We were out pruning apples trees, clearing brush, and setting a few taps in the maple trees at Bide-A-Wee last weekend. The temps had hardly dropped below freezing all week, and the snow was melting steadily. We could watch the snowline creep down the southern exposures day by day. Problem was, there was so much snow accumulation over the winter, only those southern slopes were clear, and everywhere else the snow was close to knee-deep, and degraded by the warmth into corny, icy pellets, so walking without snowshoes was like slogging through a vast white Slushee . Even Lily, our five-year-old griff' and a gentle beast of prodigious strength, was having trouble getting around; senior dog Annabel, just a couple months shy of 13 years old now, struggled mightily, but she's a gamer and kept up throughout the day.
Besides the receding snow we noted other signs of the changing season: Saturday morning a vanguard pair of Canada geese flew honking right over the cabin, and while pruning we heard, though did not see, migrating tundra swans on the other side of the hill. We noted red-winged blackbirds trilling in the cattails of the marsh down the road. Most thrilling of all, Lily flushed several woodcock off one of those snow-free hillsides on the first day of spring. It seems remarkable that they return this early, dependent as they are on finding insects and worms in the barely thawed ground, probing with their elongated bills. And when a late-March snow descends, as it has today, I worry that they'll all perish. Thing is, this kind of storm in March, even into April, is not at all uncommon, and the timberdoodles have been dealing with this sort of thing for millenia, I reckon. You have to grant some wisdom in Great Nature's design. (Last year the male woodcock started their odd and charming mating dances on March 24. More on that annual ritual in a future post.)
And there were green things springing forth, though barely. Little sprouts of this and that, nothing I really recognized. Back at our house in Saint Paul I saw one thin sliver of sorrel pushing up, though half the bed was still in ice, and dandelions getting started. When we tapped the maples on Monday the sap flowed freely out the spiles, such a treat to taste that clear, cold liquid, just slightly sweet yet somehow distinctly maple-y (or perhaps I imagine...).
Other phenological observations, cultural and domestic, pointing toward the changing season: The Hay River Transition Initiative announced educational and support meetings on the topic of Lyme Disease as tick season impends, and I found that our composting toilet which resides in an unheated barn-red outhouse (the Tardis) had thawed. You've seen those backyard compost tumblers, big black drums that turn with a crank to speed the breakdown of yard and kitchen waste? Our composting loo works exactly the same way, except the drum is contained within something that looks like a very large, awkwardly shaped white toilet. When it gets cold in the fall the composting action stops, the contents freeze in winter, and that's probably TMI right there, but when spring brings the thaw to the loo, it's a day of joy.
As I write this I feel like I'm reminiscing about a happy time long past, as Great Nature has turned her bitter white back on us AGAIN, and the snow sweeps past the window, some flakes big and lacy, some small and pelty, and it piles up, and schools close, the freeways clog. With a forecast for below average temperatures for the next few days, it will be a week before we see substantial melting again (good news for those in the path of spring flooding; bad news for gardeners and everyonesickofthisfreakinendlesswinter).
Just a little patience is required now, dears. When spring does arrive I think it will arrive with a vengeance, with all the pent-up energy and inexorable vigor that that little spear of sorrel showed, slicing up through the frigid turf. With more winter calamity in the forecast I finally got around to sorting out my garden seeds and setting up my seed-starting table. The many packets of beans, melons, and squashes unplanted last year showed that my hobby farmer ambitions got well ahead of our capacities. I just planted one five-by-ten plot at Bide-A-Wee last summer, late, and hope to put another in this spring. Perhaps I'll do a little stealth guerrilla gardening out there, too, popping some melon seeds into the loamy mounds that the pocket gophers throw up all over the land, let the vines spread into the meadows where, perhaps, the critters will not find them. Hey, ya never know....
I'm going to be reasonable in what I plant here in Saint Paul, too, not crowd so much in that the whole thing becomes one big grotesque slug farm. We have wonderful farmers markets in town and in the country, and neighbors out there who really know how to grow, and charge too little for their produce. I'm happy to support that economy as we move gradually toward a greater self-sufficiency. But I would like to put up a hoop house at Bide-A-Wee, to extend the growing season a bit on either side. And we've put a hitch on our Jetta wagon so we can borrow Mary's folks' little trailer to get manure from our livestock-owning friends and neighbors, and really get the gardening going out there.
Regarding the aforementioned apple trees, we're in our fourth year of clearing, pruning, and assessing the dozens of severely overgrown trees that came with the property. And frankly it doesn't seem that we've gotten a hell of a lot done in that time, until I remind myself that the actual pruning is just the icing on a big gnarly cake that also involves scything through tough blackberry canes, pulling out encroaching prickly ash, and fightinig off the box elder jungle. After all that, we can almost reach the tree--all that's left is wriggling in to the trunk through a maze of broken branches, dead wood, grape and Virginia creeper vines. That process usually takes us until lunch, just one tree at a time. And after lunch, man, I need a nap....
So it goes a bit slowly, but it goes. Our big ambition for this year is to clear most of the brush around our North Meadow trees so we can scythe as the meadow plants start to grow, to create a sylvan glade of pastoral splendor. Mind you this is all done by hand, but we may try to find someone with power equipment to mow some paths around the land for us, and maybe mow the North Meadow, too.
We have big hopes for the apple crop this year, and not much we can do about it but wait. Our trees tend to be "on" in odd years, though some bear fruit every year. Last year, an even, "off" year, saw a hard frost in mid-May, reducing the crop even further. Luckily a few of our better trees did bear fruit (better meaning less susceptible to insect and disease, longer keeping), and we pressed enough cider that we still have fresh (from the freezer) and some keepers good enough for baking (getting to the end of those).
If this year is anything like 2009, the cider press will be humming from September into November. I want to ferment a lot of cider this year, and explore other areas of apple preservation and cookery, too. Apples were once such an important food crop in this country. In a 1990 Whole Earth Review article, Richard Sassaman wrote:
Americans today probably don't understand how much the early settlers appreciated apples, which in Price's words are now "relegated in normal modern diets chiefly to side dishes and casual eating." Apple butter would keep for winter use, apple brandy was a cash export sent downriver to New Orleans, apple cider a social favorite, and apple vinegar the basic pioneer preservative.
We'll never know for sure exactly what varieties of apples are growing on our land--and some, the wild seedling trees, are unique to Bide-A-Wee--but I'm eager to really get down to seeing what we have there and what the various apples are good for. This summer of 2011 will be our first without farmers market baking since 2003! I'm not sure that has quite sunk in for either Mary or me, but I think we're both eager to see what it's like.
Another goal of mine for this year is to delve deeper into the world of wild foods. With the help of the excellent books by local authors Teresa Marrone and Samuel Thayer (both are linked as "Bide-A-Wee Neighors & Friends" at right) I've expanded my knowledge of wild edibles quite a bit in the last few years. Flipping through their books, I realize how much I still have to learn--cattails, wild chervil, butternut, serviceberry, nannyberry, highbush cranberry, and I haven't even thoroughly explored the possibilities of the ubiquitous nettles. The forest starts to look like a splendid delicatessen! No need to take a number, just dig right in.
Phew. I'm thirsty now. With all the talk of apples, and given that it is maple syrup time, here's a lovely sip with local flavors. Make it with just maple syrup, lemon juice, and sparkling water, and it's a refreshing spritzer. Add a tablespoon to a shot of Calvados, the French apple brandy, and you've got something else altogether--a very tasty, very grown-up sort of apple juice. It'll make the blizzard outside seem a lot more tolerable.
Maple (Calva) Spritzer
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Lemon juice to taste
6 ounces sparkling water
Calvados or applejack, a tablespoon to 1 1/2 ounces, optional
Combine the maple syrup and sparkling water in a glass (& Calvados if desired). Add fresh squeezed lemon juice to taste. Drop in a couple of ice cubes and imbibe.
Copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw