Winter Tales with Chuck Stead

What is the Secret of Snow Plow Hill?

Join The Nature Place this Saturday, January 17th, from Noon – 1 pm, as we listen to Chuck Stead’s winter tales.

We’ll meet downstairs in the lower school music room of Green Meadow Waldorf School, 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge, NY, 10977.

Ed’s Corner

Why I tap maple trees
In about a month from the time you receive this Dirt – around mid-February – we will begin tapping our maple trees. Since the first of the year we have received catalogs from some of the sugaring supply companies. A definite reminder that we need to order buckets and spouts.
Ed next to a magnificent maple

Ed next to a magnificent maple

Since I came to Rockland County in 1970 I have always been involved with maple sugaring in some way or another. If I didn’t tap trees, collect the sap and boil it down into syrup during this time (approximately mid-February until the end of March), I would definitely feel something was missing.

Just this morning I made French toast (from good Challah) and we used our home-made maple syrup! Last year was a very good maple season and we made enough to last until this upcoming season. Not that it would be just the syrup I miss, but maybe more importantly, the tradition, the ritual, and the feeling that I am connected to nature’s yearly rhythm. Perhaps sugaring helps me set or become aware of my own biological clock, and that I am part of something bigger.
If one looks at a maple  tree now it can be hard to imagine all the activity that will soon be happening around it and in it. The sap we collect this year from a tree was made last growing season. Some of the water part of the sap might be from a late afternoon thunderstorm last July 27th. The sugar in the sap, which accounts for its sweetness, was made by all the green leaves photosynthesizing – making sugar from sunlight, air and water – all season long. The more leaves on a maple, the sweeter the sap, theoritically. 
I look at a maple tree at this time of year and imagine if it could talk, would it tell me about its life during each season, how each leaf was busy each day, how it feels when the buds finally open,  how many times has it been tapped, and just how and where inside itself is the sap stored all winter? And as the day-times become warmer, and sugaring time comes upon us, how is that sap moving up/down/sideways within the tree’s trunks, roots and branches? 
The best news:  you, too, can begin to make sugaring time a tradition at home. Come to one of our sugaring programs and we’ll start you on your way. It is a delicious journey! 

Telling Stories

Nasty Cold

OK, so it’s cold, its nasty cold. It’s the kind of cold that catches you, face to the wind, and sinks under your forehead to ache your brain. It’s cold. It penetrates every layer by slipping into that one open crack between the glove and the sleeve. It’s nasty cold. A small bird stands too long on an outer branch and becomes a fixed ornament. OK, it’s nasty cold.

Ice-encased pine needles and cone

Ice-encased pine needles and cone

There was a night when after a supper of soluble leftovers, my dad Walt got a call from his brother, my Uncle Mal, and his voice went quiet on the phone. Ricky Cramshaw and I had just dismembered a broken Kodak camera on the dining room table. We turned screws out of their little black threads and listened to Walt say, “Hello Mal. Yup, I know who Rufus Bumguard is. What?” That was when the quiet came, Uncle Mal’s distant voice whispering through the telephone pressed to Walt’s ear.

When he got off the phone, he said, “You boys get bundled up. We’re going out.”


He said, “And gloves and hats, too. It’s nasty cold.”

The old truck whined and kicked and coughed and then settled into a cranky purr. We snuggled against each other while Walt repacked his pipe and lit it. The blue smoke poured across our faces and twisted with the ventilator heating fan blowing back at us. We rode out through the village and down beneath a heavy winter sky. Everything was frozen hard and crumbly, the roadside snow crust ashen and the color of cocoa. We came to a small tumbled-down cottage with no lights on. Uncle Mal’s pick-up truck was waiting for us. As we pulled in behind it, Mal climbed out of the cab and walked back to Walt’s side. When he saw us kids he shook his head and said, “What are they doing here?”

Walt said nothing. Mal told us to stay put and then he and Walt took a flashlight and went into the cottage. Mal was carrying some old blankets. A moment later the house lights went on. Even though we were in the truck, with the heat ventilator blowing in our faces, when we spoke our breath released in little frosty clouds.

“You think they’re bringing blankets to a poor guy?”

Ricky shook his head. He said, “This is the house of a ghost. They are bringing blankets to a ghost.”

“Ghosts don’t need blankets. They don’t feel cold.”

“Sure they do. It’s no different than being in a dream. Weren’t you ever cold in a dream?”

“No, but I was thirsty once, in a dream.”

He looked at me and said, “Did you drink something?”

“No. I was just thirsty and then I woke up.”

He looked back at the little cold cottage and said, “Do you figure ghosts dream?”

Then we saw Walt come back out. He walked up to the truck, around to his side and climbed in. He knocked out his pipe in the ash tray which was a little metal draw that stuck out of the metal dashboard like a robot tongue coated with tobacco ash. I asked him where Uncle Mal was.

He said, “He’s inside with old man Rufus.”

Ricky said, “You give that ghost the blankets?”

Walt smiled and said, “If Rufus were a ghost he wouldn’t need blankets.”

I said to Ricky, “See!”

Walt said, “We come up here to see if Rufus was alright.”

Ricky said, “Is he?”

Walt said, “Yup, he ain’t even half way to being a ghost yet.”

Then we saw Uncle Mal come out of the house and go to his truck. We rambled along behind him, all the way back with the ventilator kicking warm dusty air, the whole time our breath was still forming frost clouds. Yes, it was cold, nasty cold.

Jerusalem Artichokes

Several years ago we planted some Jerusalem artichoke (sun choke) tubers in our garden. Since then, every fall we dig up dozens of tubers. Regardless of how many we remove they return every year, and have spread all throughout the area.

Yellow flowers of the Jerusalem Artichoke

Yellow flowers of the Jerusalem Artichoke

They can be prepared much like other root vegetables, but unfortunately most methods of preparation result in the same problem, farts! These tasty tubers are high in inulin, a sweet fiber that ferments inside us, and creates gas. Consequently, like so many others before us, we had all but given up eating these delicious tubers, as the joy of eating them was outweighed by the repercussions. However, we have since discovered two methods of preparing them that removes the gas problem.


Jerusalem Artichoke tubers

A couple of years ago, when I had a large harvest, I decided to preserve some through fermentation (somewhat similar to kosher pickles). The fermented pieces proved to be perfectly edible, very tasty and lacked any side effects.

Sunchokes Au Gratin

Sunchokes Au Gratin

The second discovery happened last year when I chopped a bunch of tubers, dehydrated them, and then ground them into flour.  I used it much in the same way that I use acorn flour, mixed roughly 50/50 with all purpose flour. The resultant pastry tasted good and gave us no issues with gas. The only drawback was that the pastry crust tended to be a little crumbly.

Sunchoke meat pies

Sunchoke meat pies

The other day, I decided to make some sun choke meat pies, in the tradition of Cornish pasties (one of my all time favorite hand foods).  My wife and I had some for dinner, and once again survived the experience fart-free.  I’ve eaten them several times since with similar results.


Paul Tappenden is the Rockland Forager. He leads identification walks once a month in our area. See regularly updated blogs, videos, events, and what he and other foragers, herbalists, and naturalists are up to at