Winter is here. We’re uncertain as to how long she is staying this month, but it you’re stuck in your garret mourning lost love like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, living on a frame of home-produced honey and foraged mushrooms, its arrival comes way too early. If you have nobody to snuggle in your hibernation, now is the time to find someone.
Fortunately, up here we have some fine influencers keeping hope alive: gentlewomen of modern lore. Laura Silverman of The Outside Institute kindly reminds us that there still sparks of life in an apparently barren landscape. Laura will be leading a winter foraging walk on December 7th. Leigh Melander of Spillian shares an article in Fast Company on how Norwegians enjoy winter. Norwegians celebrate the things one can only do in winter and make sure they get outside every day: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Norwegians also have a word, koselig, that means a sense of coziness. It’s like the best parts of Christmas, without all the stress.”
Winter in the Catskills is undoubtedly a spectacularly beautiful season, with the former vibrant landscape frozen in time, with seeds hovering atop dry stalks, ready to fly into the wind. If you have south facing windows, remove your curtains or blinds and let the low light flood in first thing in the morning and remain there all day. To watch the deer stalking methodically in single-file through a snow storm in single-digit temperatures is to be reminded exactly how weak a species we are without our creature comforts.
In the shadow of Overlook Mountain in Upstate New York, you’ll find one of the most apt monuments of the Catskills, The Opus 40 Sculpture Park. It’s apt because it was built by hand using Catskills bluestone, and in the Catskills it’s no exaggeration to say we have vast quantities of rock and stone, which is emblematic of the strength of character necessary to create the life of a resilient, full-time mountain-dweller. Living in the Catskills year-round is to be like Sisyphus, to roll the proverbial rock up the hill and attempt to keep it there. Opus 40 is the quintessential symbol of the challenging task of making a living in these ancient hills. Here, as the saying goes, there are “two stones for every dirt” – more loose stone than soil – and one local transplant even spent four years removing all the stones from his land so that he could start a farm fit to be planted.
Assembled by hand over 37 years by local sculptor Harvey Fite, the park rises out of the pit of an abandoned quarry like it’s a relic that’s been delicately unearthed by the brush of a giant archeologist. What’s extraordinary is that there were no plans or drawings made before the work began. Fite literally just began and continued until his death 37 years later, and all his tools, winches and pulleys remain to this day in the Quarryman’s Museum in a red barn on the property. It’s named Opus 40 because he predicted that it would take 40 years to complete, but he met an untimely demise three years shy of his goal in an accidental fall in the park.
We’re in maker country here in the Catskills and the food is delicious. Around here, if you’d like (truly) free-range eggs with bright orange, sweet and creamy yolks, you don’t have to go far to find a neighbor with chickens. If you want award-winning cheese, milk, or hearty homemade bread, there are small-batch bakers and cheese-mongers within a short drive. It’s not unusual to find squash on your porch during harvest season, because up here it’s so abundant that you can’t give it away and this year’s wild apples could have fed everyone in NYC.
For visitors, there are farmers’ markets like the Pakatakan that has extended this year’s season to November 30th. Sign up for the newsletter here.
In New York City, there’s the Union Square Market, Fort Greene and Grand Army Plaza markets where you could find East Branch Farms and Kimchee Harvest this past Saturday. Also at Union Square was Lucky Dog, Locust Grove and Roxbury Mountain Maple, among many others.
Since about 2014, you can now use food stamps at farmers’ markets. Go to Grow NYC for more details on the SNAP program.
Eat real food. Eat Local. Support your local farmer.
Tomorrow will mark the five year anniversary of Upstate Dispatch. I’m not sure how that happened, but it’s been a wild ride. I can honestly say that this city girl has learned so much more about life, work and herself these past few years than could have been imagined.
You may have noticed that there hasn’t been much on the website these past few months and there’s a reason for that. I’m taking my life in an entirely new direction. I’ve no idea where it will lead, but there will be a new website devoted to more of my writing life than just this neck of the woods, and new media-based work in the arts and further afield. But there’s so much content here, you could peruse this site for the next year on the old posts alone. Below find links to the most popular posts of the past five years. Coming up for UD in the future, we’ll be more food-focused with new contributors to write on recipes, farming and the local economy. We’re looking for sponsors to underwrite our fall content and invite pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, over the summer, it has been nice to relax into the scenery, just exist in the woods, forage, harvest and meditate, without having to document every leaf, stream and view of it.
Upstate Dispatch Links
We never finished the Catskills 35! I have just six bushwhacks left and will do those over the winter because the summit is easier to find without the leaves on the trees. However, our hiking section is the most popular.
Summer in the Catskills is coming to a close. The bees swarmed a couple of times – more on those later – and the farm is growing over with thistles and blackberry bushes. Goldenrod has taken hold like the rays of some sort of eternal sunrise; hazelnuts and apples are being harvested; garlic has finished curing; horseradish root is being turned into sauce. Have you ever peeled the outer coating of a hazelnut? I’ll be here for days, but it’s worth it for what looks to be about 20 pounds of hazelnuts, possibly more.
This is an update of our recipe from a few years ago, because now you can buy almond milk. There’s no need to soak almonds overnight and strain them to get their milk. Cucumbers are in season from July through October and this refreshing, sweet chilled soup is the perfect antidote to our scorching recent Catskills weather.
Three medium sized English cucumbers Three cups of almond milk, unsweetened Half cup of water An apple, peeled, chopped and cored or 10 grapes Three teaspoons of olive oil Half teaspoon of salt Half teaspoon of pepper
Puree the grapes in a blender, sieve them and save the liquid. Peel, chop and puree the cucumbers in a food processor until they are liquid and while the cucumbers are blending add the olive oil, salt and pepper, grape juice and almond milk. You might also like to add a little of the almond or grape pulp to garnish with a splash of olive oil. Chill before serving. Delicious.
This is the sort of recipe that you can amend without too much fuss. If you want a sweeter gazpacho, you just throw all the fruit – an apple and the grapes – in the blender with the cucumber. (If the result is too thick, add more almond milk.) This also makes a perfect pre-workout smoothie where, if you haven’t had a chance to eat all day yet you still want to work out, you can drink this an hour or two before exercising.
Hot and humid, mostly sunny with an omnipresent armada of giant, scene-stealing clouds, thunder and late afternoon torrential downpours. A high of 89F. The black lab loiters in the shadows. Super steamy.
The wild mint is out in force with the wild flowers, but we must wait longer for the peas or find them in the freezer. There’s something about pea and mint soup that screams summer. This is a family recipe, but there’s really nothing to it. Fry up some onions, garlic and thyme in oil or butter, add stock, boil until warm then add peas and mint. Simmer for only a minute, then blend with a hand blender. If you love the taste and texture of fresh peas, use frozen peas and put them in the stock straight from the freezer. They will thaw, but not cook all the way. Only blend half the soup and add a knob of butter in each bowl of soup when you serve it to get the taste of buttered peas with a little crunch of sweet pea. You can also garnish with a dash of balsamic vinegar if you’re not into the butter and want to add a tangy element. If you’re going to go with the balsamic option for the first time, put the balsamic vinegar on the side, dip toasted or warm bread in the vinegar, and dip the vinegar toast in the soup.
Pea & Mint Soup
Half an onion
Two tablespoons of oil
One tablespoon of minced garlic
One tablespoon of dried thyme
One liter of chicken broth, or non-chicken vegetarian broth
One pound of frozen peas
Ten leaves of fresh mint, or more depending on how minty you want it
Butter to garnish
Finely chop the onion and fry it with the garlic and thyme in the oil until lightly brown. Add stock and bring to the boil. Add the peas and simmer for a minute only. Add the mint. Blend with the hand blender, but only blend half the soup. Stir the soup with a spoon. Garnish with butter or a dash of balsamic vinegar. You can make the soup as minty as you like it. Start with less mint first, because you can add it, but can’t take it away once you’ve blended it in. If you want to add more mint after you’ve served it, just pop in a few more leaves into the saucepan, stir the soup and then remove the leaves. Fresh mint will always leave a lot of mint oil behind, so you don’t necessarily need the leaves in there. You’ll notice that there’s no salt in this recipe because there’s enough salt in the broth and, if you over-salt, it clashes with the mint.
Ganoderma Tsugae or Lacquered Polypore, has many names, but the most popular one is Reishi and it’s out in the Catskills now, mid-June, although it does appear from Spring through Fall. It is sometimes found in Winter months too, but here at the higher elevations, it’s both literally and figuratively at its peak. Other names for it are Varnished Polypore and Hemlock Varnished Shelf. Reishi grows on hemlocks in particular, or can also be found on other coniferous wood. The surface under its cap has pores, not gills, so it is spongy to the touch and, in fresh samples, off-white in color.
It grows directly from dead or living trees or roots of removed trees. The specimen above was growing on a logged tree stump and is the size of a hand, but they can grow much bigger. It causes white rot, acting as both parasite and decomposer.
For millennia, Reishi has been used for medicinal purposes in China. It’s reportedly an immune booster. It’s usually peeled and sliced and simmered in boiling water, with the water drunk as tea, but it tastes hideous. Another form of Reishi (Ganoderma Lucidum) is widely available in health stores as a powder to put in a hot beverage, or hot water, or in pill form.
Here in the Catskills, I know more than one person who claims mushroom supplements have stopped their allergy symptoms.
To store Reishi, put it in a paper bag in the fridge. You can preserve mushrooms by drying them. To do this, slice the mushrooms and arrange them flat on a baking tray. Put them in the oven on the lowest setting (170F) for two to three hours, until they’re fully dried, or buy a dehydrator.
Rain beginning in the morning until early afternoon. Overcast with a luminous blanket of foggy cloud and humid with a high of 71F. Snapping turtle lays her eggs in a freshly dug hole by the side of the road. 90 days from now roughly 40 baby turtles will pop out of this anonymous mountain birthplace.
Hipsters ferreting around at Roxbury’s historic landmark Woodchuck Lodge might bypass his fading 100-year-old collection of Atlantic Monthly (still going strong) magazines and stop in the bathroom with a loving gaze. Here’s one part of the lodge that doesn’t need any update, or if anything, the window should be made floor-to-ceiling so that one can bathe in full view of the mountains. It’s the writer’s perfect rustic meditation spot, complete with clawfoot tub and gorgeous light all year around. It’s so impossible to take a bad picture in here at any time of day, that it’s tempting to believe this might have been where Burroughs did most of his important thinking late in his life. The colors: burgundy and mint green are faded, but no less attractive than they were 100 years ago and we can just imagine the old man at 84 years of age, soaking away, pondering his early escapades on Slide Mountain.
Board members of John Burroughs Woodchuck Lodge are in dire need of donations to restore the lodge, but on social media I see home owners putting in similar bathrooms to John Burroughs’ all over the Catskills, so I feel like they can breathe a sigh of relief on this score, because there are plenty of renovations and remediation work necessary elsewhere on the property.
Woodchuck Lodge was built by John’s brother in 1862, 15 years after John was born, on the east end of the Burroughs family farm. The Burroughs’ homestead where both boys grew up is a mile away up the road and was built when John was 13 years of age. Woodchuck Lodge was John’s retreat in retirement. Boyhood Rock and his grave are a few minutes’ walk up the road. John Burroughs Woodchuck Lodge is a non-profit corporation. Your donations are tax deductible.
Overnight rain storms, thunder, and lightning drench the landscape. Humid and sticky for a high of 73F and overcast with a blanket of cloud like shimmering fleece. Lengthy periods of afternoon rain dragging on until early evening. Juicy purslane first out of the gate in the raised beds.
Bright and sunny despite thick rippling cloud like crumpled blue-gray cotton. A high of 85F with a shy sprinkle of rain mid-afternoon. An overwhelming smell of green wafts through the forest. Historical Catskills takes a moment in the preparation for summer visitors.
Last night, Alfie and I were up until 2am at a Wednesday night party on our 80-acre mountain top that has seen a motley assortment of fabulous neighbors move in over the past few years. It used to be quiet around here with only one other full-time neighbor, but no more. Finally, some more people to drink Scotch with and howl at the moon. There’s the artist and his partner/manager; a bunch of young, hip photographers from Philly; two hilarious European adventurers; a South American and her daughter who, last night, shook a fierce cocktail at 1am like it was our last party on earth: “blood and sand” with Scotch, vermouth, orange juice and cherry liqueur. Up here, we know what’s important.
The host’s female dog, Victoria, took a shine to Alfie, because he’s a ladies man. Ladies love them some Alfie. The only problem was that her big brother didn’t approve the match and he’s much bigger, with a head as big a bowling ball looking like he could ram his way through a stone wall without much trouble. There was much tentative nibbling and furtive kissing between the two lovebirds, followed by Alfie diving under the dinner table with big brother on his tail, using a wall of guests’ legs for protection. Alfie’s a lover, not a fighter.
Alfie and I jogged home in the crisp night air, under a star-crusted, inky black dome, but before that, there was much fun debate over whether I should walk – about 1000 feet – home alone. Most people on the ridge have had an encounter with the visiting bear, but the bear avoids me since I screamed like a banshee at it last time it came near the house. It’s possible that he’s been around before, but didn’t like the look of my machete. Regardless, the episode in which Alfie went after the bear and started barking at him, and then me running out of the house screaming at Alfie to stay away from the bear, now makes him literally take the high road instead when he passes by. The bear is not scared of us, but he must be keenly aware that we’re just bonkers enough to get him into a spot of bother and there are no sutures in the forest – only bleeding out.
John Burroughs Woodchuck Lodge’s wildly popular Wild Saturday Program begins on Saturday May 4th, 2019 at 1pm. Naturalist Leslie T. Sharpe discusses her award-winning book, The Quarry Fox and Other Wild Critters of the Wild Catskills. The book is the first in-depth study of Catskills wildlife since John Burroughs was writing in the 19th Century. All visitors, including children, will be invited to share their wildlife stories.
This event is free and takes place at Woodchuck Lodge, 1633 Burroughs Memorial Road, Roxbury, NY 12474. All are welcome.
Go to website to learn more about Woodchuck Lodge, the ancestral home of writer and naturalist, John Burroughs.
Foraging began in earnest this month at upper elevations of the Catskill Mountains. Finds: ramps (wild leeks), field garlic, young nettles, dandelion leaves, thistle roots, Japanese knotweed, cohosh and the first mushrooms of this year: morels.
Forsythia is starting to bloom at high elevations and you can make a simple syrup out of this brief bloom (pictured above). Only about 5% of our forsythia has bloomed, but those flowers probably won’t survive today’s (04/27/19) snow and low temperatures (41F).
You can do so much with young Japanese Knotweed shoots and this is a great idea because they are an invasive species. Use young knotweed like rhubarb and put it in salads, stews, fruit pies.
Rob Handel at Heather Ridge Farm makes a nettle soup that I’m still marveling about years later. Catch the grey-green, toothed leaves of nettle before they flower. They reportedly contain an extensive variety of nutrients like Vitamins, A, B, C and K; minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron; amino acids; polyphenols and carotenoids. Nettle allegedly reduces inflammation and lowers blood pressure.
The hike to Mount Tremper Fire Tower on the Phoenicia Trail is surprisingly gorgeous in late April despite a severely moody atmosphere at the summit with thick rain clouds threatening to burst any minute. At this time of year, it’s more lush and green than other trails with multiple tributaries splashing across your path, and onwards down the mountain through vivid green moss towards the Esopus River. The trail head is on Route 40, outside Phoenicia and starts over two small wooden bridges that span waterfalls, and a steep climb up stone steps for a half mile that’s utterly beautiful but treacherous with tree roots and deep mud when wet.
Tonight was a gorgeous spring evening in the Catskill Mountains: clear sky, full moon, 60F with frequent, strong gusts of a humid breeze washing over our ridge like a warm tide coming thick and fast as if a storm was on its tail. Alfie nodded his nose up delicately into each wave and followed it through to find out who was where and what they were doing. Coyotes yipped faintly in the distance and I whispered: “do you hear that”?
“Yes!” he barked. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but now you’ve heard it!” He barked. Then he barked some more of his deep, throaty commands, holding his body rigid against the wind as if it might blow the coyotes straight up to our feet. As the yipping and howling died down, we marched across the brush, dried and flattened by another strident winter, listening to the bare trees creak and squeak – like (very tall) old ladies getting their hair messed up and complaining about it. Alfie was slightly hesitant and wanted to turn in – coyotes! What’s next? – but we stuck together, fur and hair ruffled by the strong, balmy air that pushed grassy, spring smells in our faces and I led the way under a dome of midnight stars. Bare trees allowed us a panoramic view of the mountains in the bright moonlight. Alfie’s attuned to my every mood by now, at my side like my Pullman daemon, able to explain everything with one look, sensitive to every gasp or concerned expression after five years together, but it wasn’t always like this, especially when he was a puppy and insisting on leaving the house at 4am.
A gorgeous balmy, breezy 60F night spills over into the day but draws foggy, blue cloud cover like curtains rippling over gusty winds and a high of 70F. Flowers bloom. Buds bud. Spring is in the air. Update: Warm afternoon rain continues all night until the following afternoon.
Here in the glorious Catskill Mountains, locals used to pick ginseng, wild leeks (ramps), chanterelles, and other rare delights in a sustainable fashion, but now we have visiting hikers ripping out all the ramps, bulb and all, to take home, or marketeers hauling out ramps by the truckload in garbage bags to sell downstate at markets. So now we must conserve – or transplant. Foraging is a great way to supplement your diet and reduce your carbon footprint. Sustainable foraging is essential, or our rare delights may disappear.
Here at Upstate Dispatch, we transplanted three wild ramps years ago that add a bunch to their number every year and they seem to love it where they are (pictured above). The secret is to plant them somewhere wet and shaded with plenty of tree cover, a place that sometimes gets boggy in rainy periods or where you find lots of mossy carpeting instead of grass.
Until recently, seasonal eating was once a relic of our agrarian past, like that quaint anachronism Sunday best. Sunday best is definitely as dead as the dodo in this consumer age and ramps will be gone too if we don’t harvest sustainably. Because of there rarity, they’re very popular and seasonal eating is making a big comeback in certain areas.
If you’re foraging on public land, only take some of what you find and only take the leaves by cutting above the bulb. Don’t remove the entire ramp.
Please do not pull ramps like this, pictured below, unless you’re picking on your own property.
Former DEC ranger, Patti Rudge, of Oliveria, will show participants how to attract nesting bluebirds in specially constructed bluebird boxes. Participants will have the opportunity to purchase a nesting box to attract a nesting pair to their own property.
Celebrate Earth Day with the great naturalist and Catskill Mountain native, John Burroughs (1837-1921), John O’Birds, as he was known during his lifetime.
According to the foundation: “More than a century ago, nearly 4 billion American chestnut trees were growing in the eastern U.S. They were among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees. The wood was rot-resistant, straight-grained, and suitable for furniture, fencing, and building. The nuts fed billions of birds and animals. It was almost a perfect tree, that is, until a blight fungus killed it more than a century ago. The chestnut blight has been called the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history.”
The AC Foundation is committed to “restoring the American chestnut tree to our eastern woodlands to benefit our environment, our wildlife, and our society. Unlike other environmental organizations, TACF’s mission is not about preventing environmental loss or preserving what we already have. The concept of our mission is much bolder and more powerful. It’s about restoration of an entire ecosystem and making our world a much better place than we found it.”
Come join us at Woodchuck Lodge for two events next Saturday 6th April, 2019: a birding walk and a talk on how to attract birds to your yard and discourage predators.
10am – 12pm Bird Walk
Join birding enthusiast Henry Wagner of SUNY Cobleskill and Park Naturalists for an outdoor foray in search of the birds of early spring, as we celebrate the date of John Burroughs’ birth. Affectionately known as “John O’Birds”, the renowned Catskills naturalist (1837-1921) waxed especially romantic about the “return of the birds,” bringing millions of Americans to a heightened appreciation of nature during a critical period in US conservation history. Bird sightings found at the Memorial Field will be embellished with pertinent quotes from Burroughs’ vibrant essays.
This program is open to the public free of charge and children are welcome. In case of inclement weather, the program will be cancelled.
Almost a foot of overnight snow descends, putting an end to exactly a week of thatched, nascent landscape and its rich earth tones. Sticky snow like spray foam clings to trunks, boughs and branches, turning outdoor furniture into ghosts, making ski-runs deep and slow. Mountains shrouded in foggy snow clouds. More snow fall during the day and a high of 38F.
It’s a familiar story: writer buys home in the Catskills for [insert reason] and ends up losing heart, time and, no doubt a smidgeon of sanity to conservation, restoration and protection of these beloved mountains and its river network. For Stephen Sautner, the reason was a familiar one: fly fishing. An avid outdoorsman from boyhood, he decided to buy a fixer-upper cabin on the banks of a tributary and turn it into a “fish camp” for holidays and weekends until retirement. Well, that’s what he thought. Turns out Mother Nature had other plans for him and this portion of the river that ran through his 14-acre property, that he named simply “Six-Foot-Wide Stream”, but it was anything but simple. Several devastating floods, flora and fauna infestations and a scare over fracking gave him an all-consuming education he didn’t anticipate. But he would do it all over again, he says: “come spring, when the warblers have returned, and mayflies are hatching and brook trout are rising to them, and I’m siting on the front porch sipping coffee and watching it all, I believe I wouldn’t have changed a thing”.
In a recent article in Atlantic Monthly Magazine entitled Death Cap Mushrooms Are Spreading Across America, the author details how deadly amanitas are popping up all over cities and being eaten by city people because they are tasty, and I find it highly intriguing, being a former city girl, gone country.
Some naturalists theorize that man was “created” by the natural world, or Mother Nature, as a smarter, better way to spread seeds across the world in order to more successfully propagate forests – a sort of supreme effort by trees at world domination, if you like. If this is so, we turned the tables on this activity a few hundred years ago and in terms of the history of the planet that’s pretty recent.
To risk stating the obvious, we have stopped being useful to the trees. We have been chopping them down at an alarming rate for hundreds of years. A good way to get rid of us as a species, should they have the capacity to decide, would be to grow very tasty, highly poisonous mushrooms in abundance on the ground, ones that don’t affect local animals – only us as a species. Might the trees be trying to kill city dwellers?
Upstate Dispatch has been pretty quiet so far this month. It’s been like a reference library at HQ as we research future projects. There’s been a lot of reading going on and some fiction-writing.
As another superb ski season comes to a close, fly fishing season will be hard on its heels. April 1st is opening day across the Catskills. Esopus Creel is preparing to open a store next to Woodstock Brewery in Phoenicia. Stephen Sautner has published a new memoir about conservation, fly fishing and life in the Catskills titled A Cast in the Woods. I interviewed Stephen, a lifelong fisherman, for my radio show today, and will be posting a print interview with him online in the next few days. Trout Tales gears up for a couple of months of events, classes, and activities in rivers and streams flowing through these mountains.
While we work on content, specifically podcasts, we offer some interesting links to articles on the arts, food and the outdoors.
Are you ready from Spring migration? The National Audubon Society’s birding app.
It would have been Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday this year on May 31st, 2019. John Burroughs Woodchuck Lodge is hosting a celebration that begins at Union Grove Distillery in Arkville on the evening of May 31st, 2019. Check the website for details.
And finally, an example of how hoards of people descend on a natural wonder and ruin it, from the LA Times. Please adhere to Leave No Trace guidelines when enjoying nature: take only photographs and leave only footprints.
On March 15th last week, we woke to a bare Catskills landscape like it had thrown off its white quilt in the night and saw a high of 65F that day: such a stark difference from last year on the same day in the same place, where it remained at 37F and covered in snow.
Just before noon last week, we decided to check the last surviving bee hive. To our delight, after five years of trying to keep bees and failing, we discovered that our white hive of bees survived the winter. (The Warre hive into which we had installed a swarm last year did not.)
We re-stocked the surviving bee hive with food patties for the bees, just in case we got another cold snap, and put back the lid. Last year, we built a heavy “roof” for our hive and insulated it with old, woolen sweaters and pillows and this seems to have kept them warm. The hive is thriving.