End of April
On a crisp night I’ve driven out of town and turned off on a gravel road. I put the headlights out and idle in neutral while off to the west a gallery of stars howls. Orion, the hunter, is glowing as he aims his bow and arrow––I suppose killing my lights was an elusive move. There’s an absolute chorus of constellations dotting the sky and it’s breathtaking. The moon is up, too and Venus, just to its north, is climbing along with it––two trapeze swingers beginning their act.
Undoubtedly, King David likewise spent nights humbled beneath the heavens. I venture this because in Psalm 103 he highlights just that. In this Psalm he penned, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is [God’s] steadfast love towards those who fear him”. There’s something marvelous about standing in ink-black night gazing at the stars and King David’s comparison makes it all the more astounding. I don’t care if you know everything or nothing about astronomy, you can tell stars are incomparably beyond our grasp. King David reminds us––so is God’s love for his people.
I drive off into the night and watch a possum scurry from the weeds into a tilled ag-field and drop dead––so he wants me to think.
The day before yesterday I ride down the rail trail path on my ‘jank’ bike. The gears are a clicking hum as the tires cycle and the brakes are slow no matter how fast I pull them. I actually own a pretty nice bike that’s at my parents’ house in Michigan but I don’t want to give up the leisure of riding to the thrift store and cavalierly leaving my bike unattended and unlocked––sometimes even half hoping someone steals it while I’m inside.
On the rail trail, marching on to my right, are old telephone or telegraph poles with rusted wires slung around the creosote soaked wood. This treatment, the same used to preserve railroad ties, drastically slows decomposition. It doesn’t, however, inhibit the growth of the surrounding hedge––flora is further flooding man’s tracks each year. I know the poles are old because all of the Ts have glass insulators on them. These types of insulators were first used in the mid 1800s with Samuel Morse’s telegraph and were phased out of production entirely in the 1970s when glass gave way to porcelain. They were important because the open-wire method used back then needed a way to anchor the live lines without losing voltage. Glass insulates the wire and provides an anchor point without diminishing the charge––hence the name.
The railroad has long since been removed but I might as well be a train making its customary stops. I pause to smell apple blossoms, pick violets for tea and violet sugar, and scout the hedge considering what it might take to get up to one of the insulators on the pole. It’s getting late as my fingers again squeeze the brake, triggering a cacophony of squeaks and rubs. I’ve stopped one last time to cut apple blossoms for a vase at home and chug, pedal by pedal, back to my apartment. I do make one more emergency stop––I watch a fox watch me from about 50 feet. I hope the darting rabbits I surprised five minutes earlier make it home, too.
I’m glad I cut the apple blossoms. Aside from being aesthetic, their aroma is quintessential spring. Far from overbearing and distant from subtle, their amiable tones of fresh and sweet heighten spirits on these rainy days. Apple blossoms only bloom for a few weeks but in this time bees perform all-important pollination. Once the blossoms die, the first fruits will begin to appear within about ten days.
At lunchtime I escape the office for a walk in the park. I find dandelions and violets in the grass and rub and smudge my palm yellow and purple. Common violets like these are ubiquitous east of the Mississippi. In addition to violet (Viola sororia) common violets bloom in yellow and white. These violets are a food source for many game birds as well as mammal herbivores like rodents, deer, and rabbits and were even used medicinally by Native Americans. They can be a food source for humans as well, so I’m snacking as I stroll. Later, when I’ve scalded the violets in a French press in my kitchen, the water blooms into a translucent, pale blue. The color leaches out of the petals and into the water leaving the flower a pale memory of its lost color. It’s now that I remember the flowers can also be used to craft a blue-purple dye.
At dusk I spot seventeen something turkey vultures in a pine tree. A group of crows is called a murder and I think a group of turkey vultures is equally deserving of such a foreboding name.
I decide to try my hand at obtaining an insulator. I survey the scene in the bracken and aim to climb a tree neighboring the dilapidated pole. The whole hemisphere is verdant inside the hedge and my shoes are folded in a stream of herbaceous eddies. I switch footholds, strain my arm, and skin my fingers what feels like one-hundred times. I eventually come up with a clear Hemingray 42––the most widely found glass insulator produced from 1921-1950. I bushwhack to another pole and climb once more. I’m unscrewing pieces of history. At the time these were erected, telegraph and telephone lines were cutting edge. Now I have a supercomputer in my coat pocket at the base of the tree. This climb I score an aqua 42. My twenty-first century hands take a beating from the bark and branches. I’ve come out with clear and aqua insulators and red hands.
The evening grows cold. Cool air whispers beneath the window sill with sounds sounding like cicadas and smells of daffodil. Just when it had seemed to be getting sequentially warm each day, a night threatens to drop below freezing. I’m naturally thinking about what it is I should drape a sheet over in my garden to guard against a frost. Except, despite my ambitions I don’t have a garden but an apartment. I decide the aloe, basil, sprouting potatoes, hepatica and daffodils on the window sill aren’t of concern and return to reading.
Two ‘tree cookies’ are sitting on the floor under my desk. Dendrochronologists and tree nerds alike casually refer to cross sections of trees as such. They’re Black Maples (Acer nigrum) from my parents’ house in Michigan and I’m letting them dry out so I can sand and polyurethane them.
Black maples are a very close relative to sugar maples and in terms of physical differences are not always clearly told apart. One of these minor differences is a slightly varied leaf shape. Sugar Maples are the hallmark five-pointed maple leaf of Canada and maple syrup bottles alike while Black maples typically only have three leaf distinct points with less pronounced lobes.
I could bore you with the litany of diagnostic details but I’ll abstain save a couple of interesting points. Black Maples turn a golden yellow in the fall just ahead of the Sugar Maples which subsequently turn a fiery orange. Likewise, Black Maples have a greater tolerance for flooding and wet soils but do not often reach total dominance as a forest species––Sugar Maples are a climax species.
One significant similarity is the fact that black and sugar maples are each equally apt at producing the sap beloved and cherished for making maple syrup. The sap runs when the temperature ducks below freezing overnight and climbs above it during the day––typically in February and March.
Unlike most sap in the Acer family, which have lower sugar contents, black and sugar maples boast around two and a half to three percent sugar. It’s a popular notion that it takes roughly forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup using sap harvested from a sugar maple. Although other maples like silver or red could be tapped––and sometimes are––it would take more than forty gallons of sap to get the same amount of syrup.
Maple syrup production is actually something totally unique to North America––although a similar process has been practiced with other species such as birch and hickory on other continents. It has been disputed whether or not Native Americans taught the craft to English and French colonists or that colonists made the discovery on their own accord. Naturally, it seems Native Americans would have been doing it for ages, except for the fact that prior to European settlement, North America was still in the Stone Age. Thus, making metal vessels like pots or pans hitherto unavailable to any North American people group.
It is fairly well documented, however, that the indigenous peoples of what is now New England and eastern Canada used maple sap––though likely not in the way we use it today. That is to say, they weren’t drizzling a concentrated amber grade bottle of syrup over their breakfast but using it for more general purposes, not the least being drinking.
Yet, it has also been documented that Native Americans were not totally devoid of any ability to concentrate the sap. A similar result can be achieved, albeit more watered down, by freezing the majority of the sap and discarding the ice. When ice freezes, most impurities (sugar in this case) are left with the unfrozen water. Therefore, by freezing a large portion of the sap, removing the block of ice and refilling the container with more sap, and repeating, a more concentrated sap would slowly be obtained.
Additionally, the sap could be boiled and concentrated by dropping stones, heated in a fire, into the vessels full of sap. In most cases, these were clay or wood. This is actually quite an effective way to boil water.
Lastly, crevices and cracks in maple trees where sap can pool and evaporate can eventually create small portions of maple sugar. This is something the Native Americans were aware of.
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I have the tree cookies for a couple of reasons. I had kindly asked my brother to cut them for me a few weeks ago so I could count the rings. I’ve previously preserved a red oak cookie like this which turned out to be between seventy and eighty when it was cut. The oak and these maples were staring down at me my entire childhood and now they sit on the back of my writing desk. Some things are odd when you ponder them.
It’s been raining buckets for a couple of days now. The stream at the local park has swelled and conquered the land beyond its established border. In a war of quick annihilation the stream has a chance; in a war of attrition the high ground owns the odds.
The bankside trees, notably the sycamores, are flooded with a foot or two of water. It’s as if a the stream has kicked its mile long blanket out of its bed and draped it up along the banks.
The flooding is a picture of the preverbal encounter we’ve likely all had once or twice with our mischievous uncle. We simply asked, “May I have a glass of water?”
“Sure, tell me when.”
And as you say ‘okay’ or ‘stop’ but not precisely ‘when’ your glass overfills in a flood. If I have any empathy for the trees getting soaked, it’s born out of that.
In the thunderstorm air, humid and breezy, the olfactory world seems almost aesthetic. I’m smelling broken and beat down grass, white pine, hints of flowers and green––lots of green. It’s spring.
I’ve gone up to spend a little bit of time with my family over the long weekend.
Earlier in the afternoon my brother asked me what kind of birds were outside his patio. Now, in the evening as the sultry air takes its leave upon the distant arrival of dusk my family and I are on an evening walk. It’s been filled with my Dad, brother and I taking turns casting glances through binoculars at the birds. It’s a thorough chorus of Red Winged Blackbirds humming from the tall grass. Just as gulls and waves are the sounds of the seaside, Red Winged Blackbirds and swaying grass are the sounds of a midwestern marsh.
I don’t know my bird identification as well as I would like but I do know a handful thanks to a good deal of childhood days spent birdwatching in my backyard. I spot a Rose Breasted Grosbeak on an overhead branch and a few goldfinches buzzing by. The fact that the foliage on the trees is yet to be full lets us see just a bit more than we will be able to in just a few weeks––it’s a nice perk of spring birdwatching.
Further ahead, Common Grackles are grouped on a dead shrub. Their iridescent feathers, chastised in this harsh sunlight edging dusk, embody the auditory atmosphere—colorful.
There has been no shortage of Robins, either. Like the Red Winged blackbirds, Robins have hardly stopped singing. I’ve always thought their song sounds just a tad bit unsure––as if they’ve just made it up and are singing it once over to themselves for practice. It’s not practice though, they always sing that way because that’s the way God made them to sing.
An interesting anecdote on Robins is the sheer diversity of their habitat. They’re found in the most remote woodlands, to farm hedgerows, urban areas and nearly everywhere in-between. Growing up, there used to be a Robin that would construct and craft her nest on the galvanized lamp fixture next to the front door of my house. We would avoid that door while she was there, tending to her blue pastel painted eggs soon to be transformed to hungry beak-framed mouths. Sometimes we’d forget and barrel out the screen door only to hear the quick beat of wings while squawks from a nearby tree branch ensued.
I’d watch her hunt for worms in the front yard and resolutely pluck a worm, fly back, feed her young, and repeat. The indicative hopping and cocking of head behavior of robins so often observed is the employment of two of their best senses. They’re looking and listing for their prey—typically earthworms or beetles.
* * *
My dad, brother and I are seeing plenty of birds. In the thicket we just eyed a Yellow Warbler and what was likely a Gray Catbird. There’s a good deal of which I can’t identify but summing the mental list and the end of the walk we recall: American Robin, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Common Grackle, Starling, American Goldfinch, Red Winged Blackbird, Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbird, Black Capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Blue Heron, Canada Geese, and, though not Aves, some gigantic bullfrogs, probably the American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana).
For a number of weeks I’ve been making sourdough bread with freshly ground Hard Red Wheat Berries. If you’ve ever dabbled in the sourdough baking realm you know it requires a healthy amount of trial and error. Making whole grain sourdough with wheat berries is more finicky still.
Instead of having a fine, sifted flour I’m using a more coarse flour (the best my blender can do) that’s unsifted. That means I haven’t removed the chaff or bran remain like all refined flours have. I prefer to craft sourdough like this because in using whole wheat berries and leaving the chaff and bran in the mix, the protein, vitamin, and mineral contents are higher–– making the finished loaf more nutritious. In true point of fact, I actually prefer the dark, rich taste of a fresh wheat bread like this, too.
I’m baking sourdough between one and two times a week and use it primarily for toasts––buttered or with cream cheese and fresh strawberries––watercress sandwiches for lunch, and sides for soups and stews.
Being able to repeat good results with the sourdough has left me feeling triumphant. It’s a nice way to end a month.