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Ed’s Corner

When it’s a nasty, cold, winter-mix kind of day, and it seems that its been gray forever, just think about that the fact that the sun is still shining very brightly right above the clouds, just as it does on the sunniest day. And if you’re feeling a little grey like the day, remember that somewhere there is light, above the clouds, throwing shadows against the earth. If you find yourself within your own shadow, look for the light – it is there. The bigger the shadow, the larger the light.

 

Maple Sugaring at The Nature Place

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

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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.”

Early Signs of Spring

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

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

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

Skunk Cabbage 1

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

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

Skunk Cabbage 2

Ed’s Corner

When the Earth Hummed

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

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

Peeper

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

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

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

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

But I would be remiss.

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

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

Good luck.

 

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

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Have a great summer! We plan to.

Ed’s Corner

It is now a few days before the official first day of winter, which arrives on Sunday, December 21st. This day, the shortest day of the year (least hours of daylight) is known as the Winter Solstice. Soon after this day the sun will  be in the sky for an increasingly longer smidgen of time each day. These smidgens do add up and it’s usually around the third week of January that I become aware, almost by surprise, of more light and a different quality to the light.

These weeks preceding the Solstice can be dark, gray, and can offer up, even now as I write this, cold rainy windswept days. Br-r-r. Thoughts of sitting by the fireside, sipping hot chocolate, even a nap, dance through my head. And as I sit next to the fireplace, warmed once again by the sun’s energy, some of which is now being released by way of the burning wood, I begin to think of all the amazing things that are part of the natural world, at this very moment, not very far from where I am or you are:
Slug eggs

Slug eggs

Slug eggs from a distance

Slug eggs from a distance

  • Under a nearby rock, which is probably frozen to the ground, there may be an overwintering bald-faced hornet queen.
  • Under a board or a large branch that has been on the ground for some time, there might be a small mound or two of round, white eggs. These slug eggs – yes, that’s what they are! – remind me of small stacks of cannonballs, the kind that I have seen at historical restorations.

 

  • On the coldest days many of our common winter birds puff up their feathers for more insulation. I know it’s not an ornithological phrase, but they sure do look cute.
  • Think of the lakes, ponds and puddles that are now frozen or beginning to freeze. Because of the special properties of water, ice forms from the top – the surface – downward. Just imagine the problems, especially if you were a water denizen, if a pond or lake froze from the bottom up.
  • The leafless deciduous trees and shrubs now reveal their skeletons, their branches. One can find and feel wart-like bumps on the tips and along the lengths of thinner branches. These buds hold the future. Even though they may appear dead and lifeless, there is life inside each one, the leaves and/or flowers for next spring! These buds were ‘made/finished’ even before the end of last summer and are now just patiently waiting – maybe like some of us – for the spring that will follow this winter.
  • Tucked into the crevasses and recesses of the bark of trees you may find what looks like a dead-looking (but very much alive) lightning bug, called a soldier beetle. These soldier beetles, so called because the red pattern on some resemble the British Redcoats, are related to the firefly family but do not produce light. They are good for our gardens because they eat aphids and other pests, and also help in pollination.
  • If you are sitting in your fireside chair in the evening, around the time of the full moon, you may notice, as the fire goes out, that there is still light in the room. That’s thanks to the full moons of winter, when the moon remains in the sky for a much longer time than during other seasons. The winter full moon follows a similar path in the sky that the summer sun does. It follows a high path across the sky, stays above the horizon longer, and thus is ‘up’ for a longer time.
  • You think green has gone? Not so. Now that many trees have lost their leaves the evergreens (trees and shrubs) stand out more, especially with a snowy white background. There are amazing greens on the sides of many trees – lichens, moss, algae – that can make for a riotous panoply of green!
A very green rock wall next to the fairy stream

A very green rock wall next to the fairy stream

  • And somewhere out in the woodlands there are, dug into the earth, the thumbnail-sized spring peeper frogs, waiting for the right combination of day length and warmth to signal them to wake and make their way toward a vernal pond or other nearby wetland. Once there, hundreds of males let loose their mating call of ‘Pe-ep! Pe-ep!’, the primordial sound of the earth awakening to spring.
  • And then, around the end of the first week of February, even from my fireside chair, I get a feeling in my body, some kind kind of unbidden knowing, that the sap is moving within the maple trees. and that sugaring time is nigh.
  • And if it’s snowing outside while you’re tucked warmly inside, consider the many millions of flakes that are falling, and the belief that no two flakes are alike. As we like to say at camp, ‘Ooh, Ah, How can it be?’.
And all of this and more is ‘happening’  as you’re sitting in that comfy chair by the fire. You can just think about these wonders of nature or even go outdoors and check them out.
Under the snow
            drifts
         the blossoms are
             sleeping
         Dreaming their
dreams of sunshine and June.
                                                  -Harriet Prescot Spofford