Author Archives: JNUrbanski

Catskills Conversations: Amy Masters

A YouTube interview with Catskills artist Amy Masters, who I last interviewed five years ago in 2016 in her gorgeous studio, designed by Ted Sheridan, when she was working on print making. Yesterday I spoke to Amy about how her pandemic has been, what she has been working on and her plans for 2021, which includes opening a gallery on Main Street in Fleischmanns, Upstate New York this coming summer.

The Upstate Dispatch You Tube Channel: Laura Silverman of The Outside Institute

It’s always a joy to interview Laura Silverman, founding naturalist of The Outside Institute. We caught up with her just before the holidays to see how she had spent her quarantine, what she was working on, and her thoughts on the pandemic and beating the blues by getting back into nature.

The Upstate Dispatch Homestead Is For Sale

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As the saying goes: the only constant in life is change, and I am moving on to pastures new. Upstate Dispatch is hopping over the mountain to a new HQ. We are selling the homestead in which I quarantined alone during the pandemic with my dog Alfie, the homestead that we spent over 10 years developing – for these recent events, no less – which is featured on this blog. Scroll through Upstate Dispatch and see how the property has grown over the past decade.

It’s not perfect, and we spent our time paying much more attention to the outside than the inside because we were establishing a homestead first and foremost. The focus was mostly on the land, and it’s truly a sweet spot, zoned agricultural, between Fleischmanns and Red Kill Mountain, situated on a secluded dead-end road, on top of a mountain at 2,200 feet on 6 acres with magnificent views especially in the winter.

Half of the property – the three-acre field – is old pasture land lined with stone walls in which we have built a full, fenced garden with raised beds, bee hives with electrified enclosure and a fruit orchard, set amidst a mix of rolling lawn and wildflower meadow, with mullein, mint, lilac, forsythia, masses of wild thyme, trout lilies, wild strawberries, wild blackberries, a line of young hemlocks, an ancient apple tree and a small-but-expanding ramp patch. In the orchard, we have ten apple trees, peaches, plums, eight hazelnut trees, Concord grapes, rhubarb, lilac, over-wintering sage and pears. The other half of the property is forest with its own trail and a small clearing within it, in which stands the house. In our woods, over the years I have foraged mushrooms: chanterelles, turkey tail, boletes, morels, ghost pipe and medicinal reishi.

The southerly views were a source of strength throughout the pandemic. From the deck you can see Belleayre Ski-Mountain and Slide Mountain to the south, and Brush Ridge and Halcott Mountain to the east. The views are mostly filled in with a line of towering oaks during the summer, but you don’t need them then, because the sheer beauty of the property is more than enough. The three-acre field used to be all hay. When the realtor showed us the property, we got out of the car – remember getting rides in cars? – and my husband walked towards the hay and then slowly took off at a cantor until he disappeared and all we could see were the soles of his feet rising up and down in the tall brush, arms outstretched as if he were conducting a grassy orchestra. I turned to the realtor and said: “I think this is the one”. The oaks also serve as privacy from your lovely neighbors on the ridge which is a subdivision of nine houses.

In the depths of winter, with the panoramic views, you can see the weather approaching from hundreds of miles away. For years we would work at our dining table that was situated in front of large-paned sliding doors and watch nature in all her glory. Sometimes a dense chalky cloud would loom into view, hover briefly over a neighboring mountain as if it were merely stopping to drop someone off, and engulf its peak, silently laying a white cap of snow like it was a huge machine icing a cake before moving slowly on. Storm clouds would glide past in the middle distance like floating balled up socks, flashing erratically, dropping blurry sheets of rain like shower curtains, exploding with flashing lights and emitting furious, powerful thunder that made the house shudder. 

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Maple Boiling

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The sap began to flow at the end of February – 27th – when temperatures rose briefly. Now it’s flowing intermittently when temperatures rise during the day. Equipment is still freezing up overnight and has to be shut down while the lows are in their twenties: 21F, 24F and 29F, but it was 39F last night.

Maple syrup is highly processed, requiring complicated equipment for each stage of production: sap is drawn from the trees through tubing with a vacuum system; the sap is then passed through a reverse osmosis machine that removes water and makes the sap more concentrated. (This process produces purified water called permeate.) The sap is then boiled to about 220F, then clarified through a filter press. The boiling point varies with atmospheric pressure.

The amount of sap that each tree produces depends on the girth of the tree. Each tree makes roughly one quart of finished syrup. One gallon of syrup will start life as roughly 42 gallons of sap this year, the ratio being dependent on how sweet the sap is. The sugar content (measured in degrees Brix: one degree of Brix is one gram of sucrose per 100 grams of solution) of the sap now running is 2%. Tree Juice Maple Syrup has two sap bushes: the Red Kill sap bush has sweeter sap than the Rider Hollow sap bush, which has more red maple than Red Kill. If enough sap flows on a warm day, boiling continues all day and night until the collection tank – 6300 gallons – is empty.

The final product is subtly sweet, not overwhelmingly so, and tastes smooth and earthy: nature’s amber nectar.

Daily Catskills: 03/20/21 Spring Equinox

First day of Spring, the Vernal Equinox with equal duration of day and night. A gorgeous day in the Catskills, high of 51F, balmy in the sunshine, breezy, and clear with a pink-orange sunset. Snow still lingering in the shadows. A serene start to the season after a winter of near-constant snow.

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Maple Tapping

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Maple tapping has begun and it’s complicated, arduous, physical labor in freezing cold weather. The “sap bush”, which is an area of trees that get tapped, needs specific equipment and so does the person doing the tapping. Each tree gets tapped by hand in a different place on its trunk each year and some of the tubing – called a dropline (in darker blue above) – is replaced. The sap line (in turquoise above) stays in place. Every year the tree gets a new tap and Tree Juice Maple Syrup has roughly 8,000 taps to replace. Tapping began this year on January 31st, 2021 in 15 degrees Fahrenheit and it continues this week even in a foot or two of snow, into which even the snow shoes are sinking.

“The tap network is a lot like the body,” says Jake Fairbairn part-owner of Tree Juice Maple Syrup. “The dropline is the capillary, the bigger arteries are the sap lines that lead to the bigger main lines (in black above). As you get more centralized you get bigger and bigger arteries”.

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