My home for four of my early years was a small room on the second floor of a flimsy 19th century structure originally conceived as a carriage shed and converted some 80 years ago into a dormitory for boys. (The shed was named “Old Boys Dorm,” the reference being to the age of the building, not its occupants. It was then thought that boys and girls could inhabit the same structure without unmentionable consequences.) From the west-facing window above my bed stretched the broad slope of a cornfield dominated by a single tree that gave its name to Elm Lea Farm in Putney, Vermont. It was this magnificent American Elm that first stimulated my thinking about trees and my respect for them.
That elm, a member of a species native to the Northeast, was as tall and graceful as any hardwood can be in the New England climate. Before encountering Dutch Elm disease, an elm was an unusually hardy tree, able to survive temperatures below minus 40. (The same number defines this temperature in both Fahrenheit and Celsius). Our elm, pictured below, was nearly 15 stories high, with a diameter at breast height of more than 6 feet.
I regarded that tree as a monument to power and permanence. It was probably large enough in the early 19th century to be allowed to grow in the middle of the newly cleared field, being nearly useless as firewood and impossible as construction material. It might have lived another two hundred years. It passed in the year 1978 at the age of more than 200 years.
Once an elm is down, don’t bother splitting it for fire wood. No axe or wedge is up to the task. A chainsaw is the only tool you may have that will make an impression. Some strains of the American Elm are resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. I suspect that is true of the many elms planted along 5th Avenue and in Central Park, as they seem in excellent health, though not as tall as the beloved Putney Elm.
Among the nature subjects Fieldstone is preparing for digital launch this year is our volume on North American trees. It's a subject close to our hearts, and one that tells the history of this continent and our nation through a unique and essential lens.
Yours from the field,
Last week at our farm, Stone Hill Farm in Vermont, we discovered that the apple blossoms in our old orchard are unusually prolific. The orchard will likely be saturated with apples in the fall and, subsequently, will be teaming with deer.
If you walk in an orchard with a born Vermonter, s/he will comment, above all, on deer signs: tracks, a rubbed branch, a warn patch of grass, a bit of scat.
When you see a deer in Vermont it will be a white-tailed deer. There are about 30 million white-tailed deer in this country. They are, in fact, everywhere in the United States, excluding only Hawaii and Alaska; and in every Canadian province except the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut (where hardly anyone ever goes). In those parts of California, Nevada, Utah and a few other states with fewer white-tailed deer, you will find the less gracefully named mule deer. 6 million are taken each year by hunters and uncounted more, mostly youngsters, by coyotes, bobcats, bears and fishers. So it is extremely dangerous to be a deer.
The orchard is the hunter’s seasonal paradise, as it is for the deer. But at our place, only the deer can find food there, as we have deemed our farm a "no-kill" zone, politely posted against the army of local warriors. This is at times difficult for me, as several of my close friends take deep satisfaction in “harvesting” deer – as if they planted them, and they resent our citified reluctance to allow murder in the orchard. The deer meanwhile feast on the resplendent apples in peace and safety, wise to remain there until December.
The only place where we encourage "hunting" of these and other marvelous creatures, is, of course, on your smartphones. Our friends the white-tailed deer will be among the cast of characters you can learn about in our forthcoming Fieldstone Guide to Mammals app, which entered its final pre-launch development phase just last night. Add your name below and we will let you know when it's available.
Yours from the field,
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are now 6,777,000 Canada Geese in North America. These willful birds thrive in New England where millions of acres of forest have given way these last 300 years to lawns and golf courses.
In my youth (an era that I frequently refer to in order to ground myself) we rarely saw any geese at all, save those raised for Christmas consumption. If we saw a lonely formation honking along at altitudes between 3,000 and 29,000 feet, it was cause for a sense of awe about the universe. (I distinguish “awe” from the exhaustively used “awesome,” which used to be applied to exploding volcanoes and toppling skyscrapers but now serves in place of “okay.”)
Now, simply due to their numbers, these tireless travellers are treated as vermin. I am sure Donald J.T. would happily poison any that stepped on his fairways.
My wife Shyla and I are the protectors of a devoted couple that produced 6 goslings last year and have recently returned to our little pond at Stone Hill Farm to see if they can repeat the performance. Photos of our little family are attached.
Yours from the field,
Here in Vermont the grass wakes up during the first week of May. For grazing animals, like our donkey Abdul, life is transformed. For months Abdul has looked at me with irritation as I labor through the snow to toss hay within his reach. In fact, Abdul usually seems annoyed with me, although I show him nothing but kindness. But in this new season of green grass, I cease to have importance to Abdul. Still I am devoted to him, and I know he will need me again come fall.
Part of my fidelity to Abdul is expressed through my efforts to store hay for him and for the object of his admiration, his companion Amelia, an equally temperamental though graceful Morgan horse. The hay returns me to my innocence.
My love of hay starts with olfactory memory. A human’s modest sense of smell and its association with familiar things has a fundamental importance to survival. It starts with an infant’s knowing the smell of mother’s breast. In my case it takes the form of a powerful memory aroused by the scent of hay. As a young fellow earning $35 a week (plus room and board) on a Vermont dairy farm, my challenge was to keep an upright posture in the bed of a hay wagon as it was pulled by a tractor over a lumpy and steeply inclined field. This might have been hard enough if that were all there was to it, but the object of this sport was to keep up with a river of fresh hay pouring down from the top of a hay loader dragged behind the wagon. The hay was first cut and allowed to dry in the sun, then raked into wind-rows which, together with any stray bees nest or woodchuck hiding in the grass, was picked up by a hay loader and conveyed into the wagon at a speed determined by the speed of the tractor. (For those partial to mechanical matters: the hay loader was powered by the grip of large studded steel wheels turning as the contraption as it was pulled behind the wagon. This power was, in turn, transmitted by a chain to rotating armatures attached to long rods from which hung thin steel teeth that worked to push the hay up a steeply inclined metal surface until discharged into the wagon.)
Armed with a three-pronged hay-fork, my job was to pack the hay into the wagon as tight, dense and high as Newton’s laws would permit. To be acceptable upon return to the barn, the hay must have been persuaded to remain in place, without telltale bits falling along the roads on the way. When the wagon stopped below the open doors of the hay-loft, four long curved steel prongs would be thrust deep into the body of the hay. The triumphant conclusion would be the lifting of the entire content of the hay wagon, sliding the delicate pendant load along a track along the ceiling of the hayloft, and releasing it with a jerk on a trip line. The small hurricane of displaced air that blew from the loft carried the sweetest scent I know.
We are in the final phase (or one could say, our "first cut") before the release of our new nature apps, and are already looking ahead to the launch of our next program, the Fieldstone Guides to Gardening, through which we humans get a chance to sow the earth and watch things grow. Of course we will also discuss hay and the myriad grasses and wildflowers that grace the meadows around us. Stay tuned.
Yours from the field,
Spider season started this spring with the appearance of a small but extremely athletic brown and reclusive (but not a brown recluse) spider searching for a hideout amongst our silverware. My wife's shriek of alarm brought me quickly to the spot where I was directed to deal with the danger. I am pretty sure, judging from his precipitate retreat, that the spider wanted nothing to do with either of us.
There are more than 3,400 species of spider living on North America, so I cannot reliably claim to identify this one. I can tell you with certainty, however, that it was modest and non-threatening.
I admire spiders. I have, in fact, a cautious affection for them, especially those that specialize in the design and construction of webs. (The silverware drawer was not a suitable domicile for an architect of such glorious structures, so I was not reluctant to encourage the visitor to find another apartment, perhaps at a neighbor’s home.)
A few remarkable facts about spiders (lovingly referred to by the initiated as arachnids):
1. They have up to and including eight eyes (up to one per leg), the number, relative size, and position of which varies from species to species and is a handy clue to the identity of any you might stumble upon.
2. A spider’s web is composed of silk expelled from a pump and valve system that gives the spider a good deal of control of her extrusions. The web not only traps flies (moths, etc.) but delivers information on the location and vitality of the prey, possibly also its taxonomy.
3. A spider’s silk is one of the strongest materials known – stronger, pound for pound, than steel cable. It stretches and softens when first pulled then stiffens as the pulling increases, so if you are caught in a spider’s web, your only option is to talk your way out of it.
For your amusement, I attach a photo of a spider I found visiting our place here at Stone Hill Farm.
Fieldstone's Guide to Insects & Spiders is well underway, coming soon to an app store near you. Add your name to our list and receive news and updates, and let us know if you can identify the spider in this photo.
Yours from the field,