No Salvage, Only Song

Our friend Verandah Porche shared this New Year’s acrostic with us. You can also find more of her work here.

For the 52 years we’ve lived here, the barn stood

for everything that mattered: animals named,

tended and eaten, lovers, then children in the hayloft,

plays performed, weddings, and funerals.

We sought advice about saving our loved barn,

but the price was wrong and the livestock were gone.

A local contractor with a crane will finish what

the wind began. And the future landscape will take shape,

for all of us.

 

2021: NO SALVAGE ONLY SONG

 

Haphazard gifts…

A neighbor’s whip of forsythia

Proliferated. In this thicket, a cardinal

Pivots, chest puffed, barn-redder than

Your heart.  Listen for his forked cheer,

 

Now barely audible under the squall.

Each burst peels the barn from the bird

Who doesn’t waver: no salvage, only song.

 

You want it over: the shape that sheltered

Every creature, the year we flinch from touch.

After grief, let unroofed heaven gentle down.

Raise sweet corn in the manger. Scatter seeds.

Nov. 3rd to 10th: A whole week of temperatures in the 60s. An unexpected opportunity to finish getting the wood in and getting the garden detritus out.

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.

Morel vs False Morel

Mushroom foraging can be an intimidating hobby on account of the whole some-can-kill-you-if-you-eat-them part. But the reality is that anyone with a reasonable amount of caution, commonsense, and a desire to learn can quickly reach a point where the whole endeavor is as dangerous as crossing a road.

Morel season is underway in southern Vermont, and they’re a great mushroom for a beginner to start with, both because they’re distinctive and delicious. Of course, if you’re new to mushroom foraging, and you’re appropriately cautious and commonsensical, you’ve done your homework and learned that there are these things called false morels, which are toxic and potentially deadly.

Here’s a closer look.

There are two common quote unquote look-alike species that share the woods with morels. One is Verpa spp. (V. bohemica and V. conica are the ones I’m aware of that grow around here). Verpas have a cap and stem that’s sort of like a morel on the outside, but inside they’re filled with cottony material, whereas morels have hollow interiors. I was not able to find one this morning to photograph. Verpa caps overlap their stem and connect at the top, whereas morel caps and stems are seamless. But that might be too much information. Just remember that if there’s cottony material inside, that’s bad. I’ve heard of people eating Verpas on purpose, but most books suggest to steer clear.

The truly toxic look-alikes, and the phrase look-alike is a bit of a stretch, are Gyromitra species. (I believe the one pictured here is G. brunnea.)

They’re sort of brain-looking in places, which I guess might confuse a novice. But they’re built much squatter than a morel – mature they’re almost round – and any ridges and pits on the cap will not be uniform. You can see from the close-up picture here that the stems are not hollow, so there’s really no mistaking the two if you know this.

A Gyromitra cut in half. Note substantial, pitted interior.

A morel, cut in half. Note hollow interior.

One of the pleasures of working here is that we don’t have a legal department that frowns upon stories about eating mushrooms. No one to suggest we put a disclaimer imploring readers to NEVER ID a mushroom based on something they read online, which undercuts the story and treats you, the reader, like a young child. The way we see things is that if you’ve read this far, you’re an intelligent, curious person looking for reasonable information that you’ll use, along with other sources, to triangulate truth. We hope this is helpful.

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.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 4/13/20

We gathered our first sap on February 24th this year, and our last on April 2nd. Over the course of that 39-day window we weathered some bordering-on-disastrous weather, and some bordering-on-disastrous mechanical issues – namely a vacuum pump that burned up in the middle of a good run. But we persevered and came out ahead in the end. The farm bush generated 26.8 gallons of sap per tap; the Maple Hill bush generated 29.5 gallons per tap, for an average of 28.2. That average is about 6 gallons per tap better than last year, but the amount of syrup we made was essentially the same because of this year’s low sugar content.

All said, we feel tenuously triumphant. Some of the tenuous feeling can be chalked up to the simple fact that this is agriculture, and there’s only so much you can control. This lack of control does different things to different people. It makes some really religious. It makes some really pessimistic – you know the old stereotype of the farmer who complains when things are bad and complains when things are good. It’s because they don’t trust success; because they’ve been hardened by the lean years enough to find little comfort in the good ones.

Part of the tenuous feeling can also be chalked up to the fact that our operation keeps getting bigger, and the bigger you get, the more you have to lose. We’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into equipment and technology that enables us to generated close to 30 gallons of sap per tap, numbers that my grandfather would have found astonishing. He would have been tickled with 15 gallons per tap. But the trade-off, of course, is that you become dependent on the big numbers to support your operating costs. Looking back on the season, I remember a moment of panic when I walked into the pump shed and smelled that acrid metal smell coming from the quiet pump. My first thought was to estimate how long I’d be down, and then calculate the economics of being down. I remember, too, looking at my weather app after a week in mid-March when it barely froze at all, and seeing a 10-day forecast that said another week of 60s and no frost. That forecast was wrong; the pattern they were seeing never came to be and we finished strong. But had it been right, we would have, in all likelihood, been sunk at around 50% of a crop. Back when sugaring was part of a diversified farm operation, the sugarmaker shrugged off the bad years and started planting – hope sprang anew. But when maple is your one crop, you’re uncomfortable with lack of diversity if you have any sense.

I share these worries because I’m trying to give you a deeper sense of things beyond “look at our good per-tap average!” And yet in doing so, I’m being a stereotypical farmer and turning something joyful into something ominous. The bottom line is that we had a good year. Maybe I should have just left it at that.

I’m halfway done with the cleanup, and I’m especially conscious of the trees as I pull taps. They’ve given so much. We’re in the midst of a deep, soaking rain as I write this, and I’m thinking of them. Feeling glad for them.

 

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods – 3/13/20

It’s 4 a.m. on the 13th of March. A hard rain on the roof. The house is quiet otherwise, save for the woodstove – it ticks comfortingly as it heats up and the metal expands. I’m drinking coffee and building momentum to get out there again. A small radio in the kitchen had been broadcasting news about the COVID-19 microbe that’s terrorizing the world, but I shut it off to hear the rain and the woodstove ping.

The 1,600-gallon sap tank at the bottom of the hill will be close to overflowing; the 2,500-gallon tank across town probably already has. And it’s warm – too warm. The sap will soon begin to spoil. It looks clear when the weather is cold and the season is fresh. Then it goes to a sort of bluish-gray as ambient temperatures rise. When temperatures get above 60, the sap begins to look like watered-down milk. In the bottom of the tank there are handfuls of white precipitate – I suppose that gunk is yeast.

There’s so much to tell you about this season, and I will. But for now I’ll leave you with the idea that time is of the essence, and the image of milky sap. Microbial colonizers – harmless to humans but brutal to syrup quality – have inundated our sap collection system and their populations are exploding. In cool sap, microbial concentrations are less than 1,000/ml. In this weather, concentrations can be in the billions, or even trillions, per milliliter.

They feast.