticker to close it up.

This is a lovely birthday party activity for younger children!


Telling Stories with Chuck: New Baby

There was a new baby in our village. Not that I cared one way or another but people were talking about it and I heard some of what they said: adorable, remarkable for an early birth, doesn’t look like either of them, a little bit of heaven. I was the youngest in my family so I hadn’t seen another follow me up with all the crying, the diaper changing, and everybody in the house being tired. No, I didn’t much care about new babies and I could have done entirely without seeing it – but for Cindy it was different. She had two younger brothers (who supposedly both entered this world ready for a fight), so I was surprised that she was interested in seeing this new baby.

“It’s a girl” Cindy told me, “Girls are different and I want to check it out.”

We walked through the village streets and along the way Ricky Cramshaw found us and asked what we were up to. Cindy told him and he said, “Babies is mostly like looking at little, old, bald men.”

Cindy said, “This little bald man is a girl.”

So Ricky joined us. The three of us soon stepped onto the front porch where one of the Ramapough Indian women sat by a baby carriage and an old woman with her face mapped with many lines sat near by. Cindy asked the young woman if we could see her baby. The mother reached into the carriage and slowly lifted a small sack of blanket with a bulbous baby head wearing a knitted yellow cap. This infant was pink-faced and a little wet around the mouth. She looked up at Cindy and made a tiny sound. Cindy said, “Hello…”

The woman told us her name was Sadie.

Ricky said he had an uncle who owned a dog named Sadie.

I stepped closer to get a better look at the little, fat, gurgling thing and she turned her head and looked at me. The woman said, “She knows you Stead. Look at how she looks at you.”

I said, “How could she know me? I never met her before!”

Ricky said in a slow whisper, “Gram says babies is old souls who know a lot of things.”

The ancient woman watching us then said, “That’s right. Babies come into the world with old knowing. Most likely she knows you from another time.”

Baby Sadie kept her big eyes locked on me. Then in an ancient, eggshell voice she made a small sound, almost like a word. Her mother smiled and said, “She’s talking to you Stead.”

Ricky said, “Say something back, Chucky.”

I shrugged. I didn’t know what to say to this chubby lump of life.

Cindy whispered, “Chuck, she remembers you from another lifetime. You must have been close friends. Say something!”

So I leaned in and offered my right index finger and Sadie grabbed it with a tiny wrinkled hand. She held on tight and smiled a gummy, toothless smile.

I said, “Welcome back”.


Grandma Cramshaw’s May Pole

In the backyard of the Cramwshaw house, tucked in near an ancient rock wall, there was on old pole, maybe fifteen feet high with straggling, faded ribbons hanging from the top. I never knew what it might be for. Along with the cast iron bathtub filled with smooth stones, the single large iron gear surrounded every spring with daisies, and the collection of Ford, Chrysler, and International hub caps nailed to the side of the barn, this pole topped with tattered ribbons was just another artifact of the Cramshaw way of life. But I did know this pole had something to do with grandma Cramshaw. Then the morning after one particularly strong night of April showers the pole was blown down.

Ricky Cramshaw came down to my folks house and found me looking for fish worms in my dad’s rose garden.

He said, “Chucky, no fishing now, we got to go help with the May pole.”

My dad, Walt, who was inspecting the new growth on his rose bushes said, “Your grandmother’s May pole?”

“Yup. It blew down last night and got busted. My big brother Lucky gone up the mountain to cut a new one and we need kids to dress it up.”

Walt looked again at the new little buds and seemed worried about them. He said, “She ain’t done any May dancing since I can remember.”

Ricky said, “Nope, I never seen it done neither. But she says with it coming down that’s a sign to do some dancing!”

“Dancing?” I asked with images of old time ballroom dancing in gowns and tuxedos.

Ricky said, “Sort of like dancing around a fire only it’s around a pole.”

Walt looked to our back porch and said, “Where’s your mother?”

“She went shopping, I think.”

Ricky said, “Oh then she’ll miss the dancing!”

Walt said, “Good, she don’t approve of things like May poles anyway.”

“What’s not to approve?” Ricky asked him. “It’s just dancing around a stick in the ground!”

Walt said, “It’s an old fashioned thing that scares her.” He told us to go on up.

At the top of the street we met up with Cindy Maloney, her friend Josephine, and her two brothers Mort and Wort. They had all been invited to help as well. When we got to the place where the old pole had been Lucky Cramshaw had already dragged it off and was tying long, many-colored ribbons to the top of the newly cut maple pole. Ricky explained that his Grandmother preferred a maple May pole to any other wood. Dougy Cramshaw was attaching old dried maple and oak leaves to his woolen shirt with safety pins. He told us he was going to be ‘leaf boy’ and give out the sticks. I was just asking what sticks he might be talking about when Ricky’s mom, July, came walking out with her mother, Lilian Cramshaw. July did not look pleased about this project. She was shaking her head and seemed annoyed. Her mother’s pig monster dogs were kept in the house and they were not happy about this. I could see their ugly, fat heads popping up in the lower kitchen window and hear them yapping to be let out. Even Ricky’s sister Luanne and her half sister Mary Jo were there. I did not see their father. The old lady came up to a little rise above the garden, and holding on to July’s hand she started to instruct us kids as to what we were to do. Once Lucky got the pole standing up straight and sure, we all had to take hold of the end of one of the long ribbons. Then Mary Jo (who was looking kind of teenage pretty these days) had a flat snare drum, and as she pounded it we were to dance around the pole. Each of us were given a direction to go in, and as we danced the idea was that the ribbons would get wrapped into a big braid around the pole… at least that was the idea. The ribbons were long, bright-colored cloth of blue, red, orange, green, yellow and violet. When Grandma gave the command Mary Jo starting drumming and we hopped into motion.

Photo by Mark Saunders for Green Meadow Waldorf School

Photo by Mark Saunders for Green Meadow Waldorf School

First of all, Mort and Wort went the wrong way, tripped and started to strangle each other with their ribbons. Lucky broke that up, but then Luanne tangled Cindy up and they both fell into me while I was trying to avoid Dougy, who was running around swinging fresh-cut maple limbs at everybody. July Cramshaw got us all back to our places and explained that this was a slow dance around the pole and that we weren’t supposed to be choking each other with the ribbons. We tried to start it again but Mort and Wort got into a fist fight which sent the indoor pig monsters into a frenzy, so we had to stop. Finally, Grandma Cramshaw got us all together, and looking very stern she told us what for.

“This is important, you kids. Now we got to do this right or there won’t be any good growing season. Up there on that mountain just like down here in the village the trees are listening. They hear us every day and they want to know we respect them!”

Wort Maloney then spoke up, his little reptilian voice croaking like some bog creature, “Then why’d you cut one down to make a pole with?”

It was a good question. A fine young maple had been cut for this May Pole. The old woman scowled at Wort and said, “Some sacrifice is sometimes necessary. Thing is…” she added, “we now got to hold ceremony for the living!” Her last remark was stern and just a bit angry.

We took our places again. With the determined, chiseled face of the old lady staring down at us we danced slowly to the beat of Mary Jo’s snare drum. I looked up and saw that the wrapping of the ribbons was working. Eventually we got to the bottom of the pole and each of us got to the end of our ribbon. Then Dougy the leaf boy danced about handing everybody a switch of fresh maple. Now old Grandma was smiling and all her meanness was gone. She said to us, “Take your maple stick as a sign of fresh new growth. Take it and know that things are now fertile.” She looked to July, who I think was pretty disapproving of the whole thing, and the old lady said to her, “A long time ago I took a fresh cut maple stick from a May Pole dance – and that year I gave birth to you!”

July laughed out loud.

Photo by Fernando Lopez for Green Meadow Waldorf School

Photo by Fernando Lopez for Green Meadow Waldorf School