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Contrasts

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.

Ed’s Corner

Bang! Clunk!

When I hear these sporadic and loud sounds on  my outside deck I know, 1. that the oak trees are beginning to drop their acorns, and, 2. It’s time to get the apple press out because the apples are ready now just as the acorns are. The apple and the acorn are both fruits, that is, they developed from flowers and contain a seed or seeds that can grow into new trees. But it’s the fruit from the apple tree that I will seek – the apple.

As I lug the press out of storage in the barn it feels good that cider making marks for me the changing seasons and allows me to connect with and participate in the year’s movement. I want to be more than a bystander as the earth revolves around the sun. I feel as if it is a celebration of sorts, a ritual, an anchor to fall, something dependable that also ties me to the past. Why do I do it? Because a year of seasons has passed and now its fall, again, and time for cidering.

Ed Pressing Cider

Ed pressing cider – photo by Fernando Lopez

And the cider is delicious! I like to use a variety of apples and press them all together. The amber liquid that gushes from the bottom of the press into our waiting pot seems happy to have been released from it’s former apple homes. Do you know that if you sip your cider slowly you’ll be able to taste fall, winter, spring and summer, for it takes 4 seasons to make an apple. You might even taste the rain from the storm that fell on the orchard last July.


This amber liquid is called apple cider. If I filter this cider then it is called apple juice. You can think of cider as apple juice with the pulp.

There are many stories and sayings about apples: the tempting fruit in the Garden of Eden; the fruit that conked Sir Issac Newton on the head and started him thinking seriously about gravity; the poisoned one that caused Snow White to take a long chill until a handsome prince came along; ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ (you know, this could be much cheaper than the current Obama plan.)

And there was, of course, Johnny Appleseed. Supposedly, according to legend, he was friends and talked with the wild animals; wore no shoes; wore a pot on his head; preached the good words of the Bible to whomever would listen. He walked and walked all around the mid-west, handing out apple seeds and trees. The Native Americans were known to be kind to him, and to leave him alone. They stayed clear of people who seemed a little ‘off’. I’m not saying that he was, but …

We will learn about Johnny and apples and cidering during our apple cider pressing programs we have scheduled this fall. You’ll even get a chance to meet Johnny!

I hope to see you at one of our upcoming events.

Turning the press

Turning the press

Here’s a bushel of nifty apple information:

  • The early Native Americans had only crab apple trees to pick from, the apples probably being small, hard and not sweet.
  • European settlers, as early as 1630, brought seeds and small trees to this country that provided the first sweet, juicy, flavorful apples we know today.
  • So, when we say “As American as apple pie”, there is really, in the bigger picture, not a long history to that statement. We could say instead, “As American as maple sugar and syrup”, for the Native Americans were making maple sugar well before the first Europeans set foot on the continent.
  • Those first European apple trees were probably not too productive for there were no honeybees in this country to serve as pollinators. Later immigrants brought over with them the first honeybees.
  • The Native Americans called these first honeybees ‘English flies’.
  • In colonial times apples were known as ‘winter bananas’ and ‘melt-in-the-mouth’.
  • There are over 10,000 kinds of apples in the world.
  • The birthplace of the modern apple is Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
  • Charred apple remains were found in a stone-age village in Switzerland.
  • In 1796 a farmer in Ontario, while walking the “back 40″ of his property, came upon a kind of apple tree he had not seen before. He decided, because the apples had such a special flavor, to propagate the tree and to plant more. His name – John McIntosh.
  • Each year, China grows half or more of the world’s apples. The U.S. is second.
  • In the U.S. Washington State grows most (60%) of our country’s apples.
  • Apple ‘cider’ is what we call the juice that comes directly from pressing the apples, without doing anything to it. Apple ‘juice’ is that same juice, only filtered.
  • ‘Hard’ cider is cider that has been fermented and contains alcohol.
  • The most common drink during colonial times was one that was plentiful and could keep/not spoil: hard cider – morning, noon and night, adults and children!

Ed’s Corner

At the beginning of each camp day we – campers and counselors –  might share a special or unusual natural happening or event that we experienced the day before. We call these sharings and the actual event or thing, Natural Moments. As we are out and about in our world, which is also the world of nature, there are many opportunities to see, hear, smell or touch something ‘cool’. It’s a moment that might make us just whisper inside ourselves, WOW, which I contend is the acronym for ‘With-Out-Words’. A Natural Moment takes us out of ourselves and makes us feel part of a bigger something.

To increase the chances of Natural Moments, two things have to happen: A) be outdoors and B) pay attention.

A Natural Moment that I recently experienced:

I took my youngest, Nathaniel, to a local mall for a bit of Mother’s Day shopping. When we got out of the car we saw, no, we were in the middle of, waves, close-to-the-ground, of delicate white petals being blown first in one direction and then in another. We just watched for two minutes as the waves of petals scooted across the strip mall parking lot, around cars, some being ‘caught’ in puddles. Nathaniel said it was like snowflakes that never melt. We wondered where the final resting places would be for the petals. Or even it there is such a thing as a ‘final place’.

IMG_1030

There is no ‘right’ place for nature, for Natural Moments, for the chance to say WOW. Every place, even the mall parking lot, can be a nature place.

Ed’s Corner – They’re Coming…

Sometimes it feels that opportunities for earth art present themselves everywhere. One of these moments will soon be on your lawn or at least somewhere close to your home. You just may go out one day soon, look down, and feel like you have run smack dab into a wall, a sea, an avalanche (you get the point) of yellow! You will see hundreds of golden dandelions just starting to grow, and without much of a stem yet. There will be so many that you won’t feel guilty picking as many as you want. It might feel like you’re holding hands-full of sunlight, or tiny, bite-sized suns.

IMG_0838

What to do with them:

You can lay them on the lawn, next to and touching each other, and make a long, meandering yellow chain, or snake, or just a beautiful meandering line of yellow, over hill and dale and rocks. Watch what happens to your art over the next few days.

Make a spiral with them, starting at the base of a tree and spiraling outward.

Rub them on a piece of white paper against a hard surface such as the sidewalk and see why they can be called ‘yellow crayons’.

Wait to pick them until they have a long stem. Peel the stem into 3 or so long pieces, all still attached to the flower end. Dunk the stem pieces into water (submerge them) for a quick one or two second dunk, pull quickly out and hold them in front of you and just watch. If they could shout we would call what they are doing ‘twist and shout’. Or better still, ‘curl and shout’.

IMG_0840


Different parts of the dandelion can be used for food, medicine and dye. Read about these usages here, in Paul Tappenden’s dandelion article.

A long time ago people used to pull grass from their lawns to make room for dandelions!

The name ‘dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent de lion’, which means lion’s tooth. Look at the leaves on the ground directly at the bottom of the stem and you’ll see why. Growl.

Dandelions are not native to this country but came to us from Asia.

The little dandelion seeds on their little white ‘parachutes’ have been known to travel up to five miles!

Look at dandelion plants growing in mostly sunlight and then at those growing mostly in shade. What do you notice that’s different about their leaves?

Ed’s Corner – Spring!

You may be feeling (as we ourselves have been) that the snow will never melt. Well it is melting, but it’s been a long, cold winter, which definitely makes this spring so much sweeter!

Heralds of springtime

Get outside to celebrate the arrival of warm sunlight, budding flowers, springtime, and all the good nature that comes with it:

  • Plan an outdoor lunch or dinner
  • Make a small outdoor fire (safely, of course) to help celebrate the sun’s return.
  • Look for any flowers that may be blooming or green leaves pushing through the soil.
  • Make bets (using acorns as currency) on when any left over patches of snow will melt.
  • Check some branches to see if any buds are getting fatter or even beginning to open.
  • Take an outdoor walk and be aware of any small, flying insects that may be out and about. Now where were they this winter?!
  • If it’s sunny, stand still and tilt one cheek toward the sun, close your eyes, and feel the warmth. Now turn the other cheek.
  • Lie down in a woodland or forested area, look up at the sky, its beauty, how it changes, and know that this view will not be possible once the leaves are on the tree again. Take it in while you can.
  • Walk across lawn and other areas and feel how soft and spongy they are, not like the frozen solid, cement feel of winter ground.
  • Look at the tiny creatures that may have spent this winter in the holes and crevasses of tree bark. Look at the bark carefully, up and down and all around. Look up close, and use a magnifier if you have one. Wish them all a happy spring!
  • Blow bubbles outside and watch how they make the paths of the winds visible.

The Vernal Equinox

The first day of spring is this coming Thursday, March 20th, at precisely 12:57 pm. It is a time when day and night are close to equal, and something that all people in the northern hemisphere experience, though most may be unaware.

Seasons occur because the earth is tilted 23.5 degrees. When the top, or northern hemisphere, is tilted toward the sun, it is summer. When the top is tilted away, it is winter. Most people would say that the earth is closest to the sun in the summer, and farther from the sun in the winter. Just the opposite, which might at first seem a little strange. In summer the earth is farthest from the sun, but our northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, making our summer. During winter the earth is closest to the sun, but winter occurs for us because our ‘top of the earth’ is tilted away from the sun.

Poking out toward the sun

Can you really balance an egg on its end during an equinox? Yes, you can! But, you can also balance an egg on its end any day of the year if you really try. An equal amount of daytime and night does not in fact make it any easy to balance an egg, and there aren’t any invisible equinox waves that give your egg extra stability. But it’s not surprising to us that folks think of eggs and the spring equinox together, as eggs are an old and reliable symbol for the new season of growth, sunlight, and rebirth.

This year especially we’ve been waiting for the day when we can say, “Ah, it’s the first day of spring.”

Ed’s Corner

Fitting in with the name of our newsletter, have you noticed more dust lately due to the lack of rainfall? In the house but also outside. Raking leaves will will stir up little swirls of dust, but if you really want to see mini-dust storms, watch what happens when the leaf blowers come to town, or to your own house or a neighbor’s.

So for a little ‘Ode to Dust’, we share with you the following:

The Us in Dust

right there in the middle
of the little word ‘dust’
we see the ‘u’ and ‘s’
and together they are ‘us’

we’ve heard from Joni Mitchell
that a good part of what we are
is dust that landed on the earth
from distant exploding stars

so while ‘us’ is in dust
there’s more to the word
the dust is also in us –
the other way, absurd

but wait just a minute
‘us’ in dust is true, too
for every time you sweep the floor
you are sweeping you

our skin is made of cells that shed
science tells us thousands per day
so every time you sweep the floor
you’re sweeping yourself away

so being ‘swept away’
or even ‘off your feet’
may now mean something different
that doesn’t feel so sweet

Ed’s Corner

What’s up?

Certainly not monarchs,
haven’t seen one all summer.
The black and orange Lepidoptera
might be gone, what a bummer!

I ask around:
‘Have you seen any monarchs yet?’
‘No I have not!
Now that you mention it.’

Now is their migration time
and every fall we’d see them flying
heading southward, day by day.
What’s the matter, are they dying?

I still search green milkweed patches,
Where I’ve found monarchs by the score.
But looking closely I’m dismayed
to find no traces, as before.

They used to flit about the gardens,
king and queenly colors flashing.
This year’s hues were certainly decent,
But missed those bright and royal fashions.

A world lacking monarchs
is missing much, we agree.
I feel that I have lost a friend.
Do you too feel like me?

Monarch butterfly in the New Jersey Botanical Gardens, Fall 2012

Yes, this has been the monarch-less year. Reasons proposed include more use of pesticides and habitat destruction both in their overwintering grounds in Mexico (they do migrate) as well as here, in their summer home. Milkweed is the plant that adult monarchs (the butterflies) lay their eggs on, the caterpillars eat it, and it’s the plant to which monarchs attach their chrysalises. Less milkweed means less monarchs.

I have talked to various gardeners and outdoor people and have gone online to see what others are reporting. And in most cases people are reporting not seeing ‘only a few’, but NONE! Zero. Not one. This feels a little freaky and worrisome.

Oh, I know there is a lot we can worry about – what is happening (or rather not happening) in Washington, the economy, wars and skirmishes around the world, bombings, road rage and motorcycle gangs, whatever educational reforms are now in vogue, etc., etc.

So who has time or energy to even think about a butterfly? I do. Maybe you, too. Watching monarchs heading southward in the fall has always connected me with this butterfly’s unimaginably long migratory journey, as well as with the mystery and rhythm of nature as a whole.

While the rest of America worries about ‘real life’ I will remember the monarch, and I will hope that this article is merely an off-year observation and not a eulogy.

Ed’s Corner

A Grand Moment

Did you ever have something happen to you that you knew was pretty special while it was happening and afterwards, maybe hours or even days later, you thought about it some more and decided that it was not just special but completely mind-blowing and amazing!?

A few years ago my oldest son, Daniel decided that he would like to join me in operating and directing The Nature Place Day Camp, a business I started more than 30 years ago. When he was very young he was a camper, loved every piece of it. Aging out as a camper, he worked as a counselor and activity leader for quite a few summers. Then he graduated college, became an active musician and did other jobs along the way.

Father and son

We had talked some years before about him coming to work for camp but that earlier conversation really didn’t lead anywhere. Time went by, we talked again about the same topic, my needs and his needs perhaps were a better match this time, and he joined the camp. Changes were happening within the camp (one of the big ones was called Recession Time) and he stepped up, took hold of what he needed to and has helped the camp grow again.

You might just imagine that father and son working together could at times be, shall we say, frictional. Yes, there were those times. And we still continue to work through some of those rough spots. But generally, especially this last summer camp season, we were right on with each other, respected what the other did, supported each other, laughed, shared the same goals, and worked our butts off – together. And it was a great season in so many ways. Sharing this with anyone is great, but with my son, my first-born, I am so fortunate. How many fathers get a chance to do this?

And how many get a chance to do what I’m about to tell you next? 

Our camp is located at the Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, NY. This is the second year that the high school teachers asked us to help them organize and conduct an Orientation overnight camping trip in Harriman Park for the 100 students, grades 9-12. We play games, hike, have workshops, class meetings, art projects, good food, campfire, storytelling, sleep in tents, sing and we’ve had great weather twice.

At the end of the high school camping trip, right before we left to get on the buses to go back to school, the whole group formed a circle. The teacher leading the trip thanked the Biebers – father and son – for helping to make this all happen. She asked Daniel and me to come into the middle of the circle and the entire group of 100 plus surrounded us with tones. The teacher began with a tone, the rest followed and with the teacher leading the group, tones of various types were hummed or made by everyone for one whole minute. Daniel and I, with eyes closed, felt inside the energy and heard the vibrancy of the different tonal qualities. It was like being in the center of a force field with each person directing positive energies toward us and that energy making us vibrate, soothingly and lovingly, inside.

Again, for this to happen for just me or with some others, that alone would have been great. But for this magic time – it could be called nothing else! – to happen so organically because of what MY SON and I have done and are doing together, and to both be recognized for it in such an unusual way, is even more than great! Me and my son, standing in the middle of this circle, because we both belonged there for who we both are, as individuals and as a team! Think of all the things that had to happen to lead us to this spot.

Fathers out there – you know what I mean?

I am so lucky. Completely mind-blowing and amazing!

Ed’s Corner

I have heard this time of year, mid-May until the beginning of July, referred to as ‘The High Tide of Life’. It seems an apt image to me, as the green world is definitely growing and flowering and seeding. Insects are doing their usual multiplying, bird song fills the early morning air, baby animals abound. Life everywhere seems to be teeming, moving, and busy. If I close my eyes and think about all this activity as a whole, I can almost see the high tide of life swelling upward toward a high-water mark before receding again toward autumn. We partake of this tide with readying gardens, cutting the grass, putting in new flowers, spring cleaning, trying to get in a hike or two. And although we might not always see it, our activity is a necessary current in this rising tide, lapping up next to the animals and the plants and the earth that make up this green surge.

High tide

So ride the wave while it’s here!

A sea of dandelion parachutes

Ed’s Corner

You can go home again (after rounding 3rd base)…

My youngest son, Nathaniel, age 9, just joined the rookie league of our town’s Little League program. I think having an older brother Rhys who loves the game accounts for Nathaniel’s baseball leanings. Besides games of catch, I know I wasn’t the catalyst. Honestly, I don’t know who won the last World Series. So we signed him up, got the necessary gear, he was given a uniform and the coolest hat – with a rattle snake on it because of the team’s name, the Diamondbacks. The ‘Garter Snakes’ would, I’m sure, not carry the intended impact. Nor would my suggestion that Nathaniel play some non-competitive baseball (?) with his friends.

Looking for home

Two nights ago the team had its first practice at our local field, located next to a busy railroad line, with all the tootings and screechings and clangings you can imagine. A busy road, treacherous to cross, intersects the tracks right there, horns, brakes and exhaust are common. Litter is strewn along the banks of the railroad tracks where a walking path runs alongside, and the small stream below the pedestrian bridge is also blanketed with litter. Very busy Route 59 is within easy earshot of the playing field, so you never lack for car and truck noise, and completing the scene is a bus station and big parking lot.

But despite all this, the two playing fields were green, fresh, and on this evening had eight children of varying abilities, running, laughing, catching, batting, having fun.         

The garter snakes?

So here I was, sitting in the bleachers, getting darker and colder, telling myself that I will get into this baseball thing, when I see something big glide to the top of a tall light pole, a red-tailed hawk. Then after 5 minutes, without a sound, the hawk flew toward third base to the top of another pole and hung around for a while longer. Perhaps scouting out a future meal in the form of some of the youngest, smaller players?! It felt that this bird of prey felt very comfortable here.

And then, just above the playing field, flew, with almost slow motion wing flaps, a blue heron, neck back in typical ‘S’ position, legs extended out and back, taking its time as players and coaches below were intent with the action on-field, unaware of what was flying silently 25 feet above the field. It landed in a by-then darkened area outside the fence, almost straight outward from second base.

I guess home plate on the field feels more home to me now. In quite a few ways.