Pickled Ramps

One of the reasons that ramps, or leeks, or wild onions, or whatever you call them, hold a dear place in people’s hearts is that they’re relatively long-lived and predictable. Morels are mysterious and can’t really be counted on. Fiddleheads sprint to maturity, so you’d better be on them. But ramps pop up dependably in April, and if you miss the early-season window when everyone’s all excited about them, you can always go back in late spring and pop up some perfectly edible bulbs. In the early season I like to sauté the milder green parts and simmer or braise the white bit with potatoes or meat. This time of year, the foliage is too far gone to use, but the bulbs are bulbous – more pearl onion than scallion – so your harvesting footprint is smaller than it is in early spring.

Back in the days of frugal living, pickling was a go-to technique for produce that was past its peak. So that’s what we did here. The bulbs were trimmed and packed in pint jars. We added a few dried chilies from last year’s garden, a pinch of peppercorn, some herbs de Provence (fennel adds an especially nice note). We used white wine vinegar because it’s what we had – different vinegars give things a different flavor profile, so it’s up to your palate which you should choose. Our brine recipe was 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, ¼ cup white sugar, ¼ cup maple sugar, 1 tablespoon pickling salt – you can scale up from there. Bring the brine to a simmer to dissolve the sugar and salt, then pour over the ramps. Cool and refrigerate, or process in a hot water bath for longer-term storage.

The White Pine Removal Project

We’d been talking about and putting off the “White Pine Removal Project” long enough that it earned an official name. It was clear for years that this was something we needed to do.

The six massive white pines around our lawn were encroaching on our house and leaning precariously out over our barn, covering everything in shade and needles – and pitch. Branches (the 4-inch-in-diameter kind) were constantly breaking off in the slightest breeze or lightest snow. Actual storms brought down much bigger pieces. But the cost and complexity of the project caused us to push it off, until last week. I wasn’t sure exactly what a tree care company would have charged to do the whole job, but it was clear that we couldn’t afford it. So instead it became a family project, with the help of my brother and some rented equipment.

Decades of growth had produced white pines that dwarfed, and leaned over, our house and barn.

Day 1 began with the simplest of the removals – a 28-inch-diameter pine with a natural lean toward a relatively open area of the lawn. No fuss, no muss, no wedges. We had it on the ground in maybe three minutes. Then began the three-hour process of limbing it up and hauling away all the debris. Our white pines were not the forest-grown kind that European settlers marveled at when they first arrived on this continent –the towering, straight poles prized by the crown. No, ours were so-called “cabbage pines” that form when the trees grow in open areas with lots of sunlight. Each was probably 80 to 90 feet in height, but just as wide and with multiple stems starting 15 or 20 feet up the trunk. In that sense, each tree was really three or four trees. That means we had branches, branches and more branches to deal with. We started making piles in anticipation of renting a large chipper.

Mike White begins the bore cut on white pine #2. White pine #1 can be seen in the background.

The second pine came down nearly as quickly as the first. Wedges, and a 65cc Stihl with a 25-inch bar, helped us drop the 36-inch-diameter monster carefully between an apple tree and a maple. (Unfortunately, that meant landing it on my wife’s perennial garden.) Another several hours of limbing followed. Skipping over the branch-hauling for the moment, we moved on to the third pine. And that’s where our luck ran out. This one was the closest to our house. We hoped to wedge it in our chosen direction, safely away from the structure. But even with six or seven wedges pounded in place, the tree sat back and pinched the saw bar once the trigger wood was cut. An hour of pounding the wedges proved fruitless; they simply compressed the soft wood rather than lifting the tree and toppling it where we wanted it. Around that time, our rented 51-foot-tall man-lift arrived, so we used that to connect a climbing rope as high in the tree as we could reach and ran it to a come-along anchored to another white pine about 125 feet away. The four-ton come-along was able to put significant tension on the pull line, but simply wasn’t large enough to pull the tree over. So we returned to the lift and carefully, piece by piece, took off a major limb of the tree that was growing in the opposite direction. With the last of that counter-weight removed, the come-along was able to do its job and brought the rest of the tree down where we originally intended.

A rental lift let us prune back large limbs growing over the barn.

Day 2 started with sore muscles, and a shift to more precision work in the lift. Using an electric chainsaw and a 59cc Jonsered, both with 16-inch bars, we pruned back the large branches of the pine leaning out over our 200-year-old barn. We tied each section off to a remaining part of the branch so that the cut portion was left hanging from a carabiner; we then lowered each piece by hand with the help of a belay device. In this way, we protected the roof of the barn and those of us working on the ground. Piece by piece, that half of the tree slowly came down. We cleared everything that was hanging out over the barn, but eventually reached a point where the remaining stems were too tall for our lift to safely tackle. Fearing for our barn and our safety, we left the rest of that tree for someone with more expertise, and maybe a crane, to tackle. The remaining hours of daylight were spent with more limbing (using the Jonsered, a 59cc Husqvarna and a 30cc Echo) and brush hauling.

The beginnings of the pulp pile.

On the morning of Day 3 we began to finally cut up the large debranched trees that lay all around our lawn. Before beginning, I had called county forester Dan Singleton, who gave me the names of a few people who might be interested in the wood for pulp. We weren’t looking for any money, I told him, we just wanted to get rid of the wood and hoped there might be a better use than simply piling the logs in our woods. “The pulp market isn’t great right now, especially after the mill exploded in Maine,” he cautioned me. (This dashcam video with plenty of profanity shows the dramatic scene of the mid-April explosion at the Androscoggin Mill, where much of the pulp wood from our part of Vermont had been going.) But I called Tristan Vaughn at Grizzly Mountain Trucking in Groton, Vermont, who told me he would take a load. So we cut the logs to the specs he gave us: 26-inch diameter max down to about 5 or 6 inches, lengths of 8, 12, 16 or 20 feet. The open-grown pine was rarely straight enough to get 16-foot logs, so we focused mostly on 8’s, with 12’s when possible.

We dropped a couple more pines on Day 4, and began moving and stacking all the logs with a rented Cat 259D compact track loader equipped with a large grapple. The machine weighed about 9,000 pounds and could lift almost 3,000 pounds, yet unless a sharp turn was required did almost no damage to our lawn. In the 24 hours we had it, we got pretty quick at picking up the logs and and dropping them where we wanted them. The first log of each tree was often too large in diameter, so those had to be dumped in our woods. Likewise, logs too twisted to be loaded onto a log truck were also dumped, save for five or ten that I aside to burn in my outdoor boiler. But even after dumping at least five cords of wood, we ended up with a stack of about seven cords of pulp, and two saw logs (cut to 16 feet, 6 inches), for Tristan.

After the dust settled, there were seven cords of pulp and two saw logs ready for pick up.

The grapple also sped up the collection of branches. But the chipper we rented refused to start, so those piles will have to be chipped later. Eventually sensing we had piled all that could be chipped in a single day, we next started making a burn pile that quickly became enormous; someday this coming January you might be able to see the fire from space.

Day 5 was lawn (and perennial garden) clean-up; even after four days of work, there were plenty of small branches and needles left to take care of. All told, we spent about $1,200 on rental equipment and delivery. That’s only a fraction of what it would have cost us to hire the job done, as long as we don’t account for our time. Five long days is a lot of sweat equity, so whatever a tree care company might charge is well-deserved. And though we prioritized safety at every step, there’s undeniable danger in this kind of work. We’re fortunate that there were no injuries to people or damage to buildings, and we have some stories to tell.

 

Ghost

I saw a small white mammal dash under a log a few weeks ago, and reflexively thought I’d seen an ermine. It was about a half mile up in the woods behind the house. It took a minute to dawn on me that it was summer, and ermines should be brown now.

I went back the next day and staked things out, and learned the animal was, in fact, an albino chipmunk. I also learned I was no nature photographer. The best I’ve been able to do so far was a poor cell phone picture and some flashes of game camera video. But it has been a good learning experience.

I was able to locate the burrow the white chipmunk was seeking refuge in, which seemed a good indication I was in the core area of its home range. It appeared to be young-of-the-year, based on its size. According to Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart, in their book “Behavior of North American Mammals,” chipmunks are born blind and hairless in April or May, after a month-long gestation. But in just five weeks they emerge from their natal den and are ¾ of their adult size.

I set up a game camera and recorded thousands of videos over a seven day stretch. With the exception of false triggers, a gray squirrel who occasionally sauntered by, and oddly, a hummingbird, all the other daytime pictures – hundreds of them – were of chipmunks. But the white one appeared in only about a dozen of the photos, spaced semi-regularly over the whole seven day span. It just didn’t come out very much.

So why? It could simply be that it’s a young animal and not yet brazen enough to venture far. According to Elbroch and Rinehart, young of the year stick around the natal den for one to three weeks after first emerging, building courage, learning through play. There were several videos of a different young-of-the-year chipmunk chasing the white one, which seems to jive with this.

After the exploratory window, the mother bars the kids from the den and they disperse. Chipmunks are solitary animals, and with the exception of breeding seasons and the child-rearing window for mothers, they spend their lives alone.

Of course another theory as to why the white chipmunk doesn’t come out much is that its eyes are bad. People with albinism are considered legally blind. So if it is a true albino, and all the footage I’ve seen suggests it is, it likely has vision problems.

So how rare are albino animals? According to the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation, one in every 18,000 – 20,000 people in the U.S. has some type of albinism. A web search turned up an abstract from 1954 that estimated rates of albinism in gray squirrels in Maine at 1 in 10,000 – that’s the closest I could get to chipmunk. The Missouri Department of Fisheries documented a ratio of 1 in 20,000 in their stocked catfish inventory. We’ll never find an actual number, but safe to say it’s pretty rare.

Yellow Grub

Taking a three-year-old fishing is chock full of lessons. There are predictable ones: ichthyology, self-sufficiency, cause and effect. (“If you throw all the worms in the water, honey, we won’t have worms to fish with.”)

And then there are the random lessons you don’t expect to learn, let alone teach, like the ones involving the parasitic yellow grubs that you might find in perch meat. These animals have life cycles that, coolly enough, involve the blue herons that were flying over us while we fished, and the snails we were noticing on the bottom of the lake floor under the bridge we were fishing on.

So in the picture above you’ll see the cysts that were in the perch fillets. The grubs (Clinostomum marginatum) are inside. Humans aren’t part of the parasite’s lifecycle, and they die when you cook them, so the meat is still edible, if not exactly appetizing.

The parasite starts its life in an egg in a heron or a bittern’s throat. The egg is either regurgitated into the water as the bird feeds or shat out – reputable sources vary on that detail, which could be an indication that both things are possible. Once free of the bird, the egg hatches and the miracidia, as the little organism is called, finds a snail to infect. The parasite goes through several larval stages in the snail, then leaves the snail to find a fish. It infects a fish, then gets passed to a fish-eating bird when the fish is eaten. Once in the bird’s throat, the adult lays eggs and the lifecycle starts anew.

Back to the Earth

“We’re out of strawberry plants. And seed potatoes. And onion starts. We have a few asparagus left – that’s it. We’ve never sold out of everything this early in the 40 years I’ve been here.”

 elderly woman behind the counter of a feedstore in a small town

Reports from all over the region hold that there’s been a surge in gardening this spring, an idea that shines in the midst of a pandemic that’s killed 100,000 people in the past three months.

I’ve heard it explained in survivalist terms: people are afraid of food shortages so they’re taking matters into their own hands. I tend to see it more in spiritual terms. We shed our anxiety, or our grief, or our anger, by breaking ground. The world comes at us with waves of incomprehensible change, and so we look down to what moors us. We turn soil and turn inward towards something basic and primal and pure.

As World War I raged, more than a century ago, the poet Thomas Hardy wrote this poem called “The Breaking of Nations.”

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbles and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.

Our crisis looks and feels different. Yet there’s still comfort in this rhythm.

Like the rest of you, I’m going all in on the garden this year. To make more space, I pulled an old drag plow out of the hedgerow and hooked it up to a tractor. I don’t know how old the plow is, but it’s old. There’s a chance Thomas Hardy was still alive when it was in use. The wheels skidded for a few meters but then turned. I walked it gingerly to an open area in the back, then popped the clutch rod. It landed with a thud, and as I pulled, two dark ribbons of earth unspooled in its wake.

It felt like prayer.

A Good Year For Pear Thrips

This has been one of those years that really brings the timing of spring into focus. We had a pretty warm March, followed by a pretty cold April. (April averaged out at 3.2 degrees below the long-term normal in Saint Johnsbury.) This cold continued into May, a month that featured several unprecedented cold-weather events, including that 8” snowstorm on the 9th. The sugar maple leaves had broken bud earlier that week in southwestern Vermont; the ones in our sugarbush then endured the snow and three nights where the temperature fell into the upper 20s.

I’ve been monitoring the frost damage since then (which is to say periodically walking around with binocs and jotting down general observations). And it’s not as bad as I feared it might be. Certain trees had certain leaves succumb – maybe 10-15 percent in the worst cases. I couldn’t find a pattern as to why certain trees took it harder than others.

A bit more discouraging is the pear thrip damage I’m seeing. On most years, these non-native insects are not that big a deal. But during drawn-out springtimes like this one, when the buds break but then cold weather delays leaf expansion, the damage can get ugly. In some cases the tiny insects cut the compressed leaf with their sharp mouthparts – when the leaf fully opens, the effect is similar to when you fold a piece of paper and cut a snowflake pattern into it with scissors. In other cases they scrape and damage the plant tissue, which leads to stunted, curled, mottled leaves. If you’re wondering what they look like, you can see a picture here: We don’t often see them because we don’t often look; also because they spend most of their life underground.

In my surveying, some trees look fine, some look moderately damaged, some – especially unhealthy and small trees – look bad. I won’t know the extent of the damage until the canopy is fully developed.

Mottled, disfigured leaves.

The Blackfly Hustle

Editor’s Note: Our friend Bill Torrey, up in West Bolton, sent us this dispatch. We told him to send us more.

It would not feel like spring if I weren’t out there hustling to get the wood I skidded during the winter cut up and drying. I say hustle because I want to be done before the blackflies come out heavily and spoil my fun. I’ve seen a few scouts in the last couple days here and had a confirmed kill yesterday.

I’ve logged the woods most my life and have become quite tolerant of bugs gnawing on me. I’ve dealt with swarms of deerflies the size of pelicans and moose flies big enough to blot out the sun. But blackflies have a special place in my heart for caring enough to drive me to work faster. They remind me that spring will soon be summer. There’s a few that have so much of my blood, they send me Father’s Day cards.

Today I put the last of the split wood onto pallets in a wind-row three pallets wide. I still have to bundle up the kindling I sorted out. In September, after a dry spell, I’ll put a tarp over just the top of the pile to where the stacked outside row is to keep the weather off it. As I was getting ready to head back to the barn, I could’ve swore I had a deerfly buzz me.

Mid-May Snow

Folks who live in the Valley of Vermont woke up to 8 inches of snow this morning. Snowfall totals in the mountains will undoubtedly be higher. We’re not sure what the snow and accompanying cold is going to do to the trees, which have tender new leaves on them. Or to the wild animals who are preparing to raise, or are actively raising, their young of the year.

We did a quick scan of weather records to see how unprecedented a snow like this is. In Burlington, there have been only four May snow events of over an inch since they started keeping records in 1892. The deepest was 3.7 inches. Parts of western Massachusetts and central New York got a significant May snowfall like this one on this exact date in 1977, but most of Vermont picked up only a trace to 2 inches in that storm.

Suffice it to say, snowfall totals from this storm will be unprecedented in a lot of southern Vermont towns. The accompanying cold is predicted to break records as well. We’ll watch closely and try to record how it all plays out.

Snow and ice adorn a tender new leaf.

Cooking Wild Turkey

Most people with young children are on full-time childcare duty these days, and so besides figuring out how to get work done, they’re figuring out how to entertain and hopefully educate their kids. My partner and I are in this boat, as is my brother and his wife. And so this week we took the kids out to collect food for a wild feast. The activity checked a lot of boxes, not the least of which was letting us put our energy into something productive and reverential that we might not have had time for pre-COVID.

You can see the remnants of the meal in the picture above. We opened things with shots of chaga-infused vodka. (Jelly jars full of violet-syrup-infused rhubarb juice for the kids.) We then feasted on freshly-procured wild turkey (with trout lily and toothwort garnish), sautéed fiddleheads and nettles, potato leek salad and latkes. For desert with had meringues drizzled with violet syrup and mugs of black birch tea. All in all it was a great success.

I don’t feel like I have any particular expertise to share where it comes to preparing the vegetable, flower, and fungal portions of the meal. If you’re new to foraging, you can find recipes ranging from decent to great online for almost any of this. If you simply substitute leek for onion and blanched nettles for spinach and fiddleheads for asparagus in your go-to dishes, you’ll be fine, too.

I do feel like I have some hard-won knowledge regarding wild turkey, though, which I’ll share. For years I tried, like a lot of people do, to cook it like a domestic bird. But this is the oldest mistake in the book. Some swear by tricks that let you get around this – like flipping the whole bird upside down as you cook it – but they’ve never worked for me. The breast meat is so lean, and the thighs and legs so sinewy and laced with tendons that are bone-hard, that I can’t see a way around treating the cuts separately. If you don’t, you’re going to have cooked breast meat and iron legs, or edible legs with shoe-leather breast meat.

Even when you recognize this, though, you’ve got to be careful. I’ve still had birds end up rubbery after separating and fussing and braising the meat low and slow.

I nailed the turkey in the picture above, and here’s how I did it.

Step one was a brine. My go-to-recipe is 3 quarts of water, ¾ cup kosher salt, 1.5 cups soy sauce, 2 cups brown sugar, 1 cup maple syrup, 3 heads garlic, 2 hands ginger, hot pepper flakes, and whatever herbs I’m feeling in the moment. But feel free to experiment. Heat the brine to a simmer and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Then cool to room temp before submerging and then refrigerating the bird. If you remove the backbone from the carcass, and separate the thigh/leg portions from the breast, you can fit a big tom into a three gallon crock, which will easily fit in a fridge.

When it was time to cook things, I separated the breast meat from the carcass and the legs from the thighs. I drizzled the carcass with oil and put it in the oven to brown for about an hour – I’d use it later for soup. I took the thighs and legs and put them in a large braising pot, then poured the brine in until the meat was just submerged. All this liquid didn’t feel right to me – one of the rules of braising is you don’t want to drown the meat. But I drowned it, just like it was beef stew. I then simmered it for about 3 hours. I then removed the meat, shredded it, and put it in a casserole dish with some schmaltz (chicken fat) I had in the freezer. (To make schmaltz, next time you cook a chicken, render the fat, pour the liquid into a canning jar, and throw it into the freezer.) I then let the shredded turkey meat crisp up in the chicken fat for about 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven. If you’ve ever made pork carnitas, it’s the same technique.

The breast meat I poached, using the same brine bath I cooked the dark meat in. The deal with poaching is that you do not want the liquid to simmer. You want it to be around 160 degrees. It took about an hour to cook. While the breast meat poached, I made a simple pan gravy.

The results were spot on. Crispy chewy dark meat and moist, succulent breast meat. The two textures complimented each other. My brother, having been subjected to rubbery wild turkey over the years, sheepishly brought hot dogs over for the kids, just in case the turkey didn’t come out. They’re still sitting, unopened, in the fridge.

Cookbook author Hank Shaw, who maintains a fabulous online game-meat cooking archive, was the one who inspired me to try these cooking techniques. The original source of my brine recipe has been lost to time.