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.

Man and Machine

When you get up to the tree, your instinct is to grab the trunk with the clam, but if you’re holding it, the saw will bind. You’ve got to cut the tree and then close the clam almost simultaneously. If you’re off, the tree can fall back and land on the machine.

Once the tree’s cut and you’ve got a hold of it, you need to move it to where you want to lay it. Remember in little league when they showed you how to balance the bat in your hand? (He demonstrates.) You need to find the balance point of the tree.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. It takes more brains than balls.

— Greg Haskins

We’re having some logging done this spring, which is not a phrase that an ecologically-sensitive person is supposed to utter. The ground in April is wet, of course, which can lead to ruts and unnecessary soil disturbance. The bark on the growing trees is getting loose, as the sap flows and the trees move into high-gear making leaves; this means that the trees left standing are more vulnerable to injury than they are in winter, when they’re dormant.

And yet technology, and the right logger, is allowing us to push back on this conventional wisdom.

 

The machine in this picture is an 80,000-pound feller buncher. (To put that weight in perspective, the cutting head – just the cutting head – weighs as much as my full-sized pickup.) And yet it’s tracked, so the weight is distributed better than a skidder with four big tires. And as it cuts, it lays down brush and poles where needed to further cushion the ground.

The operator, pictured above, is Greg Haskins, who works for Hunter Excavating in South Londonderry, Vermont. Picture him deftly moving the beast through the forest, reaching out with the boom to cut the marked trees; bear-hugging, balancing, lifting them, then moving them and setting them down in a way and in a place where they won’t disturb the standing trees. You can see from the picture below the work he did. No gashes on any of the crop trees. (This is destined to become part of a sugarbush, if you’re wondering why the crop trees are marginal-looking red maple.) No jagged crowns. Minimal soil disturbance.

People like me – it might be safe to say people like us – tend to distrust technology, especially big, loud, imposing technology. And to be fair, there are applications where you can watch a feller-buncher mow through a forest and get chills. But when they’re used thoughtfully, and wielded skillfully, it’s hard to be nostalgic for the old chainsaw and cable-skidder method, which was crude at best. As I watched Haskins work, I marveled at how fast, and efficient, and clean the work was.

hedgerow firewood

Hedgerow Wood

Hedgerow Wood

I’ve seen a number of “silver lining” commentaries recently. This is not one of them: there isn’t such a thing in the midst of a pandemic that has killed tens of thousands and put tens of millions out of work. This is simply a reminder that, if you’re forced to stay at home, you can be grateful if your home is in rural Vermont. Even in April. Even in an April where it won’t seem to stop snowing. I can’t count the number of times, as we’ve walked our fields and woods recently, that my wife and I have commented on how fortunate we are to not be stuck inside a city high-rise apartment. The time at home has also removed excuses for putting off jobs around our farm. We have an eight-acre field that has been steadily shrinking as the hedgerow around it creeps in. So for the last month, we’ve been cutting it back. And, as a bonus, keeping our outdoor woodstove in business even as our season’s supply of “real” firewood has run out. Hedgerow firewood is an unpredictable amalgamation of sizes and species. We’ve cut 12-inch-diameter cherry and 2-inch beech; white birch and white pine; spruce and striped maple. There are not a ton of BTUs involved, but plenty enough to heat our house and hot water in spring temperatures. More importantly, we’re keeping our field from being choked down and keeping ourselves outdoors.