Dispatch from Deer Camp, 2020

My father tore the tendon that attaches his thigh muscle to his leg in early October. He’s looking at about a year for a full recovery, so on opening weekend of November’s rifle season he was still very much disabled. My brother and I drove him to camp, raked the leaves away from the stoop, and guided him up the stairs. Once on the porch he was able to shuffle around all right with a walker.

These modern walkers are slick – they’ve got wheels and brakes like a bike. And you can set a parking brake and turn it into a seat, which is what he did on opening morning. We helped him get socks and boots on his still-swollen foot, and pull on his sweat pants which stood in for wool pants this year. When everyone else disappeared into the pre-dawn blackness, he took up a position on the front porch sitting on his walker. One of the things I greatly admire about my pop is that he’s not the type to wallow or make excuses. I think a lot of people’s reaction, were they unable to move one of their legs, would have been to sleep in and feel bad about missing deer season for the first time in fifty-something years. I don’t even think that entered his mind. If he couldn’t hunt in the woods, he’d hunt from the porch.

At about 7:30 that morning a six-point buck walked within 75 yards of the camp, then, inexplicably, turned and gave a shoulder in an open shooting lane. We all about lost our minds when we heard the gunshot. “Buck down” said the text.

I told him you couldn’t make a story like that up; no one would believe it if you did.

Bull Moose

This bull moose was videotaped in the southern Green Mountains on the second weekend of deer season. And it’s a lovely sight to see. Moose populations were booming in the early 2000s, but numbers have since dropped precipitously. The population estimate the state currently gives – around 2,200 statewide – is about half of what it was a decade ago. Biologists say that during the boom years, the population was high enough in parts of northern Vermont to exceed the land’s carrying capacity, and so part of the reason for the crash was depleted habitat. Another culprit was winter ticks, which are enabled by climate change. (Warmer winters means more ticks and a longer tick questing period.) Brain worm is another culprit; this parasite is carried by whitetailed deer and spread in deer feces, so as deer populations grow, moose populations suffer.

The state is currently conducting a radio-collared moose study which may shed some more light on moose and tick interplay. In the meantime, all healthy moose sightings – especially in the south, where populations were never that high – are great to see.

One Last Look

Our designer, Lisa Cadieux, and I went to Springfield Printing Corp. today to give the book a final look. I drove up Route 7A from Shaftsbury to Manchester, then Route 11 and 30 through the Green Mountain National Forest, up Bromley, down into Londonderry, then along the Middle Branch into Chester. From there I ran up 103 and right angled onto 10 to get to North Springfield. Lisa was coming from Burlington, so her options were more varied. I forgot to ask how she drove. Likely it was on the Interstate to save time and brain capacity, but maybe in the spirit of the book we both just helped build it was down 100, through Waitsfield and Granville, Pittsfield and Plymouth, the Mad River and then the White and then the Black. Or maybe it was 12 to 106, and Randolph and Bethel and Barnard and Reading and all those other little heart-of-Vermont towns. I leave you with the image of two people driving from their respective corners of Vermont and meeting in the middle at a Vermont printing company that’s been in one family since the 1960s. All of us working together to publish a book about life in rural Vermont. It feels very 2020 in a good way.

Usnea – near you by Tania Aebi

In March of 2020, when Covid-19 started dominating the news and Vermont entered a state of emergency, I hightailed it for the woods. For many years, there was a stash of usnea tincture in the root cellar awaiting a sniffle or cold. When my boys were young, I believed it best to save antibiotics for things like Lyme disease and strep, and would just have them drink a shot of usnea if they weren’t feeling well. But, I’d been lazy and with this scary new virus changing the world, I realized I had hardly any left!
And so began the hunt around my hilltop. Pronounced ooze-nee-ah and better known as old man’s beard, the long and light green lichen tendrils grow from tree trunks and branches in Vermont forests, and many other places around the globe. Near and Far-East Asians considered it to be a super effective natural medicinal, others have used it as an excellent gauge of environmental pollution, and some refer to it as an indicator of true north. But, as was the case with Covid in November 2019, most people have never even heard of it.
I first learned about usnea a couple of decades ago during a foraging workshop in a state forest. The instructor pointed out all kinds of other interesting things like chaga and puffball powder, but most memorable was a handful of dangling green lichen she plucked from a dead conifer, “This here is usnea, excellent for bacterial and fungal infections. It’s stronger than penicillin.”
Wow. How perfect would it be to harvest medicine from my own woods? And so began a hunting obsession that had me gathering bags everywhere I hiked, from my own back forty, to the Green Mountains, to the White Mountains, and the Coast of Maine. Steeped in vodka, mason jars of medicine lined my shelves, got taken for granted, used up, and finally, never replenished. Somehow, along the way, I’d dropped the ball.
Between reading more about Covid spiking in New York City and beyond, I took up the old hunt with many purposeful walks off the porch and into the woods. Usnea prefers old or dead conifers in a moist forest, and as we have plenty of such habitat, I fell back into my old obsessive ways, filling the jars, setting up the tincture, and feeling proactive.
The singular focus on finding usnea rekindled the initial fascination. Usnea is a combination of two organisms, a fungus and an alga. The fungus provides the core, the green alga sheath gathers energy from the sun, and the two completely different life forms come together and create a new structure.
Some other lichens resemble usnea, and often, they are even intertwined together. The way to distinguish usnea is to hold a lacy strand in your fingers and gently tug on either end. The outer green sheath will split, revealing the white inner pith that will stretch before snapping. Usnea is elastic, other lichens aren’t.
Internet research reveals that usnea has been used therapeutically for over 3,000 years to treat bacterial and fungal infections. Native North Americans used it as an expectorant, a dermatological aid for boils, and as an absorbent emergency dressing for backwoods wounds. Today, it is still applied by Asian and Russian herbalists to treat pulmonary tuberculosis, bronchitis, infected wounds, external ulcers, and scrofula. Contemporary proponents of alternative medicine claim usnea is useful for treating the common cold, sore throats, and coughs, and some studies suggest that usnea has anti-cancer and anti-viral properties.
Given the right conditions—not too dry and sunny—usnea grows worldwide. Once, I was in Uruguay and saw miles upon miles of wooden post fencing draped with the beautiful tendrils. But, even though I have seen huge clumps hanging from the trees below ski lifts in Switzerland, it is becoming less common to see usnea in western Europe. Apparently, lichens are on the decline there because of pollution and the depletion of suitable forest habitat.
Most interesting is how usnea can also serve as an extremely sensitive filter, and therefore barometer, of fossil fuel pollution. Heavy metals accumulate in usnea, and sulfur dioxide and acid rain will kill it. So, if you decide to harvest some usnea for its botanical properties, try to stay away from busy roadsides and heavily populated areas where pollution is heaviest. On the bright side, if you come across a forest with lots of healthy usnea, you may assume you’re in a relatively clean environment.
Finally, if you’re lost in the woods and remember that you once heard that usnea could show you where true north lies, do be careful. Usnea grows on the moist sides of trees, which in an open deciduous forest, is probably the shady north side, hence the old-timey trick. But a denser, closed canopy forest that holds moisture uniformly everywhere creates an usnea free-for-all on all sides of the trees. Throw steep hillsides and different shade angles into the equation and your compass needle is swinging out of control. So, it’s probably best to stick with gauging direction from the sun.
I can’t quite walk my hilltop with my eyes closed, but can certainly navigate the well-worn paths at night with a headlamp. So, I paid no attention whatsoever to compass points as I greedily plucked the wispy fronds and stuffed my pockets to restock the shelves. By the quantities available, it was a nice counterpoint to believe the woods were still healthy and unchangeable in March of 2020, in a world that didn’t feel as if it would stop changing anytime soon.

Sponsorship Opportunities

Vermont Almanac is looking for like-minded businesses and organizations who are interested in supporting our work through sponsorship. We’ll highlight our sponsors at the end of each chapter in the book — full page and half page slots are available. Please contact Amy Peberdy (amy@vermontalmanac.org) to learn more.

Brush Hogging for Dummies

I’m proud to say that I’m a sixth generation Vermonter and a second generation brush hogger. My dad first introduced me to this activity when I was around eleven years old. For those not familiar with a brush hog, it is a two bladed mower mounted on the back of a farm tractor. If you can run it over with your tractor, this thing can mow it. Dad had purchased 32 acres of land in West Bolton with a variety of terrain. Woods, scrub fields, and beaver ponds. He bought a five-foot-wide Sidewinder brush hog to go behind his 1953 8N Ford tractor. The brush hog’s blades are driven by the tractor’s PTO shaft, and on an old 8N that does not have live hydraulics, the PTO shaft can continue to drive the tractor forward by the momentum of the spinning blades even after the clutch pedal is pushed down. My dad learned this quirk when he ended up buried to the axles in a beaver pond. Once he was extricated from the pond, he acquired an overrunning clutch device that mounts on the shaft and this solved the problem.

Soon he commenced to reclaim the grown over fields and woods roads with his much loved tractor and brush hog. For dad, it was almost like a sport to see what he could hog. But, as he pointed out, not a spectator sport. Stuff would be thrown out the back and sides of the brush hog at amazing speeds and directions. One occasion when he was hogging he hit something substantial and broke a blade. I’d heard the racket and went to check it out. As I wandered around in the area where it happened to try and find the busted off piece, he asked me what I was doing. “I’m looking for the broke blade. Maybe you can weld it back on.” I replied. “Thanks for the effort boy, but I believe you’re looking in the wrong county.”

When I began working in the woods, I bought a 60 horsepower four wheel drive tractor. I soon purchased a brush hog and started to take hogging jobs while I was resting. Savvy woodland owners knew the importance of retaining their forest openings — that supply critical edge habitat and open areas for songbirds, deer, and turkeys. I always tried not to mow until August 1st to allow birds to be done with raising their young and fawns to be up and moving more with mom. If possible, I tried to make just a couple passes around the field and let it set for a day. This sort of warns the critters of what is coming and gives them time to vacate the premises. Waiting until as late in the summer as possible also saves the milkweed for Monarch butterflies to use.

I learned some things about brush hogging the hard way, just like my dad did. Like that it pays to walk some areas if you suspect there might be hidden drainage ditches and mark them. Even in places that I’ve mowed year after year, I still walk with a roll of blue masking tape and fold a small piece of it back on itself on a stem of goldenrod or timothy to mark an old stump or rock. I’ve found it’s better to take the time to do that than to shear a pin or break a blade. For a job well done, slow down the speed of the tractor but not the RPMs of the tractor’s engine. Plus, if you get in trouble, and you’re going slow, things happen slowly. And for the love of Mike, sharpen the blades now and then. Nothing looks worse than a hogged field that looks like it has been fluffed instead of mowed.

I now live on those 32 acres dad bought. When he passed away I sold my brush hog. Now I use his old Sidewinder which is still in amazingly good shape despite being nigh onto fifty years old. I always grease the PTO shaft universals and check the gearbox for oil before each season of use, just like dad taught me. And I can’t help but smile every time I mow my way past that spot in the beaver pond. — Bill Torrey

 

Sneak Peek

https://vermontalmanac.org/contentpreview/

We’re in crunch time now as we work to build the inaugural print-edition of the Vermont Almanac. Over the next month we’ll be pulling together the last of the content; we’ll be consumed  in October by the fine-detail work of design. In November the book prints, and in early December, just in time for the holidays, your pre-ordered copy will arrive.

 

If you follow the link at the top of the page, you’ll get a sneak peek at some of the content, and a look at the design itself.

 

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Trevor Mance to the Board

When we make broad statements like humans have been amending soil for millennia, we run the risk of making history seem like one straight line. It also implies that we keep getting better at it, when the truth is much more complicated. If we look directly at the soil, then sure, it was great when farmers in the nineteenth century  started amending soil with bonemeal and guano. They were learning that they couldn’t take without giving anything back. But the big picture was awful, with guano mines in the Philippines being worked with slave labor and at least some of the bonemeal a byproduct of a market hunting industry that was driving wild animals to the brink of extinction. Today conventional farming relies on synthetic fertilizer, which is certainly a step up from a human being being whipped in a guano pit, but it still carries its own host of complications. The 10-10-10 pellets many of use — myself include — fertilizes soil without building it, so it’s a short term boost followed by a long-term depletion.

From where I sit, one of the more hopeful trends in the art of amending soil is compost, as we watch, in real time, this endeavor get turned from a backyard pursuit to big business. The whole promise of the industry is built on the common-sensical idea that if we take the food waste out of our wastestream, we can take a CO2-producing waste product and turn it into a CO2-sequestering product that builds soil. And while the history of ag, really the history of capitalism, warns us to be wary of big business, big business needs to be a partner in this if we’re going to make any dent in a global problem.

There are many reasons why we’re excited to welcome Trevor Mance to our board, among them his business acumen and vision. I can vouch first hand for his gifts, since as his older brother, I’ve known him his whole life and all but the first three years of mine. But in the context of the Almanac, it’s great to know someone on the forefront of the compost question. Trevor works for Casella Waste Systems, the largest wastehauling company in Vermont, as their compost operations manager. If he and his team, along with all the other players in the industry, can figure out a way to make large-scale composting logistically feasible and cost effective, then there’s the opportunity for landscape-scale good.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Marjorie Ryerson to the Board

According to a recent National Geographic story by Paul Salopek, less than one percent of the world’s total water supply is available to drink. The next line editorializes: “And yet, we squander this treasure like fools lost in a dessert.” The piece goes on to document a water crisis that’s unfolding in India.

We’re so lucky to live in a temperate place that’s water rich, and yet that’s not to say we’re immune to water issues. The newscast this morning announced beach closures on Lake Champlain due to cyanobacteria blooms that are fed and emboldened by land use practices. Our moderate drought, coupled with an August water table that’s usually low, has reduced a lot of streams to a trickle. Just the other day a friend used his well to fill a new pool, and a couple hours in the water slowed to a trickle and turned rust colored. Oops. It’s an illustrative story – kind of the world in microcosm.

Spend some time with Marjorie Ryerson and water will inevitably come up. It’s been a muse to her for years, and was the focus of her 2004 book Water Music. In that compilation, she teamed up with 66 musicians from around the world to celebrate water in photographs and words and music. The project grew into global Water Music Project (www.water-music.org).

Marjorie has been a professional writer, photographer, editor for years, and was a legislator in the relatively recent past, so a lot of Vermonters will know her this way. Those who studied writing at Johnson, Castleton, or Middlebury’s Bread Loaf campus over the past two decades will know her as a teacher. She’s been an outspoken advocate for the Vermont State College system in the midst of its funding crisis – it’s an issue that ties directly to rural Vermont in the fact that Vermont Technical College (originally the Vermont School of Agriculture) still counts farming and Ag among its core programs. It’s how many first-generation-to-go-to-college students get there start.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Marjorie to our Board of Directors.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Chuck Wooster to the Board

We subscribe to a USDA newsfeed, and so we get press releases concerning food that’s being recalled. Over the past three weeks there have been alerts concerning around 100,000 pounds of meat products, from taquitos and chimichangas that had hard plastic in them, to meatballs, chicken, and meat patties that were released without inspection, to an ambiguous near-17,000 pound jag of “meat” that was “misbranded.” (They forgot which company they were packing for? They forgot what animal the meat came from?)

Let’s be fair about this: If you look at the historical trend line in food safety in this country, it’s clear that the USDA and the packing houses have done and are doing a remarkable job in ensuring that the food we eat is safe. And there have been no reported injuries or sicknesses from any of the product that was recalled. In a sense, the recalls are an example of a system working. Still, the system itself is sobering and overwhelming. If the past three weeks are representative of a year, that would mean over a million pounds of meat will be recalled. The scale is so large. The players so ambiguous. (Ever heard of BrucePac? Hafiz Foods? Coco’s Italian Market?) The system itself just feels so disjointed, and overwhelming, and so divorced from the land, that it makes you stare long and hard at everything on your plate.

Virginia Barlow and I had the pleasure of walking around Chuck Wooster’s Sunrise farm the other day – we were there to ask Chuck if he’d be on the Vermont Almanac board. And what we saw there was an antidote to the sinking feeling I got trying to wrap my mind around the recalls. The chickens in the cooler at the CSA stand had, just weeks earlier, been scratching in the pasture on the hillside. We walked up and saw their replacements. Chuck and his crew are the farmers and the packers and the marketers – the whole food supply chain is on display for the consumers to see. They can also see how the farm is an integrated, circular system – how the land and the vegetables benefit from the animal manure, and how the animals in turn benefit from the healthy land.

It was a great visit, and Chuck agreed to be on our Board. Besides his many other talents, Chuck will be bringing real world farming experience and a vision of what healthy agriculture was and can be again. Having him as an advisor and a partner in this project makes the publication stronger, and we’re thrilled to add him to the team.