Posts

April Showering

Beloved camp storyteller Chuck Stead tells a tale of trying to help nature expedite spring’s flowering…

Dougy Cramshaw came prancing down into the Fountain Pond Park singing, “April Showers Bring May Flowers!” over and over. Winter was done and all sorts of early flowers had emerged, like snow drops and crocuses. But you know spring is really coming in when you see the long green stems of tulips and daffodils. Dougy, keeping an eye out for these tall friends, made his way down into the Pond Park every day in early April, so as to greet them when they emerged. He knew where they would first break ground at the south side of the Third Street hill. But, on this warm, welcoming Saturday, they had yet to emerge.

That was when the song had come back into his head, “April Showers Bring May Flowers”. It occurred to him that thus far, there had not been a whole lot of showers. He squatted down at the patch of earth that every spring exploded with daffodils, and he poked his little narrow fingers into the soil. He then sniffed his fingers and even tasted the dry smudge of dirt on them. Clearly, he believed, the soil was just too dry for April. He looked toward the Fountain Pond, twenty feet or so from where he was hunkered down. Gathering water from the pond with only his hands to cup it in was his first plan. But, after three or four tries he could hardly get more than a few drops to the dry patch of soil. Then he spotted a Coca Cola bottle in the mud along the pond shore. He dug it out and washed it off, and then he held it under the water and filled up a bottle’s worth. As he climbed back out of the pond, Cindy Maloney’s little brothers Mort and Wort were just coming down the hill. They saw him with the bottle and, naturally, they wanted to know if they could have each have a sip.

Dougy said, “This is water – not Coke!”
Mort snarled, “You’re being stingy, Doug! I want some of that Coke!”
Dougy handed him the bottle and said, “OK.”
Mort swung the bottle to his lips but Wort grabbed it and shouted, “Mort, that ain’t Coke!”
Mort looked again and then swore at Dougy, “Why did you fool me?”
“I didn’t fool you. You fooled yourself.” Dougy grabbed the bottle from Wort and told them. “I got this water for the place over there where the flowers grow. It needs some water.”

The brothers looked at the little dry patch as Dougy poured a stream of water onto it. He explained that there hadn’t been enough April showers for the flowers. The brothers looked at each other and said to Doug that pouring water from a Coke bottle wasn’t enough like a shower, but that they had a plan. It was like those Maloney boys had all sorts of emergency plans in their back pocket. They took off up the hill and across Third Street to their family’s house. In the meantime, Dougy returned to the muddy pond and collected another bottle full of water. He climbed back out of the pond and carefully poured it over the little wild flower garden patch.

As the last drops left the upturned bottle, he heard Mort and Wort shouting to each other. Then, he saw them at the top of the hill, unwinding a long garden hose and dragging it down toward him. It reached just about ten feet short of the spot where he was crouched. While Mort yanked on it to stretch it out, Wort ran up the hill shouting that he would go turn it on. Mort pulled and pulled but the hose was not stretching. He yanked away and groaned as he tried to make it longer. Over the top of the hill they heard the sound of Wort shouting something, and then Dougy saw the hose stiffen up, and then water came shooting out directly into Mort’s face. He fell, gasping, as he had swallowed a lot of water. Next, Wort came charging down the hill with a heavy iron lawn sprinkler. He picked up the hose, still gushing forth cold water and tried to screw it into the sprinkler, now squirting water over all of them. He finally clamped it down.

The sprinkler sprayed them across the face and into the sky and down onto the little patch of flower-expectant dirt. Mort, soaking wet, happily shouted, “We’re April Showering!” Dougy, Mort and Wort backed up to take in the view of their little showering. They were satisfied with their work.

Just then, the boy’s dad, John Maloney, came cruising down Third Street and apparently, he didn’t see the hose across the road. When he drove over it, the hose got caught up in the wheel and wrapped around the car axle. As he drove down Third Street, the hose ran up the hill with the sprinkler bouncing away, furiously spraying the entire world until it wrapped around a tree, stiffened, and burst the hose. They heard John’s car skid to a stop. Next, they heard John release a string of seriously blue language. Mort and Wort charged up the hill to turn off the hose which was now flowing water down into the pond. John Maloney looked over the hill top from Third Street and all he could see was his broken hose draining water into the pond. He shouted, “Why are we filling the pond!?” He then went charging off in search of Mort and Wort. And by the end of the month, a glorious bunch of daffodils, like little explosions of sunburst yellow, celebrated spring at the base of the hill.

March Fat Pole

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, recalls a unique vernal equinox tradition…

I had long known about Winter and Summer Solstice. Winter Solstice is the longest night and Summer Solstice is the longest day. Celebrations on Winter Solstice involve lighting a fire and gathering around it and such, as you ‘light the night’ for the Sun to find its way back. Celebrations for Summer Solstice involved staying up all night (it being the shortest night of the year) and welcoming the return of the lengthening night. But Uncle Mal now told us there was also ‘Equinox’: in the Fall it was called Autumnal Equinox, celebrating the harvest, and in the Spring it was a Vernal Equinox to celebrate the awakening of life in the earth. So, there were four points on the calendar. At Winter Solstice was the longest night; at Summer was the shortest night…but what of the Equinox times?

Ricky Cramshaw, Cindy Maloney, and I were sitting in the Paint Shop watching Uncle Mal wind his wrist watch. Our dads all had pocket watches, but Mal was a wrist watch sort of fellow. He was talking about the Vernal Equinox that was coming up in a few days. I had just said, “But I don’t think anybody does anything for it.”

Mal looked at me and said, “Oh, well, maybe not much anymore, but there was a time…”. He looked out the dirty shop windows, toward the western sky and said, “They put up a May Pole down in the Fountain Yard and then they’d get the kids to dance around it, dipping in and out and around each other, braiding these long colored ribbons, until they go around enough times that the whole pole is braided with the ribbons!”

Cindy said, “But Uncle Mal, the Vernal Equinox is in March and the pole you talk about is a May Pole. Isn’t that on May Day?”

Mal looked at her and said, “Well, yeah, you got me there…but the point is, folks in the old-time community used to be more sensitive to the coming season. Vernal Equinox and May Day were times of community gathering.”

Ricky said, “So what do we do on Equinox Day?”

Mal looked at his watch and said, “Well sir, if we lived out West in the flat-lands, on Equinox you can set your watch because Sunrise and Sunset happen exactly at 6 a.m. and at 6 p.m. And if you stay up all night, from 6 p.m. when sunsets, it’ll rise pretty much at 6 a.m. the next day too!”

Ricky said, “So day and night are equal in length, just 12 hours each?”

“Yes, they are, but then the day starts getting longer and the night shorter.”

Ricky said, “But we don’t live in the flatlands.”

‘No sir, we don’t.”

“Them flatlanders sure are lucky.”

Uncle Mal said, “I don’t think so, I like to have some hills around me.”

Cindy said, “So, what sort of thing do we do on Vernal Equinox?”

I said, “We could do the May Pole?”

Cindy shook her head and said, “But that’s for May.”

Ricky said, “Then let’s do a March Pole!”

Uncle Mal asked him, “And what would you wrap around it?”

“Licorice!”

I said, “No! That’s a waste of good licorice!”

He said, “Then let’s wrap the pole with bad licorice!”

Mal said, “Tell you what. We’ll put a pole in the ground and nail some suet to it.”

“What?”

“You know, some hard chunk of mutton fat.”

I said, “You want to make a March Fat Pole?”

He said, “This time of year, with spring not really kicked in yet, the birds could use a little help. We can put up a pole and nail some suet cakes to it and that’ll give the birds a little something to hold them over. Then come April the bugs start coming around and the worms start showing up, so our March Pole can be for the birds. What do you say?”

We agreed. Mal looked around in the shop and found an eight-foot wooden rod. We climbed into his truck and rode down to the feed store at Ramsey. He bought three suet cakes that were packed with bird seed and nuts. We rode back up to the Paint Shop and Mal picked out a spot in the back near the tracks, where he dug into the ground about a foot and a half deep. He nailed the three suet cakes to the pole, and then we gathered some broken rock near the tracks and dumped them into the hole, once he had stood the pole there. He patted down some dirt and more gravel around the base of the pole. We felt it. It was firm.

For the next few days whenever we could, we would go visit our March Fat Pole. Every time we came to it, we saw all kinds of birds feeding on it: sparrows, juncos, jays, cardinals, robins, and starlings. On March 22nd (which was Vernal Equinox that year) we found a Downy Woodpecker there pecking away at the suet/seed cake. Ricky ran to the pole and danced around it singing a March Fat Pole song he made up. Then, when we went there the next day, all three suet cakes were torn to pieces and all over the muddy ground were lots of raccoon tracks. The tracks were clear and fresh. We pressed our fingers into the tracks and closed our eyes. It was believed that this was a way to learn what the raccoons were thinking. We hunkered down quietly with our fingers pressed into the raccoon tracks. After a bit Ricky announced that he got a message of raccoon thoughts. He said to us, “Yummy, good suet on this stick!”

Garbage Can Challenge – May Update and Sign Off

Ayla Dunn Bieber tells of a fowl plastic encounter, shares some bright sustainability spots, and signs off for the summer…

There has been a steady hum of busy birds around our house these past few weeks: nests being built, eggs being laid, baby birds being fed. We are lucky that a family of robins has graced us with their presence the past few years and has built a nest in a bush next to our garden! It’s at the perfect height to catches glimpses at their progress as we walk by.

True story: A few weeks ago, Odelia and I were walking by the robin’s nest to check on it’s perfect blue eggs, when we noticed the mama bird looked to be in distress. We waited and watched and quickly noticed that her leg was caught in something! She was frantically trying to get her foot freed as she flapped and struggled. I got as close as I could, without disturbing her more, to try to see what she was caught on. Sure enough… you guessed it, folks… it was a strip of PLASTIC! Determined to help this mama bird, Odelia and I ran into the house to get a glove and pair of scissors. Just as my hand neared the scared bird, she took one last plunge and freed herself!

I got closer to the nest and realized the robin had used this piece of plastic, weaving it among the twigs, to build her nest (not uncommon). I pulled the piece that was not compactly woven within the nest out and had a sinking feeling. It took me a while to figure out what kind of plastic it was, later realizing it was a shred of plastic material from an old tarp. This is an item I would not have thought of as ‘unsustainable’, but as it goes, once my eyes have been on the lookout, I have since seen more of these same shreds of plastic littered around other places as well. This story has a happy ending thought, as the eggs hatched and we have been enjoying watching the baby birds being fed worms and getting bigger! This is sadly not always the case. Let’s use this story to inspire more awareness and action. It’s certainly got me thinking about tarps, for one thing…Do any of you have/use any tarp alternatives? I will be doing some research on canvas tarps!

Sustainability is catching on all around us, in new spaces and in exciting ways. It is becoming hip, which while it can be annoying because we have to watch out for ‘green washing’, definitely has it perks. More people are getting on board every day, in ways big and small. Our favorite restaurant in Nyack, O’Donoghue’s, just switched to paper straws. This is huge, because when one business makes a move, more are bound to follow! Are you seeing any broader changes around you?

Camp is right around the corner and we have some new things planned for this summer with sustainability in mind. Here is a sneak peak of a couple:

We will be partnering with Green Camps, an organization that’s ‘leading the environmental sustainability movement among camps in the U.S. and Canada.’ We’ll be increasing our camp programming around ways that we all can make small changes that help our Earth, both at camp and at home. We’ll also be working towards a Leave No Trace Youth Program accreditation, as we continue to educate campers in the Leave No Trace ethic and the fundamentals of stewardship.

I’m so looking forward to seeing all of these efforts in action and to partnering with all of our camp families to really make a difference!

Through all of the ups and downs of this garbage can challenge, it has been an honor to take this journey with you this year. My hope moving forward is to hold tightly to what I have learned and continue the process of changing habits towards increased sustainability in our home. I know our family can do better than our 1/2 can of garbage per month, where we have remained for the later half of the challenge. May this summer bring your family, and mine, a little breathing room to try some new sustainable choices!

With sustainability ever on my mind, I sign off for now…
Ayla

 

Poison Ivy & the Gem that is Jewelweed

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden fills us in on his poison ivy protocol and the joys of jewelweed…

A couple of years ago, I was out in my backyard doing a bit of cleaning up, without wearing gloves (not a wise decision).  However, I wasn’t bothered when I brushed against the Stinging Nettles, as they are my pals and I quite welcome their stings.  But then, I inadvertently brushed up against a sprig of poison ivy that was waiting in hiding.

Scratches from rose thorns don’t bother me much. Even the occasional bruise or abrasion doesn’t faze me. But brushing up against that Toxicodendron radicans makes me very nervous, and had me seeking out the antidote, without which, I am likely to develop a nasty, angry patch of itchy bumps, sores and blisters.  If I don’t treat them, they will stick around for a month or more.

Luckily, I have a poison ivy salve, made from Plantain and Yarrow, which works really well in clearing it up. Then again, I’d sooner not have to deal with it in the first place. That’s why I turn to my old pal, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), or occasionally, Pale Jewelweed, (I. pallida). I take the juicy stems and rub them thoroughly on the area I think has come in contact with poison ivy oils and it prevents the rash from developing.

Well, I hadn’t seen Poison Ivy in my yard for years, so this sneaky little sprig, got me by surprise. As fate would have it, there wasn’t a leaf of Jewelweed growing within half a mile of my house. What was I going to do? The solution hit me almost immediately. I spent the next 20 minutes cleaning out my freezer drawer, which gave me the chance to rearrange it and dig out some old forgotten items (many of which wound up in the recycling bucket). Now, I was able to organize what was left, with room to spare.

I guess you may be wondering what this all has to do with poison ivy. Well, while cleaning the drawer, I was able to retrieve a small freezer bag containing several dark green ice cubes. These were what I was looking for. I had found my much-treasured Jewelweed cubes. They shone with inner and outer radiance, as if to say, “We are here to rescue you.” And I knew that they would keep their promise.

I rubbed any area that I thought might have been exposed with the ice, paying special attention to the areas between my fingers.  Most of the ice cube was still intact after that, so I put it back into the bag and returned it to the freezer. It should last a very long time at this rate.

Every year, at The Nature Place, I make sure to show the campers how to recognize Poison Ivy and Jewelweed and teach them how to protect themselves in case of exposure to the former. Even the most susceptible campers can be kept safe from Poison Ivy rash.

For the Love of Lovage

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, muses about lovage and what’s in a name…

As parents, we make many important decisions. Among the first is the naming
of a child.  Finding the right name for a new baby is often a long process full of careful considerations. Many factors play a role: our origin, cultural and religious background, education, and our hopes regarding the future of our offspring. Finding a name for a newly born baby means naming without knowing who that baby really is as a person. We can only imagine the personality or ‘grown-up looks’ of our newborn. We hope that the name will be a good fit for the child’s personality and a good fit within our family and society (regardless of whether our priority is  “to fit in” or distinguish our child from the crowd).

The Latin proverb “Nomen est omen” captures he predictive power of a name, and is certainly at least partly true. A name puts a person in a social and cultural context. Unfortunately, it can result in stereotyping people, and can lead to assumptions, not only about our origin or social status, but also about our behavior.

I was walking in my garden admiring the newly emerged plants when these thoughts about naming began to occupy my mind. It was because some lovage had caught my eye. A lovely plant with an even lovelier name. Lovage is an old European herb widely used in medieval kitchens and herb gardens, but largely forgotten today. So forgotten, that the word didn’t even make it into the spell-check dictionary on my computer. As I was writing this text, the spell-check constantly indicated that there is an error in the word lovage.

My mind kept wondering about the origin of this strange word and whether “Nomen est omen” applies to plants.  Lovage looks little like a celery (although unlike celery, it can grow up to 5 feet tall). Its flavor also reminds most people of celery, but it is stronger, more complex, and more aromatic. Personally, I like it a lot. Beneficial insects like it too.  If lovage were widely known, my guess is that its strong flavor would generate either a “love it” or “hate it” response in most people; nothing in between.

The plant belongs to the same family as carrots, parsley, and dill.  Its leaves, stalks, seeds, and roots are all edible. In the past, candied stalks and roots were used as a remedy. Leaves work well in salads, soups, and stews. Ancient Greeks chewed the leaves to improve digestion. Hildegard von Binden used lovage as a culinary herb, and recommended it as a remedy for colds, heart problems, and abdominal pain.

Thanks to its name, lovage also has a reputation as a love potion. I am not sure about the effectiveness ofthe potion, because it turns out the name of the herb is the r

esult of a semantic mix-up.  As I have learned, the original Latin name of the plant was Ligusticum, meaning ‘from Liguria’ (a region in north-western Italy). Ligusticum somehow later morphed into Levisticum. Subsequently, the plant was called loveche in Old French and loveache in Middle English. The non-poetic truth is that modern English ended up with the word lovage due to a distortion of the plant’s Latin name, and not because it had anything to do with love. Folk etymology was wrong, but regardless I still love lovage…

Spring Potato Soup Recipe

This soup gets its unique flavor from lovage leaves. If you can’t find lovage, use parsley or celery instead. Your soup will be tasty in a very different way.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 quart vegetable stock
5 whole leaves of lovage
2 finely chopped leaves of lovage for garnish
1 tablespoon dill, finely chopped
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream, optional

In a soup pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and gently cook until translucent. Add the potatoes and stir well. Add the vegetable stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the whole lovage leaves and simmer for 5 more minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Take the soup off the heat. Remove the lovage leaves and use a hand blender to puree to soup. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Add dill and vinegar, and return the soup to the heat for a few minutes. Do not boil.  Put soup into serving bowls and garnish with chopped lovage. Serve with a dollop of sour cream if desired.

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.

Garbage Can Challenge – April Update

Ayla Dunn Bieber gets frank about her challenges and encourages us all to rally in the name of Earth Day…

Well….Spring was not as ‘in the air’ as I had excitedly pronounced in last month’s Dirt, was it? I hope you all stayed warm and are as excited as I am to finally be seeing some real signs of spring. One of my favorite signs is the faint red hue on the trees tops (and the pink on the cherry trees) as the buds plump up, hinting at what is to come!

I’d been stressing about writing this month because, truth be told, I didn’t do my homework: there were no home made tortilla chips created in the Dunn Bieber household this month. Daniel said, “Well, just tell everyone that you didn’t do it. People love hearing when other people fail.” I laughed, but in truth, I agree. I think as important as sharing our successes is, sharing our challenges (better word than ‘failures’!) is of equal value.

My mantra to get over this hump: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Don’t give up. I’ve been experiencing that the first time you try a new sustainable choice is usually the hardest. Once you get the kinks out and don’t need to rely so heavily on reading directions, getting set up, and potentially buying materials/ingredients you might need, things really do move along and can get folded into your current routine. If you do get beyond the start-up and make a permanent change, that is awesome. Contrarily, some choices might not be right for you at the time that you try them out, and its okay to let them fall by the wayside to be picked up another time. I guess the chip making was on the slightly more complex end of the spectrum (for me) and didn’t quite make the cut…yet. I do hope to try the idea out again though and see if I can bring it into my routine.

Is there a sustainability-related action you’ve been thinking about trying that hasn’t made it past the idea phase? Commiserate with me in the comments section below 🙂

In other news, an important day for sustainability is coming up!

I’ve been thinking about Earth Day and so grateful for the intentionality this day brings. It both  increases awareness and gathers people to take action. I encourage you to do a quick google search for Earth Day activities in your area and if there isn’t something that catches your eye, come up with something your family can do to mark the day! To spark some ideas, here is a great resource from The National Geographic Kids called: Tips for Protecting the Earth.

This is the last month of the Garbage Can Challenge for the year (final post coming in next month’s Dirt). Let’s all do our extra best to REDUCE, reuse and recycle this month!

Ayla

Nature’s Palette

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, paints an extraordinary picture of the changing colors in nature’s palette and includes fascinating notes on using plant dyes, including a DIY how-to…

After what felt like an almost never-ending winter, it is a great joy to finally enter the season of budding colors. Snowdrops, violets, and skunk cabbage might be the first signs of spring, but they never quite convince me that the winter is gone for good. It is when the leaves on the trees emerge that I feel assured: there is no way back to winter-land. The change of scenery is usually sudden. With it, nature bursts into color. We leave behind the lifeless shades of grey and brown and celebrate the   soft colors of spring. Shades of fresh green, with occasional dots of color, dominate the landscape. Comforting and calming colors of early spring slowly mature and change. Plants soak up the sunshine and richer colors come to life. The color palette of nature reaches near perfection on a wild flower meadow in June or on a field of wild lupine in July.

As the year progresses, the colors of nature become even more full and rich. The warm shades of the fall landscape bring another visual highlight of the year. The reds, golden yellows, oranges, and rusty browns radiate back the energy of the sun as if to charge us with energy before the world around us fades again into the greyish-brown realm of early winter.

Nature has everything we need, including color. In fact, there were no synthetic dyes until the mid 19th century.  Still, the world of humans had not been colorless. Until then, dyes and pigments came exclusively from nature. Think of old masters: Michelangelo, Botticelli, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bosch…. They painted with the colors of nature. The fibers of traditional oriental rugs and renaissance tapestries were all dyed with natural materials. So were the luxurious dresses of emperors and empresses of the past. Fabrics of rich colors symbolized status, and their cost was high. Lower classes dressed in browns and grays, shades that were the easiest and cheapest to create.

Dyeing is not unlike cooking. It involves applying heat to extract, in this case, not flavor but color. A large pot is utilized to make a dye bath. The plant material gets simmered in water in order to extract pigments. Then fabric or fiber is immersed in the (warm or cold) colored liquid to absorb the dye. Some dye material might be hiding in your kitchen. Tea, coffee, turmeric, or onion skin all contain pigments that get easily absorbed by natural fiber or fabric. Henna used for tattooing and dyeing hair also creates beautiful rusty reds on fabric.

The process is fun and satisfying. We can start by collecting plant material suitable for dyeing (marigold, goldenrod, black walnut etc.), then we cook the colored brew. If our goal is to create a solid color fabric, we just need to put the textile into the dye bath. Otherwise, we apply our artistic imagination and prepare the fabric by folding it to create pattern. I like to get inspired by the techniques of ancient Japanese Shibori.

When working with plant dyes, we get the satisfaction of knowing that the colors come from renewable resources rather than petroleum.  Natural material such as silk, wool and cotton absorb the dyes well. Although the use of mordants (solutions that act as binding agents) usually results in richer colors, for safety and environmental reasons, I prefer not to use them.

Feel free to experiment. Nature is forgiving. Even unexpected results have their beauty. Sometimes we end up with a color or pattern that is much more beautiful than anything we could have planned. Mother Earth provides everything we need.


Dyeing Cotton Fabric with Annatto

Annatto seeds come from Central and South America. Traditionally, they were used as body paint. Annatto is widely used today as a food coloring.  The orange color of the supermarket cheddar comes from these seeds!

Annatto dye bath produces yellow, golden yellow, orange-yellow, or orange hues, depending on the amount of seeds used, and the weave and thickness of the fabric. Silk and wool can also be successfully dyed with annatto seeds.

  • 1 cup annatto seeds
  • medium piece of cotton fabric or 2-4 cotton bandanas
  • pot and stirring spoon (used exclusively for dyeing)
  • iron for ironing the fabric, rubber bands, string, thread and needle (you may only need one of these, depending on the folding technique you choose)
  • plastic gloves to protect your hands

Choose white or off-white fabric/bandanas for your project. Unbleached fabric will produce deeper color.

Gently simmer the annatto seeds in about a gallon of water for one hour. In the meantime, fold the fabric using one of the Shibori techniques. This is a link to one of many videos showing how to use the Shibori folding techniques. In this video synthetic dyes are used, so please disregard their dyeing instructions.

Gently rinse the folded fabric in lukewarm water, making sure that it is wet throughout. This will assure even absorption of the dye liquid.

Turn off the heat under the pot. The dye liquid can be strained, but leaving seeds in the dye bath during the whole dyeing process will produce richer color.  Put the fabric into the dye bath and let it steep for at least 4 hours or overnight. Take the fabric out of the pot. Rinse under running water and squeeze out excess water. Unfold the fabric and be ready to be surprised! Put out your fabric to dry. Before further use, hand-wash the dyed fabric.

Ed’s Corner

Originally published on March, 20 2018

Well…it’s here! Happy First Official Day of Spring! Here’s a poem by Harriet Prescott Spofford that I always enjoy rustling out of my collection around this time of year. She writes:

“Under the snow drifts
the blossoms are sleeping
Dreaming their dreams of sunshine and June.
Down in the hush of their quiet they’re keeping
trills from the throstle’s wild summer-sung tune.”

Isn’t it perfect for this time of year? I like to think of myself as one of those blossoms. I often find myself daydreaming of sunshine and June and, of course, the start of camp, as the clocks change and daylight hours stretch longer and longer, but that spring-time warmth is still elusive. I keep the summer-song of the thrushes (did you know that ‘throstle’ is an old-fashioned word for a song thrush) close to my heart and as summer gets closer, I look for the early signs that it is near.

On top of dreaming about summer, our year-round crew has been busy preparing for it; excitedly working to bring our 33rd Nature Place summer to you. This week, we’re down at the American Camp Association’s Tri-State Camp Conference in Atlantic City–the largest gathering of camp professionals in the world!–where we’ll take workshops, expand our horizons, and spend time with other camp folks dedicated to spreading the joy of the camp experience.

If our excitement for summer was enough to melt the snow drifts and awaken the sleeping blossoms, Spring would have sprung long ago.

Wild Edibles Foraging – Free Public Program

Sunday, April 29th from 12 -1 PM
307 Hungry Hollow Rd. Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977

Join us for a vernal adventure into our environs to discover what’s growing wild and edible in our area. We’ll learn plant names, properties, tastes, uses in cooking, and get an overall feel for a number of plants. Early spring should yield a plethora of tender flora. Join us for a fun, investigative feast from the earth.

The program will be followed by an optional Open House afterward from 1 – 4 pm. Please email us at camp@thenatureplace.com to make an Open House appointment.