No Mow

A guy who raised an orphaned beaver kit once reported that at a certain age the animal started dragging brooms and clothes and whatever else she could find to make little dams in every doorway of the cabin. You probably smiled as you read that and thought: what simple little robots. But think about it a little longer and the behavior might become uncomfortably recognizable. We humans are beaver-like, drawn by a similar unconscious, primordial desire to remake our ecosystems. Even us ecologically sensitive types are doers to a fault — we wake and immediately start cultivating and tending and building. Simple little robots with big brains that justify myopic internal cues.

The No Mow May movement encourages people to help wildlife – specifically pollinators – by letting their lawn grass grow. Our beaver-like human need to do is going to make it hard for the movement to catch on. But if you can get over that, what a pleasure it is to see blue and white violets appear, then yellow dandelions and pink fleabane and purple creeping Johnny and yellow wild strawberries and orange hawkweed and white and red clovers. Right now someone is calculating the economics and time it would take to rip up their grass and plant a pollinator garden, but there is already a pollinator garden within the grass just waiting to be let out. And the grass itself is stunning when it’s tall: the delicate panicles on the bluegrass and fescues, the thin colored spikelets on the foxtail and brome. You can watch the wind in this grass. Watch the insects hatch from it, drawing flycatching songbirds and endangered bats. 

As fate would have it, the lawn I let grow out this year abuts a food plot I planted for wildlife two years back in a fallow strip before the woods. I spent hours resurrecting an old plow and a set of disks from the 1940s that I used to turn the earth. Lime applications preceded buckwheat cover crops that preceded two separate clover seedings (the first didn’t take); money spent on diesel and seed, not to mention big chunks of time. The clover’s fine – wild animals eat it sometimes. But what a lesson as I watched turkeys all spring long walk through the clover and into the overgrown lawn grass to feed and feel safe.

Bear Bacon

Ken took a fine bear on the second to last day of the season. And as we sat in camp that night and took it in – that mixture of disbelief and gratitude that hunters feel in the wake of success – talk turned to bear bacon.

You’ll find references to bear bacon in the historical record, but in many cases the phrase seems to refer to cured and smoked bear ham (i.e. hindquarter). We wanted to make it with sidemeat – as if the bear were a pig. The 250 pound liveweight was roughly equivalent to the weight at which you might slaughter a hog, but of course the animals are built very differently. Bears are like outside linebackers – well defined musculature designed for strength and speed. Hogs are softer and stouter – like guards or tackles with big bellies designed to push and plug up the line of scrimmage. All of which is to say that you don’t get the width or the marbling on a bear’s bacon like you do on a pig’s, but if you trim right, you’ll still get a tasty mix of fat and lean, which is the point.

I keep a premade basic meat cure in my pantry; the recipe is: 1 pound of kosher salt; 8 ounces granulated maple sugar; 2 ounces pink salt. I rubbed some of this into the bear meat, sealed it, threw it in the fridge. Every few days I turned it to make sure the juices got distributed. Roughly a week and a half later I rinsed the meat, and learned that it was oversalted – I should have only let it go a week. We’ll get to the fix in a minute.

The next step was to cook it. In a perfect world I would have smoked it, but there’s not always time for perfection. So it went in the oven at 200 degrees and I waited for an internal meat temperature of 150, which took about two and a half hours. The big issue with bear is trichinosis – a roundworm parasite that bears carry – so thorough cooking is key. It’s surprisingly hard to learn the actual temperature that kills the parasite. Some sources say 160 degrees. Some say 145 degrees. Hank Shaw, a food writer whom I trust, says 137 degrees for an hour will do it. It’s tough, though, because every iota of meat needs to hit that temp, and there are lot of uncomfortable variables — like is your meat thermometer spot-on accurate?

When it came out of the oven the meat was a lovely burgundy color. I sliced it paper-thin on an old commercial grinder that my friend Joe Herman gave me. Joe’s a retired butcher who taught me how to cut up pigs years ago simply because I asked. So much rural wisdom is passed along this way — in old barns, in inadequate light, through acts of generosity.

As I mentioned, the meat was oversalted. The solution is to soak it in warm water before frying it – in this case, 3-5 minutes did the trick.

The end result is delicious, though without the smoke flavor, it’s more akin to prosciutto than bacon. I wish I had the courage to eat it without flash frying it. There’s a 99 percent chance that the time it spent in the oven killed any trichinella that was in the meat. But I’m getting cautious with age. Plus, when you’re feeding meat to a 4-year-old, you don’t take one percent chances.

Still, even lightly fried, it’s lovely. The fat part is rich and luscious. The beechnut-finished red meat is unlike anything else.

   This is how the sides looked when they went into the oven.

This is how they looked coming out.

A sample of the finished product crisping up.

A Point to Make: We Do Forestry Pretty Well Here

The news is full of the Glasgow climate talks these days, and one of the focal points has been deforestation. It’s a challenge for many of us to put cynicism aside and embrace the breaking news that politicians made a bunch of promises. But the moment calls for us to be better than this.

If you weren’t paying attention, basically what happened was countries, and private companies, pledged $20 billion to “protect forests.” The focus was the tropics, where rainforests are being razed and turned into palm plantations or soy or cattle farms. The Amazon is being cut so heavily that the forest has turned from a carbon sink into a carbon source.

As the media opined about this, one of the themes was hypocrisy and doubt: the west got rich on razing its forests, so is it really realistic, or fair, to expect that $20 billion in aid is going to facilitate/convince a hemisphere to do things differently?

A more positive line of opinion involved the $1.7 billion that is earmarked for Indigenous People and local communities, because there’s good evidence that people who have a vested interest in a place are more apt to manage their forests sustainably.

There’s something to see and consider here. The problem is that when these are the only two lines of thought, it simplifies forest management into us versus them. Wealthy northern hemisphere versus poor southern hemisphere. Pure indigenous cultures versus corrupt and fallen us. But of course, things are much more complicated than that. In this New York Times story, there’s an odd feeling of discovery in the line: “Indigenous communities and others . . . have kept room for animals, plants and their habitats, not by fencing off nature, but by making a small living from it. The key to their success, research shows, is not extracting too much.” The authors point to the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, a 2-million-hectare territory in Guatemala, where local communities manage their forests, selling timber and running tourism agencies. “The forest became a source of livelihood” quotes one observer. “Our goal is to sustain ourselves with a small amount and always take care of the forest,” said one of the natives.

What’s being described here is essentially forest management as it’s practiced in Vermont. The contexts are radically different, for sure. And I don’t want to take anything away from the heroic reality of natives risking their lives to defend a forest from illegal logging – we’re in a privileged position to know nothing of that. The point is simply that the small farmer or woodlot owner in Vermont has more in common with the small farmer and woodlot owner in Guatemala than they do with a terminal harvest in Brazil or even an aggressive clearcut in Quebec. What’s in opposition, where it comes to the health of the planet, is large-scale, industrial, global, profit-driven exploitation versus small-scale, local, conservation-minded, forest management.

This distinction is important because one of the ways we can all do better by the planet is to recognize that we do forestry well in Vermont and support the industry here. Because in a lot of places in the world, they don’t do it well. You know this. There is an opportunity though – and will be again anytime the news cycle is full of stories on forests and climate – to make these points to the masses, because they’re not obvious. The unfortunate take home for many in the wake of this coverage will be that cutting trees in bad, period.

Please Support Our Work

I was reading a story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine recently about turning standing trees into firewood. It was a short, how-to type piece, like something that might appear in Vermont Almanac. But it was written by someone who had clearly never put up much firewood. The tips were banal at best (“Never take down trees when it’s windy”) and troubling at worst, like the idea that “you’ll want to take trees that are already dead,” which sounds eco-friendly to a layperson but is really dangerous advice. If you’re new to felling, never cut a dead tree. They’re unpredictable, and the whole top can crumble out of it and crush you. Not to mention that dead trees are often best left to the myriad creatures who live in and slowly decompose them.

I’m using a story from the New York Times as a strawman because the Times is truly a world-class publication. I’m a regular reader. The point is that no one, no matter how good they are, can write well about things they don’t know intimately. And as the small-town, small-state print publications that intimately document the rural experience disappear, the big urban ones that are left can’t fill that void. I won’t even get into the false choice that is the Internet, where a Google search on tree felling will turn up a bunch of videos by people who are proudly cutting trees for the first time, documenting the experience, and sharing it with the world. (The worse things go, the more popular the video will be.) I’ve known dozens of loggers in my life here in Vermont who are masters with a chainsaw, but I’ve yet to meet one who carried a video camera and filmed himself on the job. 

We created Vermont Almanac because we think rural Vermonters should have a publication that’s resonant and relevant to their lives. And we exist because you saw fit last year to not only prebuy a copy, but to donate something extra to help us get off the ground. We did it together. Now, with Volume II in the works, we’re going to do it again.

The business model that’s supporting this non-profit venture is much like the CSA model that supports small farms in the state. We both need money up front to grow and nurture a product before it exists to sell, so we both depend on people like you who appreciate this reality and who see the value in what we’re doing beyond the commodity that sits on the bookstore or farmstand shelf. 

We are about as lean as a non-profit can be. The money you donate goes directly into the creation of an annual book, and what’s left over supports the writers, editors, photographers, artists who are using their talents to document and celebrate rural lands and rural ways.

Please give what you can to help us create Volume II. And thank you.

Dave Mance III

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 5

There’s an old axiom that to be a good builder you need to learn to think like a drop of water. Farming and home gardening can be similarly reduced to: you need to learn to think like a weed. There’s hundreds of years worth of cultivated plant knowledge at our fingertips, and expert growers who can tell us exactly what each garden plant wants and needs. But unless we’re growing in the controlled conditions of a greenhouse, this knowledge is partial at best. Out in the cruel, bare dirt of our short Vermont summer, the art of eliminating competition is where the garden is going to be made or broken. 

We’re working on a story for Volume II about all this; talking to professionals about their tricks of the weed-killing trade. But in the meantime I thought I’d share some thoughts from my own garden this year in the hopes that they’re useful to other backyard growers who might be new to this. The plot is 1,800 square feet, and this particular garden is two years old. So far I’ve been able to keep on top of the weeds, and to quote the late Kenny Rogers, knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em is probably the biggest reason.

I kept my cards folded all of last year. I broke ground in the spring of 2020, but then cover cropped instead of planting. This plan was based on respect for the established perennial vegetation that was being plowed under, which was going to rise again. It didn’t come to dominate that particular patch of ground by accident. This garden was built on a lawn, so crabgrass was the toughest plant of the bunch. But in a weedy meadow out back, in a different planting I did at the same time, the endemic goldenrods, milkweed, and fern all pushed back in a similar way. Patience was key. Had I tried to grow before the sod had broken down, it would have been a nightmare to fight the crabgrass. By spending a year letting the soil mellow while smothering the weed base, I was able to start the weed fight this year in a position of strength.

This year’s weed control efforts started right away, which is another piece that seems key. If I’d waited until the weeds  looked like garden plants, I’d have lost the edge and it would have become real work. The truism here is that if you’ve got a weed-free garden in July, it’s because you put the time in in April and May. 

Weeding the 1,800 square feet in this garden probably took a couple hours a week in June, but I’m probably down to an hour a week now that the plants have taken off. I do 20 minutes a morning on my way to the chicken house. I don’t squat unless I absolutely have to, and do 95% of the weeding standing upright with this tool. 

I’ve heard them called a bunch of names, including a loop hoe and a push-pull weeder. It’s basically just a two-sided blade that you can work while pushing or pulling. If you hit the crabgrass when it’s this big:

You can kill it with one hand. Those same plants, three weeks from now, would require hand digging.

As I planted, I made sure all the rows were wide enough to accommodate the tool – I use it as a cultivator, too, when the beds are just getting established. I don’t cultivate the paths that are in between the beds deeply – the paths are permanent and I don’t mind soil compaction here. When weeds grow in the paths, I run the loop hoe over lightly so they’re cut near surface level because I don’t want to dig in deeply and aerate the soil and stimulate microbial activity.

Any place in the garden that didn’t get planted this year but might someday got covered. In some beds that meant planting buckwheat or sunflowers, which grow fast and dense – they’re placeholders that bees and birds love. Other areas got covered with old newspapers and then any biomass I had lying around, like old leaves or planer shavings. The point was to eliminate bare dirt as much as possible.

The danger of these kinds of pieces is that the writer can come off as smug – it’s like the way Facebook makes everyone’s life seem more photogenic and perfect than it really is. So let me assure you, this garden has plenty of imperfections. I mulched a bed of peppers with newspaper and planer shavings in late May, and I think I set the plants back at least 2 weeks because the soil temperature couldn’t get warm enough under the mulch. I didn’t look closely at the straw I used last fall to mulch garlic, and the weed seeds in it – weeds I don’t recognize – have been a pain to deal with all summer. That was very much a self-inflicted wound. I could go on. 

Still, I’m happy with how things look, and I hope there’s something helpful here for people who are new to all this.

Trout Fishing

My friend Kris and I met in Mrs. Kevorkian’s kindergarten class, which means I’ve been a bad influence on him for three decades now. When I suffer from panic attacks brought on by the realization that another summer’s slipping through my fingers, I often find myself dialing his phone number. “Wrap it up,” I said on a Friday morning, “we’re blowing off work.” About an hour later we had the rods in the back of his Jeep and were pointed up a wood road, climbing into the hills.

As the jeep bumped and bucked over the washed-out macadam we puffed bug-spray cigars and told fish stories: that Boy Scout trip to a remote Vermont pond that may or may not exist anymore, where as a 10-year-old I hooked an 18-inch brookie on the day’s first cast; a sinkhole in New York’s Beaverkill river where monster browns torpedoed from the depths like sharks.

We parked near a small brook and followed a tannin-stained ribbon of water into a birch glade. You hunt trout in water like this. We stalked on tip toes to the head of each pool and made offerings without casting shadows. More often than not the cagy brook trout would scatter with the rods first motion – quicksilver shapes, there then gone – but a few hits set. When hooked these little trout danced across the surface of the water on lean, wild muscles.

Eventually we hit a chain of beaver ponds and fished them, too. Beaver pond trout fishing is ephemeral. If the water is cold enough, and the conditions are right, these ponds can be jewels. But then overnight, maybe the fishing’s gone. Maybe you get a year out of a pond, maybe two, or five. But maybe the conditions will never be right, or never be right again.

We fished three ponds that day, big expansive wetlands that lay sprawled out on a plateau that was about 2,000 feet above sea level. There was no human sound anywhere. Just the whisper of a light, steady wind. Bird song. The whipping sound of the rod as it cut through the air and the occasional click of a turning reel.

We stood on the dam and cast dry flies onto a tea-colored canvas. Fifteen feet from shore a beaver trolled back and forth, his keen black nose trying to make heads or tails of us. In the middle distance, beyond the pear-shaped contour of the pond, the wind pressed its presence into the lime green saw grass: feathered naps and cowlick whorls; look at the hair on your forearm and see the wind blow through this grass.

Rods bent and lines sheared through the tannin-stained depths. Lines sheared.

I found this old essay in a pile of papers while cleaning my office. It was written in July, 2008. Kris and I both have four-year-old daughters now, and those carefree days of being able to blow off and go fishing seem like a lifetime ago. With luck, though, and time invested in passing on our passions, the girls will someday be blowing off work together to find the same ponds we did.

Eyes Wide Open

The idea that chickens and gardens are symbiotic is more than half bunk. They do eat bugs, but both good bugs and bad bugs. If your ratio of bad to good is such that you’re willing to play the odds, consider that they don’t eat many bad bugs when they have a belly full of layer pellets. And if they are hungry, which would be the way to get them to eat your potato beetle larvae, then they’re also going to be hungry for your garden plants. They like the same foods we do, and seem to especially like the same foods we especially like, like berries and heirloom tomatoes. They do cultivate and drip nitrogen, but they’re also destructive. If someone showed up at your doorstep and offered to sell you a bunch of tiny tractors driven by mentally-deficient drivers to turn loose in your summer perennial garden so they could randomly cultivate and spread manure you’d tell them to take their crazy idea and get off your lawn. But we’re suckers for the allure of a good complimentary system – especially natural ones. So it’s easy to put aside our logical minds and convince ourselves that our freeranging chickens must be benefiting us somehow.

To be clear, there are advantages to freeranging your backyard flock. You don’t have to build a run. You get the satisfaction of letting the little dinosaurs live their best lives. You probably save some money on chicken food bills – actually, strike that last one, since the inevitable mortality you’ll eventually suffer will cancel out any food-bill gains over the long haul. So there are two advantages. The point, if you’re considering chickens, is not to suggest you shouldn’t let them freerange. Just don’t get deluded into thinking they’re little garden helpers.

Turning a Patch of Lawn into a Vegetable Garden, Part 2

Year two of the garden project started with a decision: was I going to keep using a tractor to work the earth? 

Like many of you, I grew up thinking that you needed to deeply till the soil to grow things in it. As a boy, I remember being beat up by the family roto-tiller, the thing pitching me around like a bull as I tried to hang on to it. In my twenties I worked on a vegetable farm, and we basically used the same techniques as we used in the home garden, just with better equipment. Every spring, we broke the earth with a three-bottom plow. We then disked, then spread manure, then used a tractor-mounted tiller to make fluffy beds. The soil was so soft and loose when you were done that you wanted to lay down and take a nap in it. 

Of course the downside to soft, loose dirt is that there’s no structure anymore, which leaves the soil vulnerable. Without a plant layer to act as a roof, topsoil can dry out and blow away, rain water gushes in instead of trickling in, ecosystems full of mycorrhizae and microbes and insect life get all smashed up. A no-till farming/gardening advocate would tell you that the plow is a pariah, and best practice involves keeping dirt as green as possible for as long as possible, then work only the top few inches of soil, leaving the subsoil as intact as possible. 

We want to dig deeply into the topic of soil in Volume II of the Almanac, talk to some growers with different perspectives on best practice and report what we hear. My sense is that it’s not a case of right or wrong, it’s a matter of scale, technique, available resources, and what trade-offs you’re prepared to make.  

In the meantime, where it comes to this garden, I decided to pursue a modified no-dig approach. Instead of plowing and disking this year, I simply scratched the soil surface with a York rake to break up the dead buckwheat litter. I blew my budget by investing $100 in a broadfork – basically a pitchfork on steroids that lifts compacted soil. And I borrowed a twist tiller, which is a tool you plunge into the earth and twist to break up a planting bed. If the hand tools work, I’ll be able to recoup much of the cost by selling the old roto-tiller that sits in my garage.

April, Part 1

In early April,  when the snow recedes, you can finally see the earth, which really only happens for a few weeks each year. You see it through and around the crushed thatch in the meadows. In the forest it exists in halos around tree trunks and as little islands in the deteriorated leaf litter. Buried things – old bottles, plowpoints, license plates – get heaved to the surface, and there’s this brief window where the past reasserts itself. Then the spring rains come, and the first blushes of green start to obscure things. 

The winter snow disappeared in southwestern Vermont in late March, and by mid-April the earth-seeing window had passed. Early April was jarringly hot. There was a 5-day stretch from the 7th through the 11th when highs soared into the 70s each day — about 20 degrees above normal. But then a spring snowstorm on the 16th restored something of a natural order, though it stayed dry.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 6

Stress tends to distill us, accentuating our base personality traits. Maureen Dowd wrote a political column about this recently, pointing out that the stress of the Presidency made Jimmy Carter more preachy, Bill Clinton more self-indulgent, George W. Bush more insecure, Barack Obama more professorial. 

But you certainly don’t have to be a president to experience some version of this. I tend to lose myself deeply in things, and the stress of pandemic life, combined with the stress of the maple season, have certainly magnified this trait. As I’ve lost myself in sugaring, it’s been a struggle to be a good father, and partner, and friend, and good teammate to people I work with on the Almanac. There’s some of this every year, but this year more so. I’ve neglected emails for a month because in my down time I couldn’t bring myself to even turn on the computer. Friends would ask if they could help lessen the sugaring load, but I couldn’t think of how they might – there was just no capacity for peripheral thought. The part that stings the most were all the times I’d have to stop in the house to work on a broken pump part, or get a tool, or get wash water, and my four-year-old would be there and say: “Dad, let’s play!” and I’d respond numbly with: “I have to work, honey.” And then I’d go back to work, over and over again, a lot of days from before she woke up to after she went to bed. In hindsight it doesn’t seem like it would have been that hard to spare 20 minutes, but I just kept grinding. It was what-not-to-do parenting right out of a Harry Chapin folk song. 

This is weirdly personal for a maple blog, I know, but I’ll bet you anything you recognize some stress-induced distillation in your own life these days. We’ve spent a year now being isolated from one and other, which is its own sort of trauma beyond whatever financial and health-related traumas people have endured. Of course it’s changing us.

There’s something to note here, too, in that farming in general and sugaring in particular is immensely stressful on a professional scale. That’s something that’s often glossed over in the PR copy. Rick is the name of one of the guys at XR Maple I sell sap to, and I don’t think he sleeps during the season. I got texts from him at night during tapping season from the woods, tapping in the dark with a headlamp. I’d deliver a load at 9 pm and he’d be there starting the RO and heading out to haul sap. I’d bring another load at 4 am and he’d still be there. I have this image as I write this of him standing in front of the heater in the RO room, cigarette hanging out of his mouth with a long ash on the end of it, absorbing the heat while looking just bone tired, before a wave of energy courses through him, and he whirls off for another 20 hours of climbing mountains and hauling sap and emergency repairs and making syrup. 

There’s joy in this work, some of it the same sort of adrenaline-fueled, masochistic joy that endurance athletes crave. But when that adrenaline subsides, you’re sometimes left feeling despondent and alone.