Archive for the ‘plants’ Category

Aptronym

May 23, 2012

American Lady Butterfly
credit: T. Moore

The other day I lay in the grass and searched for butterfly eggs among the Pussy Toes plants.  It was a glorious day, sunny, with gentle breeze and warm earth which felt just right beneath me. I happily spied on the American Lady butterflies as they lit and clambered over the wildflower to find the right places to lay eggs. When I could tell they’d done the deed I’d inch over and, placing my hand lens to my eye I scanned each tiny leaf to see if it sheltered an egg.  I am sure if I hadn’t  seen them ovipositing I could never have found the eggs, since they are not even a millimeter around. Sitting on a leaf they look like translucent, green-tinged tuffets such as might be pulled up to a fairy’s armchair. Minuscule “seams” radiate from a central point at the top and gather on the bottom.  They put me in mind of a pincushion my mother once had, but hers was red.

egg

When you see something like that it makes you realize how much there is around you that you can’t or don’t notice. The American Lady butterfly itself is a lovely creature, and we are fortunate to have them come through this area during their annual migration. The size of the migrations vary widely, so some years just a few flutter through and other years like this one they pour through New England in overwhelming numbers.  I don’t mind a bit being inundated with butterflies.  Who would?  A cousin of the American Lady Butterfly, the Painted Lady,  comes this way too.  Sunny days with a little breeze for lift have made the Hill-Stead meadows seem like a colorful insect freeway.  We have quite a bit of Pussy Toes, a preferred host plant, as well as Pearly Everlasting-related to Pussy Toes and just as relished by the American and Painted Lady butterflies.  So they are out there in colorful multitudes.  They are hard to tell apart-it’s only a matter of a couple of extra dots and they might easily have been classified under one name, with the “extra dot” ones considered a variation.

With names like “American” and “Painted Lady” it sounds as though one bug were upstanding and the other morally derelict.  Since Linnaeus’ time, we’ve had various reasons for the naming of things and before that the Greeks and Romans had their methods.  Darwin’s discoveries threw a wrench into Linnaeus’ system, and Cladistics is a newer game still.  So there is a continuum of naming the more we learn about our world.  Some might say it doesn’t matter, a “rose by another name would smell as sweetly.”  But I’ve noticed that as children grow they like to try on different nicknames like different clothing,experimenting with how a certain identity makes them feel. So names matter.  My husband spent some time as “Jack Blackthorn”, which as a child he thought had a brave and rakish air. But my daughter, who started life with a Chinese name meaning “good luck” and “jade” has not yet made an effort to discard the name we gave her. We chose her first name because we just loved it.  Many parents of Chinese daughters leave the Chinese name in place as a “middle” name, but we didn’t.  Her second name is for my mother, who died shortly before she was born and who would have been besotted with her.  We wanted not to disrespect her origins, but to embrace her entirely as a member of our family as certain as she had come to us “the old-fashioned way”.  We use her Chinese name as a nickname, as it is as surely her name as much as the others.  I love that name too-I used it when we were first together and I snuggled her against me so she would know the love was for her and no one else-days of sharing the caregiver with a dozen others were over. Perhaps at some point she’ll want us to call her something else, or she’ll decide to use her Chinese name.  You never know what kids will do.  I hope I have the sense and good grace just to swallow and use the tag she wants instead of making it all about me.  Giving names is one thing, and accepting them is another.  Unlike plants and bugs, we have some choice in the matter.

Theodate named her house Hill-Stead.  As a name it perfectly conveys the two most important elements in the Hill-Stead backstory, specifically that she was deeply concerned with and connected to the land the house sits on.  The home was sited at the top of a hill with the help of the landscape architect, exploiting the natural features so that each window framed a perfect landscape. They could have sited it in many places on over 250 acres of land, but they faced it toward the Barn Door Hills.  Of equal importance is “Stead” meaning steady, rooted home.  Theodate was determined to create a secure and anchored place for her family to live, underscoring her need for hearth and home to be rooted in the land and nature.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Advertisements

All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on Amazon.com.  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Tree of Heaven

August 2, 2010

I see it every time I drive down Mountain Road to Hill-Stead.  It’s the Tree of Heaven, officially known as Ailanthus altissima. Originating in China, it is mentioned in ancient dictionaries and medical texts and was used there to cure everything from mental illness to baldness. Today it’s still used in traditional Chinese medicine, principally as an astringent. Like lots of invasive plants and animals, Ailanthus grows fast and soon dominates the landscape. In an extremely un-heavenly move, it sends chemicals into the ground to discourage growth around it so it can suck up all the surrounding resources and stretch unimpeded toward the sun. You can find Ailanthus anywhere the land has been disturbed and  some say it has a real stink to it, like the female Ginko tree.

Our Tree of Heaven is located near the spot where a wooly mammoth was pulled from a bog by Hill-Stead farm workers in 1902.  For a time it was the “must see” for scientists from all over, as it was then the first completely intact skeleton ever found.  One of the biggest archeological finds of its time, it even helped popularize the word “mammoth”. The Tree of Heaven couldn’t have been there in 1902 since at that time the whole area was part of the Pope farm. But when Theodate died her will dictated that Hill-Stead should become a museum.  There just wasn’t enough money from her estate (the bulk of which went to the Avon Old Farms School, which she founded and for which she designed the buildings) to create a museum.  So they sold 100 acres of land, which included the Wooly Mammoth bog and the place where the Tree of Heaven sits now. But I still think of it as “our” land. I have no doubt that if Theodate had known the value open spaces would come to have, she would have written her will differently.  Now the area is dotted with homes (some brand new as the area continues to grow) and a tennis club. Having been bulldozed by developers I think the property qualifies as “disturbed”, so no one should be surprised that this behemoth of a tree has grown there in such a short time.  Many invasive plants and wildflowers are found in such places.  An Ailanthus can reach 49 ft within 25 years or so.

I think the tree is pretty.  It has large compound leaves at least a foot long, with between 10 and 41 leaflets each.  At this time of year it flowers,and the cultivar we happen to have becomes flame-colored . You can see it from  from a long way off.  Tree of Heaven has determination, reproducing not only by seed, but also by throwing up “suckers” all around it through the earth.  It can withstand dirt, dust, pollution of every kind and still it pulls itself up toward the sun. Tree of Heaven was the inspiration for the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, and it is easy to see why.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” tells the story of Francie Nolan, who lives in poverty in Brooklyn, New York.  Like so many immigrants at the turn of the last century, the family struggles to attain a piece of the American dream.  Francie’s mother feels the key to this is a good education and she is determined her children will have one.  A Tree of Heaven grows in a vacant lot near their apartment and symbolizes the determination of the family to rise above their circumstances.  It is a wonderful book-a real touchstone for millions of people. It was adapted to a movie and a stage play, no doubt because the story is a familiar one to Americans whose backgrounds include many a Francie Nolan.

What a contrast to Theodate Pope, daughter of one of the richest families in America! She came from Cleveland to Farmington to attend one of the most elite schools in the country,- a far cry from Francie Nolan, who yearned for any education at all, to save her from a lifetime of scrubbing floors.  And yet in her own way, Theodate was swimming against the courant, too. Unlike her peers, she wanted a farm and a career, an unseemly, unusual aspiration for a young girl with means.  Her mother couldn’t understand it and they were at odds.  Theodate and Francie were not dissimilar in their yearning for that which was just nearly out of reach to them.   Their goals were close enough to tantalize, yet odd enough to be hard to realize within their specific social castes.

What would life be without the thirst for something more?  I bet most people driving down Mountain Road in Farmington don’t notice our tree even when it blooms.  But I am just as certain that they each have a personal Tree of Heaven within them.

Hill-Stead Farmer’s Market

July 17, 2010

To market, to market to buy a fat pig, home again, home again jiggedy jig!

I used to think of myself as a farmer’s market connoisseur, since I’ve been a devotee of them long before the “eat local” craze happened. I trolled around markets in Vermont, driving my edible booty home to Connecticut in my back seat. Once on the cutting edge of fashion, now I don’t even have to leave Farmington for my weekly organic kibble. I can just stroll over to Hill-Stead Museum with my reusable sack over my arm. The trend for farmer’s markets is growing fast. There are urban farms, urban markets, country farms and country markets. They are thick on the ground in trendy suburbs. We need many more. It seems evident that an important key to restoring all manner of food integrity is local farming. In a sense, we are harvesting our food tradition to sow a food future. And it’s not just some la-di-dah keeping up with the Jones kind of food trend, either. You could argue that the value of recycling our food culture is fundamental to our long-term well-being, both at the stove and elsewhere, and is reflective of something organic in ourselves.

“Well-being” isn’t what prompts us to visit a farmer’s market. Rather, it is almost as though there is a part of our cultural DNA that has been wanting for decades, to get us back to the activity of “market day”. What would Thomas Hardy be without them? Many a plot is turned in the market square of literature. Think of Jane Austen, George Eliot, The Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell. There are today markets held all over Europe throughout the year, whereas most of ours, for now at least, seem to be summertime phenomena. Why do so many of us get so excited about about a few stands of vegetables and flowers popping up in the same location up every seven days? Why have some cultures never left off doing it?

A farmer’s market provides a “front porch” for a culture that has sadly grown away from such things. We see neighbors, offer tips to strangers about how to use an unfamiliar vegetable, embrace a fondly remembered farmer. Mr. Bingley bows deeply there to Miss Bennet. As so often also happens at the Hill-Stead poetry festival, one hears happy whoops of recognition punctuating the atmosphere as we see old friends. We begin to make new relationships, too. The crowd is heterogeneous, and thus community is made, not just among a few select neighbors, but in a town and region.

A farmer’s market turns us toward one another, emphasizing our fundamental interdependence on the level of comestible and emotional sustenance. There are other organic connections we cannot name. Joining together over food is perhaps the oldest form of community, save for procreation itself. Earthiness is, as it turns out, a great leveler.

Join us this Sunday and every Sunday until October 24, 11am-2pm, rain or shine. Beyond the vegetables, you’ll find quite a lot that is special. Enjoy companionship, hear music, get community information at our tent, pet a farm animal, drink a coffee or simply enjoy the atmosphere. After you’re done with that, take a walk on one of the historic trails. For a small fee, go inside the house and see rare art and glimpse a lost lifestyle.

For more information on our website: http://hillstead.org/activities/farmersmarket.html

And look for me, I’ll be there. Or, I’ll see you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Muskrat Love

April 7, 2010

I am dating myself to admit I remember a certain popular song describing the romantic antics of two muskrats.  I believe the animal’s names were Suzy and Sam, though I wouldn’t swear to it.  If I did, I’d have to admit that I actually remember some of the mortifying lyrics. If there’s a list somewhere of egregious top-forty tunes, this should be number one. The musical duo “The Captain and Tennille” should relinquish any royalties they earned from it to the George Gershwin estate, or maybe Cole Porter’s. The crazy thing is that they unwittingly hit on a certain truth: Muskrat family relationships are marked by a touching constancy.

A muskrat family lives at the edge our pond. Their tunnels extend into the surrounding meadow. The waterside part of their home is made from plants, so if they get hungry during a winter cold snap, they just crawl down and take a few bites. The tunnels make nice, snug winter quarters, and they start low near the water and go upwards, keeping the burrow dry when the water rises.

I enjoy watching the muskrats, and though they are largely nocturnal, you can see them during the day, particularly in the early morning. They glide around the pond, busily chomping up wetland weeds. Sometimes they carry a big mouthful of greens, pushing it along with relaxed determination. They never seem to hurry, even if disturbed by a possible threat. Instead, they gently flip underwater leaving a little eddy to mark their place.  I’ve read they sometimes slap their tails to warn of danger, like the beaver, but I’ve never seen that.

Baby muskrats are called both kits and pups, and sometimes pinkies,-though I don’t care for that name because it is the same as the tiny baby mice you can buy frozen to feed pet snakes with. Muskrats do look like little puppies paddling about with their mother in the spring. Prolific breeders, muskrats can turn out up to four litters in a year. Gestation is a month or a little less, and the pup has to move on after about a month of life, to make room for the next batch. In this they are much like big, aquatic field mice. But families don’t stray far, just further on into the wetland. They live essentially in an extended family group, with grandparents, cousins, aunts and parents all within shouting distance.

Vegetarians, muskrats don’t pursue prey, they instead forage for plants. Cattails are catnip to them. It’s their favorite food, and not a bit goes to waste. Cattails are edible (even by people) from root to flower. It’s sad that cattail colonies are destroyed by the graceful but useless phragmites plant, an invasive species that overruns wetlands that cattails (and those dependent on it) favor. As cattails disappear, muskrat families peter out too, to disease, predation by coyotes or foxes, or they just move on if they can manage it.  Muskrat families become fragmented, much like the American family after World War II. Before 1940 25% of Americans lived with parents, grandparents and children. Often aunts, uncles and cousins lived close by.  The habits of children were policed by legions of well-meaning relations. Forty years later, that life had become an anomaly, vanquished by the post- war economic boom.  Phragmites is a world war to cattails, and to muskrats. Fragmented family units fare poorly in contrast to those that are intact, be they one mammal or another.

We have a big stand of cattails which is holding its own. We have phragmites, too, unfortunately, but not nearby. Though phragmites spreads like wildfire, it would have quite a distance to cover before reaching the pond. So I think our little muskrat family is safe at least from that threat.  I’d hate to see them split up.  Pretty soon we’d be seeing those little muskrat pups listening to thumping popular music on ipods, wearing droopy pants, with no nosy aunts to disapprove.

Interestingly, today economics is driving a revival of the extended American family. Expenses for seniors and a paucity of entry-level jobs for young people are keeping us together longer.  It’s not muskrat love, but it’s a start.  Pass the cattails, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Scrambling for Serenity

March 30, 2010

I’d like to tear the Japanese Barberry out with my bare hands.  Why is it that so many of the “problem” plants that now grow in New England green up and get going before the native plants? If I didn’t know any better, I’d be thrilled to see things growing and leaves unfurling.  It isn’t as though I don’t appreciate the change in seasons, but when all I can see when I look along the Woodland Trail is Japanese Barberry ad infinitum, I get angry. Nature is all about competition, who gets eaten, who gets to eat.  It isn’t any different among plants or animals, they are all the same.  If you live long enough to pass on your genes, you carry the day. The more genes passed on, the bigger the winner. And barberry is triumphant.

It’s galling to see bullies prevailing. Invasives are plants or animals not native to the region where they are found.  In certain cases, like Multiflora Rose, Japanese Barberry and Asiatic Bittersweet, we planted them deliberately. Brought from other climes by well-meaning garden enthusiasts, they were cultivated and treasured as plants to spice up our landscape with their exotic shapes and colors. Who knew we planted in our perennial border a floral Trojan Horse? Other plant interlopers arrived entirely against their will, in a mattress, on the bottom of someone’s shoe, in the unwitting ballast of a ship. In a way, it’s natural, part of the warp and weft of the world, but there’s a certain bitterness in it.

Non-native plants may die in an unfamiliar climate, if their needs are too specific.  But less picky plants, happy to put down roots without particular regard to soil, sun or even rainfall, run riot over everything, choking the life out of native plants and animals. In time, ecosystems fail under the unnatural competition from the invasive plant.  After habitat loss due to human disruption, habitat loss due to the effects of invasive species is the largest cause of animal and plant extinction.

Why am I filled with petulant spleen to see these barbarries colonizing our wood?  Isn’t it all part of nature? Surely the cross-pollination of certain plants and the failure of others is part of our advancement? Perhaps,but I see the invasives leading us away from balance. I cannot see the end around the bend, and I am angry at the changing landscape.

Japanese Barberry is hard to erradicate and reproduces obscenely. Elimination has to be done painstakingly, one plant at a time. Left alone barberry will render areas completely impenetrable and it has done so here, keeping me perhaps from discovering vernal pools, bear dens, coyote families, rare butterflies, a lost race of birds. I can only speculate and seethe.

But I know this: As I churn over the barberry, spring ephemerals- hepatica, trout lily and the beginning of corydallis, are popping up.  I should focus on them. They bloom from barely warmed soil, and only until the trees begin to leaf out.  You might never know they were there at all, they bloom so briefly and die back so completely, like something of a woodland secret. Yet I smolder with regret at the Japanese Barberry, quite literally grinding my teeth over them. I wonder if I could burn them out, literally a crazy idea, with a home listed on the National Register not a quarter of a mile away. There is nothing reasonable to be done, for the moment.

Emerging Trout Lily

I am very bad at deciding I am powerless. But there it is. I can only accept, look with curiosity to the future and keep my eyes open for Trout Lily.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

To New Beginnings

March 11, 2010

The pussy willows were in full bloom today, and life is waking up again throughout the estate. Today I even saw a butterfly -a tortoiseshell type, the earliest I’ve ever seen one.  A butterfly afficionado I know says it might be a record.  Along with Mourning Cloaks, tortoiseshell butterflies are seen in the earliest days of spring. I also spied jumping spiders in the meadow, and incredibly, a grasshopper. The Northern Water Snake that naps near the bridge down by the pump house is awake, and a turtle plopped into the water as I walked along the sunny side of the pond.  Bluebirds circle the newly-cleaned bird boxes. Skunk cabbage is well along now and woodcock are skulking in the woods surrounding the fields.  They rest and forage in the wet woods during the day and come out at dusk to do their bizarre dancing and calling.  Wood frogs are awake, too.

skunk cabbage

We’ll have cold, raw days yet before spring takes a real foothold, but the first sunny days of the season provide such relief even after an uneventful winter.  Today you could almost hear flowers pushing up earth and green shoots unfurling. Beginnings are so much fun.  First date, first dance, first day of school, first car, first love, first kiss, first flower, first caterpillar, first red-wing blackbirds, first phoebes. You might say that without endings, there wouldn’t be beginnings and in a limited sense this may be true.  Organically speaking, there is a cycle of birth and death that doesn’t vary.  But there are human beginnings that seemingly spring from nowhere, and, heaven knows, unforeseen conclusions. Beginnings are rarely bitter, even in plants this is true.  Dandelion salad, for example, is lovely when the leaves are small.

Circumstances and sentiment can all too often dictate endings, when bonds become in their own way overgrown and too big for the container. Last misunderstanding, last farewell, last regret.  At least nature’s endings are free of recrimination. The past melts away graciously and makes way for the new.  Last snowfall, first snowdrop.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

February 22, 2010

A lot of people think we should tap our sugar maples.  It would be nice.  Who doesn’t love maple syrup?  When I come down the drive toward the house, with our beautiful old maples on each side, I smack my lips thinking about all the nice syrup we could make. At least I do in winter.  In the summer I am just grateful for the wonderful shade our sugar maples provide, and the dramatic way they lead us to Theodate’s pretty country house.  Sugar Maples give good shade in summer and good shape in winter, for their branches reach pleasingly toward the sky, and it is agreeable to watch them pointing upward even in their leafless state.  This tree is just chock-a-block full of goodness, and I don’t just mean the syrup.  It is a highly-favored fuel wood, but more excitingly perhaps it is used for bowling alleys, baseball bats, furniture and dance floors.

Now it’s almost sugaring time.  You need freezing nights and above-freezing days to start the sap running.  Also needed is someone to run around to all the trees you tapped at least once a day, to collect the buckets of sap.  That someone would also have to be willing to lug the precious buckets (no spilling, now) to wherever your boiling operation is.  The work is multiplied by the number of trees you tap.  Boiling off the sap is also arduous, and it goes on until all the water is boiled out, and what is left is a sugary residue-syrup.  Sugar maples give the best sap, though you can tap Black Maples and Red Maples, too.  The Black and Red ones have a flatter tasting syrup, but when you consider syrup as a whole, that’s not so bad.

Maple sugaring is simple.  You wait until winter is beginning to slope off like a guest who stayed a bit overtime.  Then you eyeball your maples.  How big are they?  If the maple is less than twenty inches around you can only put one spile (spout) in.  Up to twenty five inches, you can use two, and anything above that you can tap three times.  You’ll probably get about 15 gallons of sap per tree.  Ten gallons of sap makes about a quart of syrup.  After you collect the sap, boil off all the water until the sweet residue is left, then you’ll have to strain it to get bugs and “sugar sand”-naturally occurring mineral deposits, out.  Then you can bottle it, if you aren’t dead from exhaustion. The high price of maple syrup is justified, in my opinion.

People keep urging us to tap.  I don’t think that is what Theodate Pope had in mind when she planted the maples along the driveway leading to her home.  I think she wanted a “look”.  (It has always been referred to as “an allee of trees” which is a frenchy/botany way of saying the driveway has trees lining both sides.)  And although she would in no way have been opposed to the tapping itself (she was a farmer at heart if nothing else), she would have been sensitive to our perennial, urgent need for thrift.  Museums are all feeling the pinch right now, but none more than our own lovely and precious place which lacks a financial endowment of any real kind.  We raise the budget from scratch, year after year.  I cannot myself understand why we have had no gigantic sugar daddy behind us. But there are many such unanswerable questions in my mind always.  So, as far as maple sugaring goes it is ironically too expensive for us. We have no extra to pay for the work involved with syrup-making.  Someday, we say to ourselves in a dreamy way, we’ll get a huge gift and we’ll insert the thin edge of the wedge against the idea of some farming. With, just for a start, some maple sugaring in winter to go along with the sheep farming in the summer.  Now, that would be sweet.

See you on the trails,Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Hope Springs Eternal

February 9, 2010

My mother had a saying for everything. Her speech was fashioned by the linguistic effects of verbally colorful Anglo/Irish parents, and from living in Guam after World War II soaking up the Southern and Western cadences of American servicemen. She spoke in a patchwork of literary references and colloquialisms, and until I began school I had no idea that not everyone spoke like that. She was full of song lyrics, too, and would break out singing if the words applied to the situation.  Some favorite expressions came from poetry, but I’m not sure to this day the derivation of many of those funny, perfect remarks.

A useful motherly comment was, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring”.  This was for when you didn’t know what you were talking about. Another was “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, which she would say brightly if you asked for something and which meant, “we’ll see”.  It was oddly soothing and perhaps the simple addition of the word “hope” introduced a more positive flavor than the flat “we’ll see”, which every child knows is just a stalling tactic for an eventual “no”.

When the world is windy and frozen as it is in February, hope is a good arrow to keep in your quiver. I always give the same advice for cases of late winter doldrums, as I am nowhere near as clever as my mother.  I tell everyone who is down and dragging to get out and take a walk.  For starters, you need your sunlight and vitamin D to keep you on an even keel, and there’s nothing like some fresh air to improve your attitude.  And nothing reminds you more of hope springing within you than a look at a skunk cabbage as it begins poking through the frozen earth.  The only way to see that is to go for a walk in February or March!

Despite its repellant name, skunk cabbage is a wonderful thing.  One of the very earliest flowers, it has a remarkable determination to bloom.  If skunk cabbage competed in the Miss America contest, its “special talent”  (rather than baton twirling) would be its uncanny maintenance of an internally controlled heat from within, a sort of natural furnace. It runs approximately thirty-six degrees above the ambient temperature. This enables it to “burn” through frozen earth and even ice in an inexorable penetration of the surface of the ground.  As it breaches that surface and becomes visible it has a dramatic mottled purple hood called a spathe curled around an odd little flower that resembles nothing so much as a tiny morningstar (that round-headed medieval weapon with all the pointy things sticking out of it).  This is the spadix, and the little pointy things are the flowers.  You see this same configuration on many species of the lily family including calla lillies, peace lillies, jack-in-the pulpit and many others.  At the right point in early spring if you walk through a wetland carpeted with skunk cabbage, you might smell a sort of funkiness in the air. That smell draws little bees, flies and early bugs of every kind to come and nectar at the cabbage flowers, sustaining the insects and enabling them to get started on nests and procreation.  In a way, skunk cabbage is one of the mothers of spring itself, with its certain internal warmth giving way to the fecundity of an entire season.

My mother wouldn’t have touched a skunk cabbage with a ten-foot pole.  I’m pretty sure she never even saw one.  But, as a mother, she knew all about warmth, perseverance, and hope. It is remarkable at every level how our personalities are reflected in the natural world around us, though we often miss the connection. Mothers, of course, do not have a monopoly on the excellent qualities they share with the skunk cabbage, nor indeed, does every mother have them.  But there is no separating the characteristics of animals and plants from our own.  The world is a continuum.

It turns out actually, that hope DOES spring eternal for many people, and needs to.  Optimistic thoughts stimulate the amygdala, a powerful area of the brain that affects emotion.  It is biologically important to have a positive outlook.  Not everything in life will turn out perfectly, but if you thought things would always go badly, you’d never do anything.  So go out and take a walk.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist