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Habitat

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, picks up where he left off last month

Jeff Masters walked us kids up along the power line that crosses the road in east Hillburn, just past the Paint Shop, and then goes up the hill and over the mountain. I was directly behind him, followed by Cindy and Ricky, and even Rick’s little brother, Doug, trailing behind us. Jeff lead us over some wide expanse of rock that was a light dusty color. Crossing under the high-tension cables, he walked us into the tree line and right up to some large slabs of broken rock. He said the snake scientists call this sort of rock ‘talus’ and he said the snake scientists are called ‘herpetologists’.
“Herpy-loligists?” Ricky asked him.
“No, herpetologists” Jeff told him.
We all tried to say it and Dougy came up with the best version, “Herpy-lollipop-olists!”

We heard something moving and Jeff kept us back as he spotted a big black snake slipping away from where we stood. The snake was in no hurry to get away and Jeff said this might mean that he or she had just caught a mouse and had a full stomach. Once the snake was gone, Jeff told us that this was ‘good snake country’, as the rock offered nice places for them to den and the open area where the power lines were strung made a good place for mice to live. That meant there was plenty of food for the snakes. He said they also liked to lie out on the open rocks, but that was risky as hawks could see them and hunt them out there.

I said, “Hawks eat snakes?”
“Yup, hawks eat the snakes just as the snakes eat the mice.”
Ricky asked, “Who eats the hawks?”
Jeff said, “Well, eagles will, but we ain’t got much eagles around here these days. Owls and ravens and crows will eat hawk eggs, but not the hawks themselves.” Then he said, “That black snake we just seen can climb trees and sometimes they climb up to the hawk’s nest and eat the eggs too.”
Cindy said, “In nature, everything is a meal.”
“Yup” he told us. “Pretty much everything gets eaten eventually, even you!”
“Me!?”
“Well yeah, if you was to live where the polar bears or the grizzly bears or the lions was to find you.”
Ricky said, “We don’t got them being around here, right?”
“No we don’t and even if we did we’d keep ourselves away from them.”
Ricky said, “Or we’d be their supper!”
Dougy said, “I want to eat some nature!”
Jeff told him, “You eat nature all the time. All our food comes from nature.”
“No”, Dougy told him, “Our food comes from the grocery store.”
Jeff laughed and said, “Where do you think the store gets it from?”
“The food house!” Dougy declared.

Jeff told us, “The food house is everywhere.” He hunkered down and said, “You see, just like this place is good for mice, then it’s good for snakes and then good for the hawks. All of nature is a food store, only we call it a ‘habitat’. A good habitat means there will be good hunting and good eating.” He stood up and looking back down into the valley toward the thruway. He said, “But not when we build too many roads and buildings and dump garbage all over. That messes up the habitat. It’s like we were going into the food store and breaking up the shelves and refrigerators and dumping all the orange juice and milk on the floor.”

Dougy said, “Hey! That’s wrong! We’d be bad guys to do that!”
Jeff said, “Yup and it’s the same thing when we break up the habitat.”
Doug thought about this and then said, “But we need roads and buildings, too.”
“Yup, you’re right, and it’s always a trade-off. We want roads and buildings and we got to have a good habitat.”
Cindy said, “So the snake scientists…”
Dougy shouted, “The Herpy-lollipop-olists!”
She said, “They are always working to see if the snake habitat is in good health?”
Jeff said, “Yup, that’s what science is for.”
Ricky said, “But Uncle Mal says them fellows is know-it-alls!”
“Yeah, well a lot of them are because sometimes the ‘new-learning’ don’t give a hoot about the ‘old-learning’.”
And Ricky said, “Ain’t that because the new takes over the old?”
Jeff looked at us and said, “Taking-over ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be just like a good habitat, where one thing builds into the next. In nature everything continues because everything is still connected; eventually everything comes around. Same is true with science, but it’s wrong when it forgets about the ancient wisdom.”
I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “It’s what came before the science. It’s what helped make the science come around.” He looked down at me and said, “And it’s in all of you.”
Dougy squealed and said, “Oh, I feel it tickling my insides!”

We followed Jeff out from under the trees and back down along the path of the power lines. Truth is, I wasn’t at all sure what he had been talking about, but I had a feeling it would come to me. I figured it was like ‘good habitat’ – eventually everything comes around.

Taking Care of Mother Nature

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month…

By the end of that trapping season, Jeff Masters had taken more than a few dozen raccoons. This was an animal that was populating very well throughout the Torne Valley and deep into Harriman State Park, but mostly along the edges of the park near to where people lived. Raccoon is an opportunist, which means he takes advantage of wherever he can find a free meal. The problem with that is when Raccoons produce a lot more raccoons, and they are all eating garbage, they can get sick. And sometimes they can pass their sickness along to other raccoons, so keeping the growing population down was Jeff Masters’ way of preventing the raccoons from spreading sickness through their community. He could get more money for trapping fox and mink, but Jeff was interested in the coons as a way of being a good naturalist. He had been reading a magazine that my dad Walt had given him a subscription for, called The New York State Conservationist. This was Walt’s favorite magazine and he told me that it was about ‘taking care of nature’ and that all the good hunters read it. In fact, Walt showed me a story in the Conservationist about the rising raccoon population and about how some scientists were worried that rabies, an animal sickness, might break out among the raccoons. Still, I was worried that Jeff might be killing too many coons and then they would be gone forever.

“Gone forever?” Uncle Mal said to us kids when I told him about this. He said, “You mean extinct, don’t you?”
Ricky said, “No not stinky coons, just gone coons.”
Mal said, “Ricky Cramshaw, extinction is not about being stinky, it’s about not being anything at all!”
“Uncle Mal, how can you be not anything at all?”
‘By being extinct!”
“Uncle Mal, coons are smelly but they don’t stink!”
Mal got up out of his chair and crossed to the paint shop coffer counter and said, “I ain’t talking to you about this anymore!”
I jumped in, “But Uncle Mal, could the raccoons be all gone if Jeff traps too many?”
Mal picked up his electric perk coffee pot and poured some oily black coffee into his plastic throw-away insert cup and he said, “I don’t think so. Raccoons are real good at multiplying.”
Ricky said, “Coons are good at arithmetic?”
Mal stared at him and said, “You bet they are, boy. A couple of healthy raccoons can turn into half a dozen and then next year that half a dozen can turn into three dozen, and then…”
I said, “But what if Jeff were too trap enough of them to make it hard for the multiplying to happen?”
“Huh?”
“What if Jeff trapped all the momma coons and then there was no more baby coons?”
He stared at me and said, “Chucky, why are you so worried about this?”

I told him about articles in the Conservationist that Walt showed me, all about trying to keep the right number of animals around and about being careful about not killing too many of them. Mal sat down and said, “Well now I ain’t going to criticize the Conservationist but all I’m going to say is I never cared for these wild life scientists who think they can make nature work better. Nature will do whatever she intends to do with or without us!”

Cindy, who hadn’t said a word up to this point, said, “You called nature a ‘she’.”
“Well, yes I did.”
“So nature is a girl?”
He thought about this and said, “Well, I suppose so.”
Ricky said to Mal, “How can nature be a girl?”
Mal shook his head and told him, “Cramshaw, it is just an expression. People just say it.”
“Yeah, but why do they say it?”
questions!” He then shuffled through some papers on his desk and we sat there pondering the female-ness of existence. Then he returned and showed us a copy of the Readers Digest and in it an advertisement said, ‘Please Take Care of Mother Nature’. There was a picture of pollution along-side a highway. Mal said, “There, you see? Folks think of nature as being a mother.”
And I said, “Yeah, and it says we need to ‘take care’ of her. And maybe killing too many coons is not taking care of her?”
He shook his head in disgust and said, “You know you’re talking just like one of them know-it-all scientist fellows. You want to be careful about that.”
Cindy said, “Chucky ain’t going to be a scientist.” And then she looked at me and said, “Are you?”
I was about to tell her I was planning on being an archeologist, but Mal said, “You don’t want to end up like that fellow who’s been poking around in rattle snake country!”
I looked at him and said, “Why not?”
Mal looked at us and said, “Ain’t you heard? He got himself bit by a rattler two days ago and it was Jeff who took him to the hospital.”
Cindy said, “Was he bit bad?”
Mal stared at her and said, “Well there’s no way you can be bit good.”
Ricky said, “Oh yeah? Well if I was a rattlesnake I would bite you good, Uncle Mal!”
Mal said, “If you was a rattlesnake, I would run you over with my truck!”
Cindy said, “That’s not taking care of Mother Nature, Mal.”
Mal was about to respond but changed his mind and instead told us to get outside and find some raccoons and rattlesnakes to play with.

In Like a Lion

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious snake-related business…

Staring out at the roaring rumble of a mixed snow/rain storm from the paint shop window, uncle Mal said, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!”.

Jeff Masters said to him, “That aint always true.”

Mal looked at us kids, winked and said, “But a dry March means a wet May, fill barns and bays with corn and hay!”

Jeff laughed and said, “Malcolm, you ought to be a poet weatherman!”

Ricky, Cindy, and I were all sitting on a heap of canvas drop sheets with Mike, the shop dog. We were waiting for our soaked gloves to dry out. Mal had pinned them up over the shop heating vent. We had walked over to the shop, through the village, in a wet snow storm and now it was a snow/rain storm dropping wet white weather all over our world.

Jeff poured himself a little more coffee from the shop pot, returned to his stool and said, “I’m telling you, that scientist, or whatever he is, was up just below the Torne ledge late last night, taking temperatures of the rocks there along the bottom of the cliff.

Mal said, “Well wait now, how do you know he was doing this late at night?”

Jeff explained, “I went in to bait some coon traps along the Torne Brook after dark and I saw him hiking up, to the bottom of the cliffs. Then this morning, at sun rise, I was down at the Red Apple for coffee and there he was, sitting there eating eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. He had the same wooden box I seen him carrying up there the night before. So, I go over to his table and I say to him, ‘You been traipsing around the foot of Torne Mountain last night, I seen you.’ And he says to me that he was there to check the midnight temperature of the underside of the rocks where he figures snakes is hibernating. So, I ask him why, and he says it’s because he wants to know about the temperatures under the rocks as the spring comes in!”

Mal shook his head and said, “Sounds like a scientist. They are a strange tribe. Don’t work with much reason or sensibility.”

Jeff said, “So, I asked him if he was watching for the snakes to come out. And he tells me that he is doing just that, but that he hopes I won’t bother with them, as he is studying them.”

Mal laughed, “Well, why would you bother with them?”

Jeff said, “Up in Warren County they will pay you five dollars for a dead rattler snake. That’s as much as you get for a coon skin. I know fellows who will kill them down here and take them up there for the reward.”

Mal asked him, “Would you do that?”

“No, snaking is not what I do. I’m part Indian and we made our peace with the snake people.”

Ricky said, “Snake people? Who are they?”

Jeff told us, “All the animals got a people sense about them, just as we got an animal sense about us. So, my people, using their animal sense, talked with the snake people who used their animal sense to understand that we didn’t have no argument with them.”

Mal said, “Was that before or after Goldilocks ate up all the bears’ porridge?”

Ricky said, “No, Uncle Mal, she just ate up the baby bear’s porridge, is all.”

Jeff said, “Either way this fellow with the scientific tool kit was up there in the night taking temperatures of under the rocks!”

Mal said, “I don’t like it. First come the scientists and pretty soon the tourists are coming in. Once the tourists show up its all over!”

I said, “What’s all over, Uncle Mal?”

He looked at us kids and said, “Our way of life! There will be souvenir stands, parking lots, trailer camps, kiddy rides, before you know it they will be building a replica Village of Hillburn right next to the real one, anything for a buck!”

Ricky said, “What’s the replica Hillburn going to be like?”

“Well it will be like what Hillburn was like in the old times. If they build it right I might move into it myself!”

Jeff said, “Mal, they might pay you to live there like folks lived in the olden times!”

Outside the storm howled and blew hard against the shop window. We all stared out at the harsh weather and Mal said, “Maybe, I’ll skip living in the old-time village. Winters were pretty hard to take back then.”

Jeff said, “Oh Mal, you’ve just gotten soft in our old age. Winters are no different now than they were then.”

“Maybe not, but I’ve grown accustomed to centralized heat and hot water. No sir, I wouldn’t want to do with-out my civilization!”

Jeff stared out at the storm and said, “Yeah, well your civilization also means snake scientists creeping all over the mountain.”

Mal said, “And nothing good could come of that.”

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.”
“Why?”
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.

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.

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.”