As I write this in mid-November I’m looking out my office window at the magnificent, redder-than-red  leaves of a Japanese Maple. Others have recently said to me how striking the Japanese Maples appear this year, as if inside each there was an internal glowing furnace of red.

Maple aflame

Maple aflame

They truly may be a brighter red color than other seasons but they also may catch our attention more because of the contrasts. Most other leaves have fallen, or if they are still on their tree or bush they are of a muted color. Overcast, gray days also provide a contrast.

The natural world is filled with contrasts:  the seasons themselves, the weather, how it’s great to be out on a cold day and then soul-satisfying to come into a warm, inviting space, maybe even one with a fireplace or wood stove.

Maybe not a contrast but certainly something we didn’t notice until the leaves began to fall, is the hornets’ nest securely attached to the Ginkgo tree on the lawn behind Holder House. This lawn area serves as a daily dismissal site at the end of each of our camp days. I received no reports this past summer about the nest, nor were there any stings from this nest in the nurse’s log. So here was a new treasure for us.


Hornets' nest

Hornets’ nest

Bald-faced or white-faced hornets make their paper nest by chewing wood and mixing it with their saliva – giving us the idea years ago of making paper from wood. They eat flies, caterpillars, spiders, fruit, meat, nectar (for the larvae – pollen, too)  and yellow jackets. During mid-summer there can be up to 300 hornets (queens, workers, drones) in a large nest!

All the hornets die in the fall – except one or more newly inseminated queens. They don’t stay in the nest but overwinter under logs, rocks, in hollow trees, underneath the shingles of your house. When spring comes the queen(s) comes out of hibernation and begins to build a new nest and lay eggs. From these eggs the newly hatched worker hornets then continue building upon what she has started while she basically stays in egg-laying mode. The old nest is not reused.

Ginkgo tree with hornets' nest (left and middle)

Ginkgo tree with hornets’ nest (left and middle)

Perhaps you have heard stories of people, perhaps a teacher, carefully cutting down a nest in early fall to bring it inside. After all, it is a marvelous and beautiful piece of architecture. And then, because of warmer inside temperatures, some of the still-inside-but-thought-dead hornets crawl out of the nest, sometimes to actually fly around! In a classroom I can imagine this to be a teachable moment, but one perhaps filled also with shouts and screams and running around.

Many autumns ago I was driving back to Rockland after doing a day of outdoor education activities at a Westchester school. During my lunch break that day one of the teachers presented me with a huge hornet’s nest she had removed from an apple tree on her property. Always on the lookout for cool nature items to share with children, and not to turn down a special ‘gift’ meant for me, I gladly accepted it. I placed it right away on the front seat of my car, making sure I wouldn’t forget it. The day ended, I got into my car and proceeded west.

As soon as I began to cross the Tappan Zee bridge I saw just the slightest movement out of the corner of my right eye – from the area of the passenger seat. Before I looked, a thought quickly came to mind: the car’s interior, since lunch time, has been quite warm, my car having been parked in a spot that was fully in that afternoon sun. At this point I said a word that I shall not print here. Almost in slow motion I dared to move me eyes down and to the right. I could see a hornet beginning to crawl out of the hole, leg by slow-leg, as if she, too, were in slow-mo. I  then saw some other legs and head emerge. I said that word again. Two were now out on top of the nest itself, but moving, as I said, very slowly. Probably my imagination, but I felt as if they were looking at me! So here I am, in the middle of the Tappan Zee bridge, cars and trucks whooshing by, no where to pull over, and maybe soon to have MANY hornets buzzing about. And I could not imagine them being happy hornets, what with their having their home moved, probably jostled about a bit and perhaps somehow knowing that their time as earthly hornets was soon to be over.

I felt I was in some kind of monster movie – they do look very big up close. Very close. Two more came teasingly slowly out onto the nest and joined the other two just s-l-o-w-l-y walking all around the nest, circling it (making plans, a countdown?).

I pressed pedal to the metal, got to the other side of the bridge, pulled off, carefully took the nest out and put it in my trunk. Phew.

I still love hornets, give them their space, acknowledge their reason for sharing this planet with us and will no longer in fall put a hornet’s nest in my warm car.


Storyteller Chuck Stead shares a Thanksgiving tale with us for this month of November.



My mom Tessie was not known for her cooking. Her meat was dry, her beans watery, her potatoes lumpy but she found salvation in her apple pie. Her pie crust was light and delicate and still firm, and a slice was packed with warm, sweet apples like a little vessel from heaven. Few folks favored Tessie’s apple pie as did my friend Ricky Cramshaw. For Ricky, whose own mother and grandmother produced a delicious Thanksgiving meal each year, the end was always a slice of Tessie’s apple pie, for as his grandmother used to say, “Everything is better with Tessie’s pie.”

Thanksgiving – with the deep chill, the last of the muddy rust forest as the world adjusted to dark grays and brown in wait for the first snow – was the traditional first week of gunning season for deer. The sight of woolen wrapped men carrying shotguns into the woods, the distant sound of twelve gauge ‘pop’ and the return of men dragging a buck cleaned of its interior, this was the eve of winter. Thanksgiving, not unlike the Fall Harvest, not unlike the Algonquin Gamwing, was a ceremonial meal heralding survival, community and the continuance of family.

Tessie started her meal preparations the night before, and the first guests to arrive an hour or so after noon the next day were tasked with arranging tables and chairs, plates and utensils. Leading up to the three o’clock meal an expected bustle of energy filled the cramped little house in our village. This despite the fact that no one had any delusions as to the quality of Tessie’s spread. She was a black-hearted Irishwoman who did not cook food as much as kill it, but there was always her apple pie in the end. Everything was better with Tessie’s pie.

As we came to settle in, Walt and a couple of uncles finished their smoke and sauntered in to one end of the table. Cousins found seating and snatched a fresh roll or two while talking about their different schools, plans for the holidays and gossip about distant relatives. And then there was Patty. A friend of my sister’s, she sat across the way and was very quiet. I did not know this girl, only Terry knew her. She was invited at the last minute, something about needing cheering up and about her family not understanding. I thought she was very pretty in a far-away kind of way. As we neared desert time, the supper dishes were being cleared and the men started to talk about the Vietnam War, there was some disagreement and that was when Patty got up, left the table and went out the back door. The pies were about to be laid out along with ice cream, milk and coffee. Ricky Cramshaw walked in from the back door all filled up with his parents’ meal and looking for Tessie’s apple pie.

He came to me and said softly, “Some girl is on the back porch crying.”

We went out the back door and there we found this Patty person sitting on the edge of the porch, crying softly. I stepped closer and said, “You want something?”

She looked at me, her eyes all wet, she said, “He got killed in Vietnam.”

“Your boyfriend?”

“Yeah, I guess. We wrote letters. I only met him one time. He was sweet and he was lonely. I liked him. He got killed in Vietnam.”

I didn’t know what to say to her. She wrapped her arms around her body like she was giving herself a hug. Ricky went back inside the house. I stood very still with the sounds of Thanksgiving family coming from inside and me and this Patty girl being outside in the cold and the dark November afternoon on the back porch.

Again she said more quietly now, “He got killed in Vietnam.”

Then I heard the back door open and shut and Ricky stepped up to sad Patty and gently he placed a dish of apple pie next to her and he said, “Everything is better with Tessie’s pie.”

Fall Fruit Newtons

It is well into fall, and for the past few months I have been gathering, preserving, drying and freezing wild foods in preparation for the winter. The other day I arrived home from a foraging trip with some wild apples and a pocketful of barberries. It was a friend’s birthday and I decided to make him some pastries. After weeks of processing acorns and feeding them to my mill, I had several bags of acorn flour in the freezer. Since I’d use any excuse to do some baking, I decided to make some Autumn fruit newtons.




Autumn Olives

Autumn Olives

Back in the beginning of October I had gathered about a gallon of Autumn olives, which I had bagged up and put into our freezer. I thawed some of them out to then add to the barberries and apples for making the filling. I also had a bag of hickory nuts that I had gathered from a particularly generous tree. I mixed my fruit ingredients together in a pan, added a little water and some organic sugar and cooked it up until it had reduced down to a thick consistency. Next, I made my pastry dough using a mixture of acorn flour and all-purpose flour (to help bind it). Even with the binding all-purpose flour, it was still quite challenging to wrap the pastry around the filling without some cracking, but I soon had a tray of newtons ready to go into the oven.

Fruit thickening in the pan

Fruit thickening in the pan

It felt good to make a batch of tasty, wild fruit-filled pastries, using flour that I had made myself. Finding foods in nature can be most gratifying, feeding both the body and the soul.

Freshly baked fall fruit newtons

Freshly baked fall fruit newtons

Events, Open Houses, & Camp Fairs

Beginning after the new year we’ll be hosting public programs for campers and their families, and for anyone else interested in experiencing a ‘taste of camp’ before summer begins.

Winter Tales with Chuck Stead
Saturday, January 17th. Noon – 1 pm.



Chuck Stead is a master storyteller, weaving a web of characters and scenes from his childhood growing up in the nearby Ramapo Mountains. Populated by animals, spirits, mountain people, and more, Chuck’s tales are knee-slapping, laugh-out-loud funny, goose-bump inducing in their poignancy, and enjoyed thoroughly by children and adults alike.

Maple Sugaring
Saturday, February 28th. 10 – 11 am and 2 – 3 pm.

Sap sucker

Sap sucker

Join The Nature Place as we learn all about maple trees and maple syrup, tap our own trees and taste the sap, watch sap boiling over a fire, and then taste freshly made, hot maple syrup over ice (accompanied by a dill pickle, of course). Participants will take home their own spouts, along with instructions on how to tap maple trees and make syrup at home.

This year we’re offering this program twice, once at 10 am and then again at 2 pm. 

Outragehisss Pets
Saturday, March 28th. Noon – 1 pm.

Holding a python

Holding a python

If you like animals, then this program will have you barking, chirping, and roaring with glee. Every summer at camp Outragehisss Pets brings their multitude of animals to The Nature Place, and now you can get your hands furry without waiting until June. Join us for an hour of snakes, spiders, chinchillas, and an array of other surprising animals.

Spring Peeper Hunt
Saturday, May 2nd. 7:30 – 9 pm.



As darkness falls The Nature Place will lead intrepid explorers into the swamp in search of spring peepers – tiny frogs with big voices pealing out into the warm spring air. Using our ears and echo-locating abilities, and equipped with boots, flashlights, and a sense of adventure, we’ll search for spring peepers by following the loud ‘peep!’ of their mating call through the hillocks and brambles of a nearby wetland. Come prepared to have fun and get a little dirty!


Open Houses

The best way to learn more about The Nature Place is by coming to an open house. We’ll take you on a tour of camp, give you a full picture of what we do and why we do it, and answer your questions about the ins and outs of camp.

Open Houses are located at Green Meadow Waldorf School, 307 Hungry Hollow Road in Chestnut Ridge, NY, and you can stop by any time between 1 and 4 pm.

Saturday, January 17th
Sunday, February 15th
Saturday, February 28th (this open house runs from 11 am – 2 pm)
Sunday, March 15th
Saturday, March 28th
Sunday, April 12th
Sunday, April 26th
Saturday, May 9th
Sunday, May 24th


Camp Fairs

Do you live in Manhattan or Brooklyn and want to find out more about The Nature Place? Come meet us at a camp fair, ask us questions about camp in person, and get a feeling for what we do. All camp fairs run from Noon until 3 pm.

Saturday, December 6th
Upper East Side – St. Jean Baptiste High School
173 East 75th Street

Sunday, December 7th
Upper West Side – Ethical Culture Fieldston School
33 Central Park West

Saturday, January 24th
Upper East Side – St. Jean Baptiste High School
173 East 75th Street

Sunday, January 25th
Upper West Side – Congregation Rodeph Sholom
7 West 83rd Street

Saturday, February 7th
Morningside Heights – Bank Street School
610 West 112th Street

Sunday, February 8th
Cobble Hill – Brooklyn Heights Montessori School
185 Court Street

Saturday, March 7th
Tribeca – Borough of Manhattan Community College
199 Chambers Street

Saturday, March 8th
Park Slope – Berkeley Carroll School
181 Lincoln Place

Saturday, March 28th
Upper East Side – St. Jean Baptiste High School
173 East 73rd Street

Sunday, March 29th
Upper West Side – Congregation Rodeph Sholom
7 West 83rd Street

Telling Stories

From Chuck’s Journal, October 2014

There is a chill in the air. The summer season has come to a close. Along the river bank the great sycamore tree is among the first to turn the color of its leaves. For us kids of Ramapo this tree was the Button Ball, named for the spherical seed pods that hung from its limbs like holiday tree ornaments. Along the Ramapo River above the Fourth Street Hillburn Dam, swimming holes were designated as Little Button Ball and Button Ball in respect to their depth. Further up river there was a third swimming hole known as Forty Foot. Over the years there was great debate as to the origin of this name. Despite much support for the claim that the spot once was forty feet deep, the sweep of the generally slow flowing Ramapo maintains a sandy bottom of seldom a greater depth than twelve feet. But there stood a grand cluster of boulders on the west bank of Forty Foot, and for the truly daring a high flung rope swing from a strong Sycamore limb offered what some claimed was a forty foot drop to the water! (Again this was at best a twenty foot drop.) Along about early October the Button Balls turned, no more black snakes could be found at Forty Foot’s boulder clutch, and only the hardiest of us dared to jump in on a warm day as the mountain springs feeding the Ramapo changed the river to a temperature below forty degrees.

Telling stories

Fishing had changed, legal seasons ended, and spawning was long over, the underwater menu was in transition. With that chill there was a deep forested scent of game. Hunting season would soon be upon us. October was a month of preparations, of tracking sign, of following the thick pungent scent of wildlife as they were now sweating, signing, leaving musk and castor to mark for mates. Hunting, like trapping, is mostly about nature study, about habitat education and eventually taking game. For the uninitiated the ‘killing’ part of hunting is hard to accept, it brings forth images of a defenseless Bambi made an orphan by ruthless mankind. As I learned it, hunting and trapping was about entering into the animal world both as predator and companion. In today’s language this would be referred to as sustainable, but in my deep history it felt like sufficiently taking what is required to survive and leaving behind the same so that the prey, too, can survive. It is a dynamic of exchange.

At this time of year my childhood was alive with the forest scent of decay, rotting leaf mold, and the dusty spores kicked up from dried grass. This was not a decay of dying in the Western sense but a decay of renewal from which life re-emerged.

Ricky Cramshaw and I followed my dad Walt into the woods along the northern stretch of the Torne Valley. He found a deer trail and slowly lead us along, making note of the heart shaped tracks of the cloven-hoofed animal that lead us deeper into the forest. Near to a magnificent beech tree, its leaves all a fire of tarnished yellow, Walt found scattered dung and the thick odor of urine. He hunkered down and sniffed it. He turned to us and said, “It’s a doe and she’s ready to talk family with a buck.”

Ricky said, “You mean she wants to get married?”

Walt smiled. “Yup, she’s looking to get hitched.”

Yes, this time of year is not about decay or change that ends the cycle. Cycles do not end. The changes from the sycamore’s leaves to the odorous doe urine are about furthering the adventure.
Come hear Chuck tell Autumn Tales at a benefit for the Historic Clarkstown Reformed Church on Sunday October 19th at 1 pm; at the church on 107 Strawtown Road, West Nyack NY, 10994. Donation at the door for ages 12 – adult is $10 and for ages 5 – 11 is $6.

Fish 0 Monarchs 12

The October days of late have had cool nights, blue sky days with lots of puffy fair weather clouds and a sun, that when you’re out in the middle of the day, shines on you with the kind of warmth that makes you say “ah-h-h”, does that feel good!  Yes, it’s the same sun that in the summer on a 90 degree plus mid-day would make us seek shade and elicit quite different kinds of verbal responses.


Ed and Nathaniel

I had promised I would take Nathaniel and his two friends fishing.  So off we went to the newly-discovered-for-us fisherman’s parking lot and access to the Ramapo River. The Ramapo River flows along the western side of Harriman Park and while going to and from the park trails we have passed this access area before but never drove down into it. It’s quite beautiful, almost nobody else there, open areas along the shoreline where kids and adults can easily cast their lines. This is a wide part of the river and the few times we have been there it felt like a pond –  the water was still because of lack of recent rainfall. And the view across to the eastern bank, with trees, shrubs,  wetland vegetation of all types and darting dragonflies, reminded me of scenes I encountered during some of my Canadian wilderness canoe trips. Wild, colorful, beautiful.

This site would definitely qualify if I were asked to imagine “what might the perfect fishing hole look like?” Now mind you, not “perfect” in numbers of fish caught – the last time we were here Nathaniel caught a solitary sunny.

And not perfect in terms of noise. In fact upon first stepping out of your car you feel as if you are within some kind of surround sound booth whose dial has been turned to highway, car and truck noise plus occasional railroad trains speeding by!

You are in the middle of and very close to (without leaves you can see right in front (or back of you) the following north-south noise corridors: the very busy NY State Thruway, to the east. To the west is busy NY Route 17 and on many weekend days ‘very’ can be added as people go to and from The Renaissance Fair in warm weather and two family ski areas in the winter.

And wait, There’s more. The tracks of the Erie Railroad Main Line are parallel to Route 17 at this point, in fact they are between you and 17. And I would call them active tracks, i.e. trains seem to speed by on a regular basis.

Now I have to be fair, even though it’s not a noise producer except in times of heavy rain, there is the north-south flowing (at least here) Ramapo River itself.

Oh yes, the fishing trip that day. We went up the Thruway, got off at 17 north, through Sloatsburg and Tuxedo and then we had to wait in a long line of cars going to the aforementioned Renaissance Festival. Everyone turned left at the Route 106 intersection. We were the only car that turned right. We immediately crossed over the railroad tracks and then an immediate left down to the river access area.

The boys threw out their lines. Nathaniel, having to use a borrowed pole that day, was a bit down and not into it but he helped the other boys with their hooks, bait, etc.

And then we saw the first one – a monarch butterfly, majestically orange and black, heading southward! I saw my last monarch two years ago. You can read about the plight of the Monarch butterflies in a previous piece we wrote in the Dirt, which you can read here. Just recently I read that the monarch will probably be put on the endangered species list.

Then we saw another, and still another – stopping along the shore for a nectar break; resting on a leaf; wavering a bit to and fro and sometimes up and down while flying – but, ever southward, each of the 12 we saw. The boys, especially Nathaniel, turned to looking for monarchs since the fish were not biting. My heart was filled with joy, the boys were excited, all of our senses focused on each passing monarch. Nothing else existed for us during each sighting – truck, car, train noises included.

While driving home I began to think of another (the 5th) north-south corridor at this spot besides the roads, tracks and river: the path/route/aerial highway that the monarchs are following south. We were on or in or part of that pathway today. I wonder what other kinds of pathways or ‘flows’ of nature we are in or sometimes part of : solar rays, energies of different types, gravity, the earth’s magnetic field, water cycles, weather patterns, nature spirits, spirits of place. And if we consider the electronic transmissions that must pass through us by way of all of our electronic devices… well, there’s a lot going on, happening to us, just by the fact that we are on earth.

As my imaginations about this were really pumping up, the boys reminded me what was just ahead: Auntie Ell’s garden and farm center, and – the reason for traditionally stopping – it’s bakery with great homemade doughnuts. Okay, the boys want me to tell you, apple turnovers, too.

It was a great day. Someone once said they all are. Maybe we just have to look at them in a different way.

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Cider Pressing Program & Open House

During this fall season our events are all about pressing apples into cider. We made some delicious cider recently at the Hungry Hollow Co-op’s Farmer’s Festival and Green Meadow’s Fall Fair, and will be making our best batch yet (we hope!) at our upcoming pressing program at camp.

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