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Taking Responsibility

Wendell Berry once pointed out that if we believe that the ultimate reality is political, and therefore the ultimate solutions are political, we’re going to have a hard time doing right by the land.

I’ve been thinking of this as Vermont unrolls its new mandatory composting regulations. As of July 1, residents are required to keep vegetable waste out of the trash, though in reality ANR will not be searching garbage bags for compliance. If these composting regulations are to lead to a greater good, people will have to buy in and change their habits. The private sector will need to figure out how to absorb or pass on the extra costs. Homeowners will have to figure out how to discourage or live with more crows and skunks and coons and bears. Farmers are going to have to figure out how to incorporate finished compost in lieu of synthetic fertilizer, even though it’s more expensive and harder to handle. If people are going to be motivated to do this, they’ll need to see the earth as something more than dead matter upon which they drive to and from work.

Berry’s point is that when we see things through a political lens, it’s easy to sub out the hard work to others and then Monday-morning-quarterback the results. Politics – especially these days – also turns simple things into complicated, existential things. The relatively straightforward issue of not throwing a banana peel in the garbage can become an affront to our personal liberty and right to make a living, or a dramatic first step towards a worldwide eco-revolution. The reality is that the politics here are a nudge, trying to push society in a less wasteful direction.

If we’re to do the enormous work of learning to live within our means on an increasingly fragile planet, we need to start with simple steps that are manageable and that we can each be responsible for. For those of us who live in rural areas – which geographically speaking is the majority of us – we now have to scrape our food scraps into a bowl and walk it to the hedgerow each night. I can handle that.

Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Here’s the years-old compost pile in my hedgerow. We compost everything, including meat scraps. It doesn’t smell unless you’re standing on top of it. We ignore the crows and opossums. We delight in visits by foxes and bears. We’re not trying to make a finished product.

A Buckwheat Planting for Soil Health

The people who founded this publication all come from the forestry world, a craft that’s a lovely mix of art and science and voodoo. One of the things that fascinates me about it is the lack of control. You never start with a blank canvas – even clearcuts have unpredictable seed banks – and so you’re managing a forest that has its own ideas about what and how it wants to grow. You’re also working on crazy timescales: 10 years, 30 years, 70 years, 100 years until you see the results of your inputs. The best foresters I know practice the craft like the best teachers I know. They evaluate, then meet the trees/pupils where they are. They help the site reach its maximum potential, which in different scenarios means different things. They balance economic productivity with wildlife habitat goals and ecosystem health.

This is all so different than traditional agriculture, where your goal is to grow a crop. Sure, you’re still worrying about ecosystem health, albeit in different ways. But where it comes to the ground you’re cultivating, you buy seed that’s already been selected for overachievers, you create as blank a canvas as you can each spring, and then you grow towards a goal of maximum yield. The whole endeavor ends within the span of a growing season.

These differences between Ag and Forestry feel both foreign and exhilarating to me. And I guess the part that appeals to me most is the ability to build and strengthen the soil, which is something you can only do very passively in the forest.

I’ve been working on the soil in two garden plots this year around my house, one for the family, one for the wild animals. The first step was to drag an old International Harvester two-bottom plow out of the hedgerow and use it to turn the earth. It’s 1930’s – 1940’s vintage, but it worked elegantly. This was followed by a pass with a set of disks of the same era, which did show some signs of their age. I ran into some snags in the garden plot – we’ll get to that in a different dispatch. But the food plot went better, and I was soon picking and piling clods. (Some are reading this and wondering why, if i’m interested in soil health, did i even plow at all? The simple answer to this fair question is that using a cool old piece of equipment with my three-year-old was more appealing than strapping on a backpack sprayer full of chemicals to kill sod. We’ll get into no-till systems in more depth in future content.)

When the field was prepped, I seeded it with buckwheat. The goal is to grow a crop for the soil, though crows and chipmunks (among other animals) love the seed, and it’s being munched by deer and cottontails as it grows, and it’s flowers will soon attract pollinators, especially honeybees. The plant’s roots loosen topsoil and the stems store phosphorous, which then gets released as it decomposes to be used by the next crop, which in this case will be a perennial clover mix.

Buckwheat is relatively easy to grow. Its big black seeds are highly visible and thus a breeze to broadcast. It’s not known to be particularly drought tolerant, but it weathered the drought we’re in like a champ. I used an old set of harrows to cover the seed. Knowing the implement was less than ideal, I overseeded to compensate. The charts call for 50 lb./ac; I probably seeded closer to 80 lb./ac. But seed’s cheap, so for a quarter-acre plot we’re talking maybe an extra $10 to overdo it.

You can see from the picture above that the results have been pretty good. Buckwheat grows fast, so in a few weeks from now it’ll flower, and a few weeks after that it’ll be ready to get turned in. If I were transplanting the next crop, I would cut and leave the buckwheat residue in the field to maintain soil stability and suppress weeds. But since I’m seeding, I’ll likely till it in. The downside to this is that I’ll be breaking up soil aggregates, the upside is that I’ll have a better surface for the clover to germinate in.

A real farmer across the road is rehabbing an old corn field with buckwheat this summer, too. Here’s a picture of his crop in as it breaks into flower. It smells 80 percent sweet and lovely and 20 percent dank and sour.

Trout Fishing in Vermont

Many outdoor pursuits, were they analogized to the written arts, would read like essays or newspaper columns. Trout fishing season on the other hand – all two hundred something days of it – is a full-fledged epic novel.

This pretend book – let’s call it “Trout Fishing in Vermont” – has a sprawling, Russian feel, heavy on symbolism and descriptive elements. The story unfolds somberly, the palette heavy towards blues and grays. There’s condensed breath against steely skies. Tension in roiling, potentially hypothermic whitewater. The landscapes are stark: rivers angry; lakes desolate and sterile seeming. First the lakes look glaucomic, with blue edges and icy pupils. Later they steam like cauldrons and appear hot to the touch.

The action is slow in the early chapters. Stocked rainbows provide simple sport and early-spring camaraderie, but the experience is often blunt. Native trout, which make you work for them, can be sluggish and disinterested at first. In fact, on cold years like this one, the book starts off at a glacial pace. But don’t worry. Stick with it, and “Trout Fishing in Vermont” will prove well worth your time.

When our protagonists do make more than a fleeting appearance, often in May, sometimes as late as June, it’s always breathtaking. Matriculated rainbows shine with sheen. Hook-jawed browns present pupil-sized crimson spots. Brookies – the loveliest of all – feature greenish vermiculations that give way to shades of cadmium yellow and pumpkin orange and salmon pink, vibrant colors that grow in depth through the seasons. Part of the charm is that all these fish are beautiful and shy. They’re also sensitive – especially the brookies. To find them, you have to seek out cold, clear water first.

As the novel progresses, it becomes bright and redemptive. Most of it unfolds at a quiet, arthouse pace. There are lots of wandering subplots. A whole chapter might be devoted to a doe and fawn drinking from a pool, or a river-bottom path that leads to a splatter of chanterelles. There are mid-day naps on shady sandbars, the remnants of a fish lunch nearby.

If this all seems random in my retelling, rest assured that the author somehow makes it work.

The human characters in the book are a ragtag bunch: absent-minded poet types, streamside entomologists, worm-can-toting youngsters with old souls, dandies with $1,000 fly rods, rebels with wild hair and empty wallets, to name a few. But while they come from all walks of life, they’re united in devotion to this one particular family of fish. Why not big cretin bass, or cast and catch panfish? Why not charter-boat blues? Why trout? You may as well be asking why love. Why sing.

Read the book and you’ll understand.

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.

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.

The Fragility of the System

For years, critics of factory-farming have pointed out flaws in the system. How big agribusiness puts family farms out of business, which changes the character of rural places. How factory farm operations disconnect farmer and animal, turning living beings into raw commodities. Now, the coronavirus is helping expose another downside – the fragility of a monopolistic system.

A roll-off truck full of hogs from Ohio rumbled into our little Vermont town last Friday. On Saturday morning they were killed and two showed up at my house to get cut into meat. This was an unplanned event. As the big commercial slaughterhouses in the Midwest close (and by big we’re talking facilities that can process a million pigs a year) commercial pig farmers are stuck with no markets. They’ve got hogs that are getting too big – at a certain point slaughterhouses won’t take them – and the next crop of piglets are ready to take the big ones’ place. And so the farmers are stuck. They’re unloading fully-grown pigs for a song to those who want to cut them up themselves. Estimates right now are that 5 to 10 million will be euthanized and disposed of before supply chains unkink, while ironically, grocers are raising the price of pork and preparing customers for a meat shortage. Here’s a newsstory from NPR (the source of the estimate) where you can learn more.

In Vermont we don’t have farms that produce meat on a huge scale like they do in the Midwest. That’s not to say the ripples aren’t being felt here, though. This recent story in Vermont Digger pointed out that some dairy farmers, who are being told to cull their herds to reduce milk production, are finding it hard to find a slaughterhouse to process their beef. Vermont has 13 meatpacking facilities – all tiny when compared to the enormous packers in other states – and they’re booked up for months.

I have all the respect in the world for people who are bravely trying to tame/reform/fix an agricultural system that is in many ways profoundly broken. One way I choose to help – and you can, too – is to unplug from the factory-farm-to-megamart-carousel, where possible. Buy from your local farmer. Or raise animals yourself. In doing so we reconnect with the land and our state’s agricultural roots. We support local. We restore a tiny measure of sanity to food supply chains.

I cut that pork up on mother’s day, keenly aware of where the pigs came from and how dysfunctional the whole endeavor was. A silver-lining, of course, is that I got a pig for next to nothing. A bigger one is that it reminded me to get a locally-raised hog lined up for the fall.

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.