March 2005


Afternoon shadows

As I’ve already illustrated, I am a collector of shadows. After spending most of yesterday in bed waiting for my inexplicably queasy stomach to settle, by afternoon I could deny the dog no longer: we’d go for a short walk.

Yesterday was sunny and mild, with afternoon temperatures in the almost tropical 60s. Mothers and children were out riding bikes on the Industrial Heritage Trail, a stretch of railroad-track-turned-bikepath that runs behind several local factories. I like to walk the dog along this segment of trail because it heads away rather than toward downtown Keene: in other words, it’s lonely enough that I can let Reggie run off-leash within city limits.

It was, as I mentioned, afternoon by the time Reg and I went walking; since I was still feeling sickly, I didn’t plan to take any photos. But I never leave the house without my camera, and the afternoon shadows were irresistible with their delightfully geometric lines and angles.

Afternoon shadows

When Reggie and returned from walking, it was too mild and glorious to go inside even though my body wanted rest. So the dog and I did something we haven’t done since last fall, sitting outside on the screened back porch just like I did this time last year. So much has changed in my life since last year, but afternoon shadows remain the same, as regular as clockwork.

Keene, NH lies ringed with hills in the shadow of Mt. Monadnock, a clot of culture settled in a bowl of stone. Over time I’ve posted various pictures of Mt. Monadnock, and here’s another. Isn’t it ironic that one of the best views of Mt. Monadnock occurs at the junction of Key Road and Winchester Street, right across from Wal-Mart?

I snapped this photo through my windshield as I sat waiting for the light to change at one of Keene’s most congested intersections this past weekend. Sitting in traffic gazing at Mt. Monadnock, you want to be there, now. On cloudy days, you can’t see the mountain; on clear days, she shines like a beacon, her single snow-capped nipple shimmering seductively above Wal-Mart’s pointed facade. Monadnock beckons with the lure of wildness, a pinnacle of nature transcending the noise and traffic of cheap American consumerism.

You’ll discover the irony of ironies, though, if you climb Mt. Monadnock on a nice summer or fall day, for on warm weekends, her trails are nearly as congested as the line into or out of Wal-Mart.

Two final observations. First, notice the color of the grass in the above photo. Although most of our snow has melted here in southern New Hampshire, our winter-killed grass is still the color of straw. The color green will return to Keene only after our night-time temperatures remain above freezing.

Second, today is blue-skied, mild, and sunny, and I’m sick in bed with some sort of stomach bug: yuck. It’s beautiful outside, and I’m stuck in bed: isn’t that ironic?

This past weekend when I went to the annual sap gathering contest at Stonewall Farm here in Keene, I spent an idle moment strolling through the dairy barn, taking pictures of the ladies.

I was raised a city girl. People sometimes assume that my being raised in Ohio means I grew up on a farm (there presumably being nothing else in Ohio), but I was born in Columbus, a bustling city. As a child, the only time I got up close and personal with cattle was during an annual trip to the Ohio State Fair, where my mom and I would stroll the animal barns to ooh and ahh over the livestock. Nothing says “city slicker” like the act of taking a camera into a dairy barn. Instantly you are branded as a sight-seer, someone enchanted with the novelty of large animals. If I’d been raised on a farm, I’d recognize this dairy barn as a workplace where cows convert grass to milk and humans oversee the process. Only upper-class poets consider milking to be a pastoral pursuit, the employment of pretty maids who spent the rest of their time being wooed by country swains in the shadow of green-carpeted hillsides.

The genteel myths of pastoral poetry notwithstanding, it’s nice to know that even working girls have the luxury of a midday nap. Milk and its byproducts (butter, cheese, and ice cream) are presumably the slowest of slow foods. Although processes such as milking can be mechanized, it’s not like you can hurry a cow to chew her cud more quickly. Milk-making is a languid pursuit, and on an award-winning working farm like Stonewall, cows demand a certain amount of coddling. Stonewall’s dairy divas enjoy a pretty good life grazing in the shadow of surrounding hillsides, napping in an airy barn to a soundtrack of country music, and being milked by human hands, the old-fashioned way.

You can buy fresh raw milk at Stonewall Farm, and I think it’s great that local families can show their children where their daily glass comes from. While I was hanging out with Bridget here in the heifer pen, several families were walking through the barn admiring the cows and a trio of January-born calves. Stonewall Farm’s annual sap-gathering contest offers children and their parents a diversion down on the farm, and the kids I saw mingling with the moo-sters were strikingly reverent, taking care to let sleeping cows lie and (yes) watching where they stepped. Stonewall Farm, an energetic educator explained as we rode a shuttle bus from parking lot to farm, is open year-round to kids and adults alike: you can visit the horse and dairy barns anytime. It seems that Bridget for one looks forward to the company.

Crocuses

Although it’s raining as I write these words, yesterday–Easter Sunday–was sunny and glorious: the kind of day that gives reassurance that yes, you have survived another New Hampshire winter. When I saw crocuses blooming in my across-the-street neighbor’s yard, I nearly broke into a joyous jig right there on the spot. New England winters do that sort of thing to you: they make you want to dance for joy when there’s the slightest indication that they might be over.

When I saw those crocuses in my across-the-street neighbor’s yard, I knew I’d have to walk the dog until we found more (and more accessible) ones; I knew I wouldn’t come home until I’d photographed some. Walking across my neighbor’s yard to photograph his crocuses seemed too invasive, what with me being attached to an inquisitively sniffing and peeing dog and all. So Reg and I set out for West Street here in Keene, where I took several of last year’s springtime crocus pictures.

And yep, sure enough there were crocuses blooming in front of a particular business where there had been crocuses last year, and I took the above photo. It felt a little like cheating, this going straight to the spot of planted quarry you know is going to be waiting (and posing) for you. But that’s another sort of thing that New Hampshire winters do to you: they make you drop your usual scruples about shooting canned subjects.

So, as a sort of penance for luring you in with a photographic set-up, here’s a completely spontanous picture: a handful of snowdrops in a spot I wasn’t expecting them. I guess that’s how stalking not-so-wild plants works. Sometimes when you’re looking for something you know you’ll find, you find something you never imagined.

Snowdrops

Postscript: Crocus leaves (if not flowers) played a prominent role in my most recent (and woefully overdue!) edition of “Pedestrian Thoughts,” which I sent to my email list on Saturday. “Pedestrian Thoughts” is a semi-monthly nature column I began before I started blogging: it’s what led me to blogging, since an early PT reader sent me a link to my very first blog, and that led me to another, and another, and another. My Pedestrian essays are longer and more polished than my blog-posts: my Pedestrian essays are culled from my handwritten journals, just like Thoreau’s essays. In my mind at least, there’s something different about an essay that started as scribbles in a notebook rather than typed words on a screen.If you’re on my Pedestrian Thoughts email list, you should have received the latest essay this weekend. If you’re not on my PT list, I’d encourage you to sign up here: it’s free (and e-newsletters are eco-friendly), so what do you have to lose?

Sap Gathering Contest

It’s “almost-spring” here in New Hampshire, which means it’s time to tap the trees for maple sugar.

Yesterday I went to the annual Sap Gathering Contest at Stonewall Farm, a not-for-profit working farm and educational center here in Keene. Nowadays, many maple syrup producers use plastic tubes to move sap from tree to sugar house: an arboreal IV. But in the old days, teams of horses pulled sleds into the sugar bush where drivers and their helpers emptied sap buckets by hand, a tradition that Stonewall Farm preserves through their annual contest.

As much about draft horses as it is about sap, the Contest attracted 18 two-horse teams from five states. Here Peg Dockham from New Hampshire guides her 20-year-old Haflingers, Streeka and Stokwel, through a draft horse obstacle course no less complicated than any Driver’s Ed exam.

Sap Gathering Contest

Haflingers are small by draft horse standards, but they easily pulled their all-weather sled through our springtime mix of snow, mud, and ice, their most impressive move being a straight-line backup. Knowing how difficult it is to manuever a car in reverse, I marveled at how Streeka and Stokwel were able to backup in unison: impressive.

Draft horses, like sled-dogs, are trained to respond to voice commands. As impressive as it was to see Peg Dockham steering her Haflingers through various twists and turns–the equine version of parallel parking–the true test of a draft team’s training comes in the sugar bush, when drivers guide their teams from the ground while retrieving and emptying sap-laden buckets.

To get a feel for traditional-style sap collection, I followed one team on their round through the contest course during which they were judged on quickness as well as accuracy, the sugar bush being stocked with 40 color-coded sap buckets that drivers and their helpers had to empty into their sap-sleds.

At the start of any contest, participants appreciate a friendly pep-talk. Here Robert Nunes from Maine readies his sled while a helper spends a quiet moment with draft horses Becky and Slim.

Sap Gathering Contest

On the contest course, each two-person team has to locate their color-coded buckets, park their horses, and gather sap into their sleds. Here’s where a draft team’s training comes in handy. Whereas you’d have to climb back on or into a tractor or truck to drive it to the next stop, draft teamsters can call out commands while still on the ground: forward, left, right, or reverse. It’s remote-control driving at its best: if you call your commands properly, your sled will come to you.

Sap Gathering Contest

And now the heavy lifting. After emptying two sap-pails into a plastic bucket, human team-members empty the contents into the sleds. Although speed is one factor in the contest, teams are penalized if they aren’t meticulous in their collection. Tin pails have to be returned to their trees with covers properly replaced, and judges rate how well each team cooperates as they move through the sugar bush. In a word, teams need to Hurry Up while Being Careful.

Sap Gathering Contest

Once a team has collected their sap, it’s back to the sugarhouse…and the finish line.

Sap Gathering Contest

Producing maple syrup is labor intensive. In the spring, sugar maples raise the dissolved sugars they kept in their roots over winter: this year’s sap is the leftover food from last year’s photosynthesis. Raw maple sap looks like water and contains about 2% dissolved sugar. It takes approximately forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup, a fact made visible by the number of empty milk jugs tied to the outside of Stonewall Farm’s sugarhouse.

Sap Gathering Contest

It takes approximately forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup…in other words, if you’re in maple syrup business, most of your labor literally goes up in steam.

Sap Gathering Contest

Sap-boiling takes a lot of heat, so wood-burning evaporators require constant stoking: a hellish job to produce something that tastes like heaven.

Sap Gathering Contest

When you realize how much work it takes to produce even a drop of sweetness, you understand why pure maple syrup costs what it does: at Stonewall Farm, a gallon of the Good Stuff goes for $38.50. Yesterday for a mere dollar, you could buy a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with as much fresh maple syrup as you could pour: liquid gold the color and consistency of honey. It was a fitting end to a sweet almost-spring day.

Sap Gathering Contest

You can tell something about a people’s hopes and fears by their seasonal stockpiles. As we eagerly await spring here in Keene, local merchants have begun lining up bikes. Care to invest in New Hampshire futures? The red-winged blackbirds and wood ducks are back, and we’re dreaming of summer months to come, days when getting around town is as easy as hopping on two wheels and pedaling.

Contrast the above picture of New Hampshire hopes with the stockpile stacked at the other end of the same parking lot:

Summer dreams are fine and good, but only a well-seasoned woodpile will keep you warm on cold March nights. In these middling, pre-spring days, a carefully stacked stash of winter wood is our Now, and an alluring line of shiny bicycles is our Not Yet.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Tiny. Although these weren’t the tiniest leaves I saw while wandering through the Sam Houston National Forest with Gary, they were probably the brightest and freshest.

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