LOCAL VIEW –Efts and Other Red Things in the Rain–

A wet spring has given way to a wet summer in New England, but spring’s bone-chilling rain has become the warm stuff of summer, and is actually nice to walk about in, even for an old geezer like myself. And our Childcare focuses on the outdoors, so even if I’d like to goof about indoors I’ve trapped myself into going out. The children are rather fatalistic about the situation, and are unusually resigned to adults who don’t know enough to come in out of the rain. My chief trouble comes from identifying who gets which boots, but fortunately the kids help me out.

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The world we head out into is especially green this year. We tend to hike three miles in four hours before lunch, which may seem slow, but the children stop a lot, and also likely circle about to such a degree they cover six miles for my three (measured by the pedometer in my cell phone.)

In such lush greenery anything red tend to bring progress to a screaming halt, especially if it is edible.Eft 6 FullSizeRender

It always fascinates me how some children only nibble a few strawberries, others stuff themselves, and some are natural born gatherers, and likely would the ones a tribe would assign to drying berries or making jam for the coming winter.

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(Notice the sun has popped out. This means I am carrying an armload of raincoats, until the rain starts up again.) The rain has made the wild berries much larger than normal. Here is an especially plush one, in a child’s small hand.

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When we compared the flavor of wild berries to the enormous, plum-sized berries in the children’s lunches, I was somewhat disappointed that the consensus was that commercial berries were sweeter. This made it all the more interesting that many children seem to prefer the tart, wild ones.

I impressed upon the kids what a big job it was for their great-great-grandmothers to make even a single jar of jam, and what a treat jam was, once the season for strawberries was over. In the days before refrigeration a thick syrup of sugar was a way of preserving things, just as pickling was. (Also, if the berries were not excessively heated the remaining vitamin C in the jam prevented scurvy, during winter months.)

The kids tend to be unimpressed when I attempt to impress this sort of trivia into their brains, and hurry ahead to the next discovery, which happened to be a surprisingly red mushroom.

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These are actually the ordinary brown shelf mushrooms that grow from the sides of dead and dying trees, and sometimes are strong enough to sit upon. They only are colorful when actively growing.Eft 8 IMG_5174

They were growing with surprising speed in the wet weather, and were hues even a geezer like myself had never noticed before (usually they are more purple when growing). One may have added enough weight to cause a rotted branch to fall to the ground.

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What was interesting was that the fungus continued to grow, but made an adjustment for the fact “down” was in a new direction. (Notice the slug feasting).

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The children were not all that interested, as one fellow forging ahead had discovered an eft.

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It is hard to keep the kids from picking efts up and bringing them home in their pockets, or poking them with sticks. I try to again impress upon them that the salamander’s skin can’t take much abuse.

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Efts are the juvinile form of a Newt, which is an interesting critter for it has somehow figured out three different ways to breathe. When it is a tadpole it looks like a minnow, only its gills stick out like feathers, even as it starts to grow legs.

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Then it grows lungs, and becomes the red eft on wet forest floors. But then it returns to the water and, after a final lungfull of air, can quit breathing, as it turns green and becomes a common eastern newt.

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At this point the newts breathe through their skin, using a process called “diffusion” which requires neither lungs nor gills. I was going to add that this is also how frogs can take a deep breath in the fall and then sleep in the mud under water all winter, but the children had had enough of my non-stop scientific trivia, and, as they realized we had left the unexplored part of the forest and were on a path they recognized, went rushing ahead to what they call “The Trampoline Tree”.

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These two hemlocks nearly fell over in a storm, but were kept from falling by neighboring trees. Their roots are great fun to bounce upon.

I suppose I could lecture the kids about how bouncing might hurt the fragile roots, but the trees will not last long in their current state, and I think children get enough of a guilt trip laid on them by PBS. PBS is downright prudish about nature, as if nature will be hurt by being touched. I don’t see how a nature-lover can be a lover if he or she never touches. Isn’t being a lover a hands-on experience?

I love when rain’s warm-blooded, and the green,
Green leaves are platting in July’s soft heart;
When the gutters are all flooded, and the queen
Of midsummer night’s dreaming plays a part
In romanticizing logic. Our thought
Gets too severe when we rush, rush, rush
To ensure our garden’s harvest is a lot,
And we never pause to hear how songbirds gush
Despite falling rain, despite distant thunder
Thumping nearer, and nearer, and nearer.
Are we not made poor by the great blunder
Of wearing blinders when we could see clearer?
All winter we waited for this sweet summer day.
All too soon glory will go waltzing away.

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Local View –Shadberry Rains–

I should likely start this post with a weather map, showing how even when a low swings out to sea, and a cold front pushes past with a following high pressure, sometimes the clouds refuse to depart.  (Also note the low way up by Hudson Bay. If you think it doesn’t intend to plunge south and plauge New England, you lack the pessimism necessary to live here. If you don’t believe me, move here. It is right about now that lots of immigrants start screaming and ripping their hair out), (and they haven’t even met our black flies.)

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This year has been typical, teasing immigrants (called “Flatlanders” around here) with balmy weather in March, seducing them into thinking spring is about to come this far north at the same time it came further south in their past, in the far away places they came from. As a bit of irony, temperatures hit 73° (23° Celsius) on April first, as an April Fool’s joke. And to totally tantalize the suckers from the south, a few trees such as swamp maples behaved as if they were about to burst into leaf, risking some early blooms. For proof, I offer you a picture from Farmer’s New Year (March 25).

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Yet here it is, nearly 40 days later, and the swamp maple still haven’t leafed out. As the Flatlanders scream, the trees go “bwah ha ha ha.”

The trees are a lot smarter than the people around here, which makes sense, as they’ve lived longer. Of course, psychiatrists will object to my saying that, stating trees don’t have brains, and can’t think. Perhaps that is what makes trees smarter.

Regarding psychiatrists, I will say this much: Some of the kids we have had pass through our Childcare have been troubled, and they have been to psychiatrists, and also they have been to groves of pines. Guess which did nothing for the child’s bad mood (which some call “mental health”), and guess which healed the child’s hurt heart when humans couldn’t?  (Oops, I gave the answer away, by using that word “humans”.)

People do have brains, but mostly it just gets us in trouble. For example, take the subject of “being in harmony in with nature.” This subject makes humans absolutely bonkers. In my time I have seen one actress hit by a bucket of red paint as she left a theater wearing a fur coat, and another actress sprayed with manure as she baked muffins in a pasture. (These ridiculous, yet real-life, cartoons come to you courtesy of Greenpeace.)

Whatever you may say about trees, they would never be caught dead doing anything like that.

We only have one life, but according to some the “One Life” goes on and on through countless incarnations, as our consciousness strives to be One with God’s.

I have enough trouble remembering where I put my car keys, and can’t remember what I was doing before I was born, but, according to some, a long, long time ago we ourselves were trees. If that is so, I can’t say we’ve learned all that much, in a million incarnations of evolution.

I got tremendous enjoyment from Tolkien’s trilogy when I came to the part where the “Ents” make an appearance, as “shepherds of the trees”. At our Childcare I have often regaled the children with tales and warnings about “walking trees”, even to the point where one young boy marched up to me one morning and informed me, “My dad says there is no such thing as walking trees.”

However Tolkien didn’t understand one thing about trees, and it is this secret: Their heads are in the soil, and their limbs reach up towards the sun. If a tree ever did wake up and walk, it would bring its limbs to the earth, rip its roots up, and you’d face a creature with a mane like a lion, but a mane filled with crumbling dirt.  It would see you without eyes…….unless, of course, it was a potato.

Which works me around to the subject:  I did get some potatoes planted today, with the help of small children at the Childcare. In theory it was a teaching experience. I’m never sure the youngest get what I am saying, which is that by sticking perfectly good food in the dirt we get ten to twenty times as much perfectly good food. It is the older kids, the hoary veterans aged four and five,  those who had the fun of digging up the potatoes last fall, and roasting them by a fire, who have a glimmer of understanding. The younger ones are far more fascinated by earthworms.

I also dared transplant into the garden four kale plants, and six broccoli plants, just to gamble and prove even old geezers like me can live at the edge. I’ve seen killing frosts even this late, but I glanced at the sky, and consulted Weatherbell (my favorite long-range forecast site), and I stroked my white beard and looked wise, but in the end I consulted the trees. (It is a sign of our times, perhaps, that mere vegetables are so much smarter than the mainstream-media.  I didn’t consult the mainstream-media at all.)

The carrots, beets, seedling kale, onions, garlic, fennel, turnips, seedling Brussels sprouts, and lettuce haven’t sprouted yet, nor will they ever sprout if I work too long and appear dull to the children, (for bored kids at a Childcare can trample a soft seedbed as hard as a parking lot in the twinkling of an eye), so I, as the wise master of small slaves, decided it was time to go for a walk, and consult the trees.

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Abruptly I was stopped by a lovely bloom I pass every year without ever bothering to ask myself what it is. I always assumed it was some sort of cherry, (or perhaps a relative of blueberries, as its small cherries had a blueberry-like look, at the ends of their berries), but I never bothered be sure because usually everything busts out in May in such a rush you have no time to sort things out. But this year spring seems to be in slow motion, if not in suspended animation, and I have had time for things I never had time for before. Apparently one is never too old to learn, because I learned this bloom was one I’d read a lot about. Can you name it?

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Some called this serviceberry. Why?  Because in the old days the ground was too frozen to bury people in the winter. (Old timers told me that back in the day they stuck all old people who refused to do their chores in the “Town Tomb” in the fall, and in the spring they’d open it and any who didn’t walk out would get buried. This is a subject for another post, but I may include a picture of the “Town Tomb” at the end of this post, if I ever find the time to take one.) When the ground was finally soft enough to bury people, they would have a service, with this bush blooming around the edges of the graveyard, so it was called serviceberry.

Because the bush blooms so early, it is also the first to have berries, so it is also called “juneberry.” As eggs are just hatching and voracious fledglings are demanding, these berries are for the birds, and I was brought up to avoid “bird berries”, and have never tried them.  I understand they are sour.

However the name I had heard much about, without ever identifying the actual plant it referred to,  was “shadbush”. Back a few hundreds of years ago shadbush told you the shad were running, and then all else was dropped. Few shad came as far upstream as these hills, but a wonder of ancient, local laws was that people had to drop all quarrels when the shad, herring and salmon were running. You could be a Hatfield, and could travel to the hunting grounds of the McCoy’s, but you weren’t allowed to fight your worst enemy, when you were fishing. (Strange but true, and perhaps an example for modern man.)

Shad, dried and turned to powder, was a local ingredient of a local wonder-food called “pemmican”. Pemmican was one third powdered meat, one third powdered nuts and berries, and one third pure fat. The hunters who carried this food could travel a week or two with breakfast, lunch and dinner in a small bag.  Apparently a spoonful now and again was all you needed, even while burning a lot of calories hunting. The ingredients varied from place to place, but it was common from coast to coast in America in the old days. Out west they likely substituted buffalo for shad, but eating three tablespoons a day didn’t seem to stunt anyone’s growth. When the first Europeans arrived in New England their men averaged around five feet five inches, as New Englanders averaged six feet.

The children regard me suspiciously when I tell them such tales. After all, I’m the same old geezer who tells them about walking trees. However they are interested in eating, and today they sampled wild mustard leaves, yellow dock leaves, and the inner part of the root of burdock. (These are the same kids who refuse to eat the really good food some mother’s prepare.) (One trick I use is to tell them, “You can spit this out if you want to. You probably won’t like it. Only grown-ups like it.” ) (To prove they are grown up, they try to like it even when they don’t.)

Locally the berry used in pemmican was usually blueberries, dried and powdered, probably because blueberries are easiest to dry, (but perhaps because blueberries have wondrous, modern stuff called “antioxidants” in them), (not that the word “antioxidants” was invented, back in the day.) But other berries were used as well, including a small berry that grows in the straw. Darned if I can remember its name, but the commercial variety is now as big as plum, while the native variety is as small as a pea. Whatever this berry-that-grows-in-the-straw is called, it usually blooms around now, but this spring has been so retarded I didn’t expect to see any. I checked, just the same, and there it was! The what-cha-call-it berry, blooming in the dead straw! (The children were not all that interested, likely because you can’t eat it yet.) (But they did tell me I was a dope, and the plants are called “strawberries.”)

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And this is how I entertain myself, as the dull, gray, wet day passes. It may not seem all that entertaining to Flatlanders, but then, I am not the one going absolutely bonkers, just because the leaves don’t come out in April.

It’s a damp day, bright May-gray clouds low,
With spring holding back like eyelash’s tears;
Blossoms blinking, wet and drooping, although
Most remain buds, and the forest appears
Like winter’s, except for a green haze
Indistinct midst wet twigs that string bright pearls
Like veils over depth-green hemlocks.
                                                                             This day’s
Drenched though rain’s stopped; boughs bow; and white curls
Of shredded fog stand still on the dark slopes
Of breathless hills.
                                       The clouds are so bright
That all wet things shine; even shadow gropes
With bright reflections.
                                                 The shrouded might
Of rebirth blends wild hope with foreboding,
Silence with the sound of blossoms exploding.

However I should confess that entertaining myself in this manner takes a lot out of me. I huff and puff planting potatoes in a way that is downright embarrassing. Where entertainment once knocked my socks off, now I just wind up too tired to take my socks off.

Wives don’t approve of husbands flopping in bed with dirty socks on, but neither she nor my children will take pity on a weary old man. Granddaughters, however, are different. When my wife complains about socks, and I whine I’m too tired, a two-year-old granddaughter springs into action:

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It all goes to shows you that, in terms of true intelligence, trees come in first, a two-year-old comes in second, and everyone else comes in a very, very distant third.