To the Sugar Bush We Go

It was 20 F when we out to tap the maple trees this year, but the wind wasn’t blowing and the snow didn’t start falling until we were wrapping up. When it warms up in a few weeks, it will be too late-the sap will already be flowing.

Otter tracks on Indian Creek. You never know what you will find in the forest until you go into the forest.

We primarily set taps in silver maple trees. All of the native maples, including black, sugar, silver, and box elder, produce sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup. We just happen to have a large amount of floodplain, and a corresponding large amount of silver maple trees.

The small annual hole we bore in the tree does not siphon out enough sap to damage the tree.

We also tap, to a lesser extent, box elders and sugar maples in the uplands. What difference does it make? Silver maple sap typically has between 1.5%-1.75% sugar in it. Black or sugar maple sap typically has between 2-3% sugar. And box elder sap has 1% sugar.To make syrup, we need to boil the box elder sap twice as long as the the sugar maple sap, and the longer it boils, the darker and richer the caramelization. It boils a long time, because we have to take the sugar concentrations from 1.5% sugar (sap) to 66% sugar (maple syrup).

Maple syrup is the first crop I harvest every year, and tapping the trees for it is my own personal act of faith that spring is about to emerge, in the form of sweet flowing sap from the maple trees.

The well known path

The sound of the fresh falling snow lures me outside with the alacrity of a five year old. The snow renders the world silent, reduces the color palette to monochrome, refracts light into a million swirling rainbows, and turns even a well-known path into a journey of mystery and wonder.

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I headed for the Baltic labyrinth because I wanted to be totally immersed in the snow experience. The woods can be a very distracting place for me. In the fresh falling snow, with no tracks before me, I am the pioneer and the sole voyager. The sense of the place is subsumed by the sense of the elemental. I become one with the intense solitude, and experience, well, obviously not waldeinsamkeit.  Schneeinsamkeit, perhaps?

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Emerging Spring

Spring is emerging all around, from the chorus frogs and red wing blackbirds calling from the wetland to the wildflowers emerging in the woodlands.

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Snow trilliums are the first of the spring ephemerals blooming this year. They are as important to the spring pollinators as the pollinators (in this case, a fly) are to them.
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The squil is also just starting to bloom. While not native, it is not posing an invasive problem here. As more of it blooms, it will provide a critical source of pollen for the honeybees.
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The skunk cabbage are just emerging up Bena Brook.

Welcoming 2016

Snow has finally arrived. It has transformed the woods into a magical place full of wonder, and on a more practical note, I haven’t seen a tick in a few days. We’ll ring in the New Year quietly in the forest, celebrating the beautiful natural world around us.

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The clouds are forming.
Bena Brook starts to freeze over.
Bena Brook starts to freeze over.
Windblown snow creates delicate patterns on downed trees.
Windblown snow creates delicate patterns on downed trees.

 

Waldeinsamkeit

Usually I celebrate full moons, eclipses, solstices, and anything else I can think of outside walking with friends, followed by a little fire.

While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.
While the browns and greys of tree bark and leaf litter dominate the woodland winterscape, some of the smaller plants stay green all winter in the woods.

This season has been unusually hectic between Amazing Space (of which I love every moment, it just takes a lot of moments), the construction of the natural amphitheater, preparing the apiary for 2016, and everything else I normally do.

I've never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.
I’ve never known it to flood in December before. It is usually a light precipitation month for us, and the precipitation is usually in the form of snow, not rain. But Wood Duck Way and the silver maples in the floodplain are under water, as the Red Cedar River and Indian Creek spill over their banks.

For this winter solstice, I opted to take a break and enjoy waldeinsamkeit. It literally translates into woodland solitude, and I find it is a beautiful way to connect with myself, and with the natural world around me. I actually had to visit waldeinsamkeit twice, once during the day and once after dark on the solstice. The warm temperatures, moist air, and clouds skittering across the moon were beckoning me back outside. Since English is based on German, why we didn’t we keep that word?

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The unseasonably warm winter and frequent rains are supporting a prolonged mushroom season in the woods.

 

 

Art in Nature

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At our last fire, we decided to make some drawing charcoal. We took dried willow twigs and stripped the bark (stripping the bark should really be done when the willow is green, because it peels very easily then) to make a soft charcoal, and we split some thin strips of cedar to make hard charcoal. Each stick was about 8 inches long.

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We wrapped them tightly in tinfoil. This allows the gas to escape, but prevents oxygen from getting into the sticks and actually combusting them. We tucked them down in the coals, let them sit for an hour and a half, and then fished them back out. 

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A groundnut blossom
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A yellow lady slipper orchid blossom

With everything outside reduced to greys and browns, and the darkness setting in so early, drawing is a great way to experience  and study the wildflowers. Often, the brilliant colors of summer overwhelm me, and I don’t notice the more subtle structure of the flowers themselves. Meanwhile, mother nature has been creating her own artwork.

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The wind draws in the snow with little bluestem
The snow melted, the ground is not yet frozen, and the temperatures are vacillating between warm and chilly. We witnessed a rare phenomenon on some goldenrod stalks. Though the stalk is dead, it is wicking moisture out of the ground. The moisture then freezes in the air, creating an iceflower at the base of the plant.

When a Walk in Nature Goes Wrong

When a Walk in Nature Goes Wrong -- pocketmousepublishing.comHow do you handle it when a walk in nature goes wrong? I don’t mean “Drama in Real Life” wrong. Breathe easy — no cougars attacks, rock slides, or poisonous mushrooms will be featured in this account.

This is about the small frustrations that occur when you’re trying to get yourself and your family away from “the electronic paradise” as the S’More Outdoor podcast so succinctly describes it. This is the red crayon in the dryer, the burned dinner, the waiting in line at the library with a whining toddler to pay the (huge) fine – so you can check out your fifty book stack.

We’ve all had these types of frustrations in our daily lives. And they aren’t absent just because we want to take our children out to experience the joys of nature.

Earlier this week we headed out for a walk with the dog to the woods. I was in high spirits because two of my older children were able to come along – between working and their college/highschool classes, they do not get the same quantity of outdoor time the rest of us do! Off we went, the little didn’t even where a jacket because it was such a spring-like day.

First, I slipped on the wooden walkway leading across a drainage ditch. Initially my knee hurt dreadfully. But after standing up and testing it, I realized it didn’t hurt to walk (much). So on we went, with me and my oldest chatting about the importance of soil and the neat collection of monthly soil activities I found (more on this in a future post!).

We finally arrived at the creek. The 9yo had gone on ahead and was out of sight, but I wasn’t worried, we had a meeting place.

With all the melting snow our little creek was running fast and quite cold, so big brother offered to carry 5yo across.

You know what is coming, right?

When a Nature Walk Goes Wrong - Creek

He slipped and into the icy water she went.

Was she hurt? Not at all.

Did she cry? Not at all.

Was she cold and wet and needing to go home right then? YES! I took off my coat and wrapped her in it, picked her up, instructed the other three to locate 9yo and come home. So much for family time out in glories of nature.

Then I headed home with a bum knee, a shivering 5yo in my arms, and a very unhappy dog who didn’t like her family heading in different directions.

Halfway home, coming down a rather steep hill, the dog stopped and looked back. She wouldn’t budge. Then over the hill came the dejected 9yo. My initial (horrified) thought was he had discovered no one was following him and came back to look for us, somehow missing his siblings…who were now wandering the woods looking for him!

But no, they had found him and were not far behind. He was unhappy because he hadn’t gotten his nature walk.

We all finally arrive home. And swore off walking in the woods forever.

No, actually, we didn’t. Think about those small frustrations. After the crayon in the dryer incident, did you take ALL your family’s dirty clothes to the dry cleaners henceforward? After the burned dinner, did you only eat in restaurants? And have you never returned to the library simply because you were embarrassed by a fine? Of course not!

We move on, we overcome, and maybe we can even laugh about such incidents in the years to come. When the immense bruise on my knee fades, I may laugh.

In the meantime, we’re still walking in the woods and on the paths and to the park…anything to get our daily dose of nature, no matter the weather. It has been 33 days since we started. I think we’re on the way to a habit!

Don’t give up on getting out into nature just because it isn’t idyllic every time you venture out!  Check out this encouraging National Wildlife Federations Health Benefits page and get back out there with your kids!

Do you find getting out into nature with your kids frustrating?  Have you ever had a nature walk go wrong?

5 Reasons to Walk in the Woods this Winter

5 Reasons to Walk in the Woods

Need a reason to go for a walk in the woods this winter?  I have 5 for you today!

  1. You can hear more. Ever walked in the woods when it was snowing? Remember the hush? Even when it isn’t snowing, a winter nature walk is quiet. No insects are singing, so you can easily distinguish the bird calls you do hear.
  2. You can see more. When you do hear a bird call, you can find the source easily. You can point it out to your children before it disappears among the leaves. You can see more than just the flash of a fox, you can watch it run – flaming orange against the white snow. And the tracks! So many tracks on the new fallen snow.
  3. You can go farther and to new places. You can leave the trail. We have walked through parts our woods that just weren’t accessible to us in the summer. We’ve been able to turn right at the creek, instead of always turning left to follow the trail. We have found a young bamboo forest, and an old well, and
  4. You don’t have to worry about poison ivy, ticks, or thorns. This possibly should have been #1. As the mom who has to remove the ticks, bandage the cuts, and prepare the soothing compresses, I love not having to worry about what the children will bring home.
  5. You get more exercise. Breaking though a foot of snow can be hard work. Your body warms up, and you feel good! And because you’re hearing more, seeing more, going farther and discovering you things without worry, you don’t want to stop.

As Jean said we are on the cusp of spring, less than a month until the Vernal Equinox (March 20, the first day of spring). There is still time to walk in the woods in winter though. Remember these 5 reasons when you’re wondering if all the bundling and preparation to “go outside” is worth it!

What is your favorite thing about walking in the woods in winter?

On the cusp of Spring

A great way to be in nature this time of year is maple syruping.

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Annie taps a silver maple tree. Silver maples usually grow along creeks and river bottoms.

When winter is still firmly entrenched but the change in the birdsong indicates spring must be playing hide and seek just under the snow, we take our power drills, our 7/16″ drillbits, our sapsacks and spiles, and head into the sugarbush.

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All maples have branches that come out directly opposite each other, in pairs. Look for young twigs to see the branching pattern, as older branches may be broken.

All maple trees, including the sugar maple and the box elder, have opposite branches. Its one good indicator that the tree is a maple tree–the only other large tree in this area that has opposite branches is the ash tree.

Jeff hammers in the spile, which spills the sap out of the tree, and hangs the bag to collect the sap.
Jeff hammers in the spile, which spills the sap out of the tree, and hangs the bag to collect the sap.

If you don’t have a maple tree, plant one! Maples grow quickly, which will allow you–or someone who comes after you–to enjoy harvesting the sap, boiling it into syrup, and living directly off the land.

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Hole tapped by a pileated woodpecker, hunting for insects. Unless a dead tree is threatening a path or building, they create rich habitat if left standing.

Being in the Sugarbush is a great way to see who else is spending time in the woods and what they are eating. As soon as it warms up a bit and the sap starts running, we’ll be back every warm day over the next five weeks to gather it. The repeated trips to the forest over the next five weeks will give us opportunities to explore the gradual shift into spring, as well as collect gallons of sweet sap. Visit www.indiancreeknaturecenter.org to learn more about syruping.

Pileated woodpecker by Gabrielle Anderson, from Hunting Red.
Pileated woodpecker by Gabrielle Anderson, from Hunting Red.

Walking the Nature Talk

Walking the Nature Talk
Walking the Nature Talk

Starting a Nature board on Pinterest isn’t enough. I can’t just believe nature to be important, I have to walk the talk. Literally.

Wednesday I wrote the original draft of yesterday’s post on noticing, knowing, and being in nature. I knew I had to take the children and myself outside. I can’t just believe nature to be important, I have to walk the talk. Literally.

We bundled up. Extra pants, hats, scarves. As it turned out, 23 degrees and sunny isn’t too cold.

Spirals in the Snow
Spirals in the Snow

My 5yo made large footprint spirals in the fresh snow and then insisted on pretending to be a dragon and travel through the snow on the edge of the road on all fours. I was impatient. Why couldn’t she just walk on the asphalt with me? That would certainly be faster. And my older boys were ahead, out of sight, in the woods already.

That is not walking the nature talk. I needed to stop. Well, I already was stopped, waiting for her to catch up. I needed to breathe. I needed to notice she was being in nature. Her face was inches from the snow as she galumped along.

We did reach the woods. We spent an hour in total outside – looking at tracks, testing the ice on the creek, climbing over fallen logs. It was a good hour, a great hour. It was a nature walk. Not a march, not a hike, just a walk.

We took an evening walk as well, to the park. It was colder then, but we enjoyed it. The clouds had started to move in, but as we walked home, one of the boys looked up and there was the constellation Orion. We all stopped to find his three star belt – the one constellation we all know. There were, noticing the stars, knowing the stars, being under the stars together. Walking the talk.

How many constellations will we learn this year? How many will we be able to name if we stop looking down at our cellphones as we walk under the sky?

Snow Den

Yesterday it was even colder, 11 degrees, and yet we bundled up again and went out. My 12yo checked his snow den and discovered it really was warmer.  We don’t just need quality time in nature, we need quantity time in nature. Even in the cold.

In the woods, by the creek, we saw a bird – it seemed blueish, with a large head and had a kind of crest, and made a very distinctive call as it flew by. Definitely not a blue jay, could it be a kingfisher? When we got home (and thawed out) my 5yo and I searched the Merlin Bird app on my phone. Yes, there is a time for technology!  When she played the call of the kingfisher, my 12yo called from the other room, “That was it!” We noticed, we know!

We are walking the nature talk. Won’t you walk with us?

~Lee