I know, you have been wondering why “volunteering” hasn’t been part of every post, haven’t you? But this is a very special volunteer opportunity. It only happens this time of year. We hike into the woods with our drills and our spiles and our sap sacks, and we hope with a good set of maple-identification-skills.
How do you fit into this picture, you may ask? You could help tap the trees, collect the sap, boil the sap, split the wood for the fire to boil the sap, cut the trees for the fire wood, or even bottle the syrup. You could come out and keep us company or bring us snacks while we do all of that. It’s a great way to meet interesting people, get a bit of a workout in, and enjoy the fresh air.
Despite some initial concerns about the warm first half of February causing the trees to bud out early and end the season before it had even started, this is shaping up to be one of our most productive seasons ever. It isn’t over yet and we have already collected 1,810 gallons of sap and bottled 30 gallons of syrup. That ranks it currently third behind 2005 (2554 gallons of sap) and 2006 (2042 gallons of sap).
The pagoda dogwood is a shrub with an exquisite form, if given the space to grow freely in the sunlight.
Its Latin name Cornus alternifolia describes its leaf patterns. Almost all dogwoods have opposite leaves. The pagoda dogwood has alternate leaves, though the leaf shape and texture maintains a strong resemblance to other dogwoods.
A Community Supported Forest is a place in which the people actively and deliberately care for the light, the trees, the soil, and the plants to create a healthy system which provides sustenance in a myriad of ways.
From wild strawberries and wild ramps (onions) in the summer, to linden blossoms and black raspberries in the summer, to hazelnuts and butternuts in the fall, the food from a well planted and cared for forest provides deliciously diverse and bountiful food.
There are other benefits as well. The wood can be made into walking sticks for hikes and charcoal for drawing. Firewood can be used to create the evening campfire, or boil sap down into maple syrup. Woodchips can be thrown in the smoker for succulent, flavorful meat dishes.
Maple syrup and honey can grace the breakfast table. Bluebirds can nest in the tree cavities and catch mosquitoes. It is a beautiful and intricate system, and what comes out of it is, like most things, proportional to what goes into it.
Humans have had a hand in Iowa’s woodlands for as long as Iowa has had woodlands. They have planted, gathered, cut, and burned. And how much of that we do today really determines how fruitful the forest will be for us. Dense stands of trees need to be thinned to improve sunlight. Honeysuckle bushes and other invasive species need to be grubbed out. Missing species need to be planted, fenced from deer, and watered the first few years. Every ten years or so, trees will need to be thinned. Community members support the forest.
Through that process, calories will be burned, muscles will be toned, and friendships will be formed. Knowledge will be learned and shared. Ultimately how productive the forest is for the community is a measure of how well the community cares for its Forest.
When does spring start? Does it start when the chickadees change their call? Does it start when the red-winged blackbirds return to the Lynch Wetland? Or does it start with the first harvest of the year?
A small snap of warm weather this year in mid February, combined with the enthusiasm of my colleagues Gabe and Syd, sent us into the forest. Vecny Woods has a ravine full of old sugar maples.
The sap from a sugar maple is usually 2%-3% percent sugar, and we set 26 taps in the Vecny Woods sugar maples. We will also be tapping silver maples in the floodplain (77) and box elders (a handful) in the former barnyard of the Penningroth Barn. While all three types of maple trees provide good sap, the silver maple sap has a sugar content of 1.5%-1.75% and the box elders have 1% sugar content. That sap requires longer boiling time, which in turn makes a darker syrup with a more robust flavor.
Reducing that sap to syrup requires a lot of firewood, a lot of boiling, and a lot of steam. It also requires a lot of patience. While the sap was flowing on February 11, our night time temperatures have been hovering around freezing, and the days have been cloudy. Those are not conducive to sap flow, and the trees have just been trickling. We might have enough to make three gallons of syrup. Fortunately, sap season has only just started, leaving us with a good month left for the weather to start cooperating. Next week is looking promising.
A friend from Illinois just posted a picture of her skunk cabbage poking out of the ground. While I suspected in my heart it was too early for my skunk cabbage, I couldn’t help but go and look. After all, what better way to spend a beautiful, relatively warm Friday morning?
This is me, from the heated cab of the 259D3, plowing…the deer’s path. Why? It has been a hard winter all the way around. While the deer are adapted to survive more than a foot of snow and multiple days of single digit highs and negative double digit lows, it can’t be easy or fun for them.
I love setting the first set of footprints in a fresh falling snow. It is, quite likely, the closest I will ever get to boldly go where no person has gone before. This winter has provide me with ample opportunity.
First, I had to find my snowshoes. With my winter gear? No. In the shed? No. In the attic? No. They were hiding under some dust and cobwebs in my former office, which I evacuated abruptly in March of 2020 due to the pandemic, when snowshoeing season was still happening.
Then I had to sprint-nothing like sprinting in snowshoes to get your heart rate pumping-to beat some skiers to the trailhead. The extraordinary feeling of being the first one on the trail wears off relatively quickly, as that means one is also breaking the trail. It takes roughly three times as long to break a trail as it does to follow one.
This winter I had fresh falling snow and a brand new, yet-to-be-opened trail to enjoy. It was awesome. If you can’t find your snowshoes or don’t own any, the Nature Center will rent some to you to do your own exploring in the winter magic.
January 21 is National Squirrel Day. If you already have a bird feeder, you know that every day is squirrel day. To celebrate squirrels, here are a few more things we can do for our furry friends:
Set out some grapes, cashews, and pecans.
Add a year-round water source.
If it is snowy or wet, put your treats out a board to let the animals have dry feet for a bit.
Add selectively tasty compost scraps, such as sweet potato peels and apple peels.
A year and a half ago, I raised an orphaned grey squirrel, born around July 21, 2019. Later that fall, he vanished. It’s not unusual for young squirrels to move out and establish their own territories. Squirrel kits born late season often overwinter with their mom. As his mom, I had hoped he would stick around. I made him a nice nest box, filled the feeder tray regularly, and visited him at least twice a day.
One morning, he was gone. I said he was on walkabout, experiencing the world. What squirrel doesn’t dream of driving his motorcycle down the Pacific Coast Highway 1? But odds were equally good he had been taken out by a red-tailed hawk, a great-horned owl, a raccoon, or even a mink.
I went outside to feed the flock on December 23, 2020 and a squirrel came running up and jumped right into the middle of the flock, scattering the birds. It made me laugh, he was so bold. I knew immediately it was Terrence Nutworthy the Third.
This is the point where people say, “uh-huh.”
My case that this really is Terrence:
-Fox squirrels have lived in my woods longer than I have, but I have never seen a grey squirrel in the yard. The grey squirrels are around in the forest, of course, but the fox squirrels keep them out of the yard itself.
-Both Terrence and this squirrel have a little dark scar under their left eye.
-A wild squirrel, when confronted by a human, should run up the nearest branch, and will likely chatter fiercely. This is what my yard squirrels still do, despite generations having grown up with me as a fixture in their lives. A wild squirrel will not literally ask for a human handout. Which this squirrel did. He came right up and ate out of my hand.
As if my day couldn’t get any better, Terrence brought a rare black squirrel with him. Black squirrels are really grey squirrels with different fur color (melanistic subgroup). The black squirrel, being a wild squirrel, wants nothing to do with me.
I immediately purchased an addition for my yard for Terrence:
Winter is hard on wildlife. Obviously, animals have adapted and populations can survive without us. But the heated waterer will make survival a little bit easier, and possibly more enjoyable for everyone, including the squirrels, opossums, deer, mice, song birds, and fox. It may even enable me to get a decent picture of the black squirrel.
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It is impolite to ask a lady her age. It is impossible to ask a tree her age. But as these old, ancient ladies with their lacy leaves have finally fallen, I have been able to ask some of them. In death, they can share with me what they could not share in life.
The 9″ diameter Ohio buckeye: 32 years old
The 28″ diameter honey locust: 56 years old
The 24″ diameter white oak: 124 years old
The 36″ diameter cottonwood: 47 years old
The soil conditions, available sunlight, precipitation, and even genetics contribute to how big a tree gets. Some species simply get bigger faster than others. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It makes it a very challenging thing, when people ask me how old a living tree is. An oak is probably older than you think. A cottonwood is probably younger than you think. Many of the massive trees brought down in the derecho were hollow inside, so we will never know. The massive sycamores and black walnuts growing along Indian Creek predate when the area was logged. So old.
Since August 10th, I have sawn on trees that I planted. I have sawn on trees that I loved for more than 20 years. I have sawn on trees that were growing before women had the right to vote. I have sawn on trees that were growing before Iowa was a state.
I have touched trees that are still in the agony of dying, and I did not have the strength to give them a quick and merciful death by chainsaw. I have cried over and over again.
Trees are strong. Some of the trees I plant today will still be strong 100 years hence. Some I will cut down. Some others will cut down. Some will fall under the pressure from the termites, the buck rubs, the lightening and the wind. Some will remain. The massive old trees we grieve for today were young, once. Someone loved them and gave them space to grow. Nurturing our young trees and creating protected spaces for them to grow is the best thing we can do to honor the trees that have fallen and pay homage to the forest we love.
On August 10, I sent a text shortly after noon to my flatmates:
“Get the chickens in! Shriekies first, as the big ones can get under cover.”
I do not use exclamation points lightly. As things turned out, it was appropriate. I was experiencing the beginnings of a storm so severe it would sever my electronic communication for some time. That was the last dependable text I would be able to send or recieve for days.
The shriekies spent the storm safe inside in the bathroom, the older chickens safe inside in the garage. The forest that I have loved and cared for since 1996 didn’t fare so well.
The rain swept through, being driven by winds at 140 miles an hour for 45 minutes. Straight line winds of such magnitude are known as a derecho, I would come to learn. It destroyed homes (not mine), businesses (not mine), and trees. Many, many trees.
The community estimates that more than 60 precent of the tree canopy is gone. In looking at the broken tops and splintered trunks of the remaining trees, we will lose a lot more in the coming years from this singular event.