Reading Dead Trees

Stewardship means using nature for human flourishing rather than preserving it in a museum, but it also implies a fine appreciation of the constraints implicit in ecosystems where human life exists  –Paul B. Thompson, The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics

Southeast Michigan has experienced the second coldest February in recorded history!  I’m fairly cold tolerant myself, but even I have limits.

If you can’t get outside, even when the weather is more amenable (like today, I think it was 44F), try reading.  Turn off the TV, power down the computer, the phone, and engage your imagination.

Before children, I read voraciously.  That has since slowed down.  A. Lot.  Still, somehow, I can read at least ten books a year.

I recently came across this article which lays out a plan to finish a book a week.  It’s ambitious, but do-able with discipline.  I’m achieving about 75% success with it.  See what you think.

So yes, the sap should be running soon, the daylight is increasing (Ugh, Daylight Savings Time started today), and the average temperature is eking upwards, but you still might find time to read by a fire or the old forced-air furnace.

I did this a little over a year ago, and am repeating the challenge: briefly review some books that fit the blog’s theme and am encouraging you to read them or find some others and report back.

The biography

The biography

At first glance, Paul Mariani’s biography of Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins might appear out of place, but Hopkins brilliantly melded his Christianity with many poems about nature.  Mariani, a poet himself, examines Hopkins’ emotional and spiritual landscapes as well as the natural landscapes that inspired much of the poetry in Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life.  All of Hopkins’ life was lived in very anti-Catholic, very Victorian Britain.  If biography isn’t for you, I highly recommend his poetry.

 

Wes Jackson, of the Land Institute, has a 100-year goal: to get food crops to mimic the perennial nature of the prairie.

The Blue Book

The Blue Book

The point of this is to preserve the soil, without which we won’t have many plants.  Additionally, he wants farming to go back to the more natural model of polyculture versus our industrial monoculture that is easy prey to pests, disease, and genetic die-off.

Jackson claims to be about 50 years into his plan.  Obviously, the institute will have to carry on after him.  It’s an uphill battle, as industrial agriculture has the mountain lion’s share of money and is firmly ensconced in our political culture.

New Roots for Agriculture isn’t a dry book about Ag techniques; it’s about his labor of love.  He quotes the first director of the Soil Conservation District (in the country?) by saying that the “land must be loved to be protected.  To him the plain truth was that ‘Americans as a people, have never learned to love the land and to regard it as an enduring resource.'”

The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff, has been quoted in an earlier post and to reiterate briefly, the essays look at the costs associated with our current meat and animal byproduct method of “farming.”

You may reconsider your meaty meal after this.

You may reconsider your meaty meal after this.

The various authors, only a few of whom are shrill, calmly examine the energy, health, environmental, social, and even spiritual costs we incur from this endemic system.

Next up, a 25th anniversary edition (2004) of Donald Worster’s history of Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.  I had seen parts of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary of a similar name, but when it aired, for whatever reason, it didn’t grab me.

Worster manages to make the details lively and includes plenty of oral history.  Considering he was interviewing people who lived through it in the 70s, his history seems fresher than Burns’ 30+ years later.

Of course, the ecological causes and effects are delved into, but Worster doesn’t shy away from squarely bringing the blame to American culture:

The culture of modern, western man rests on the belief that he is autonomous in nature.  He is confident that he is a sovereign creature, independent of the restraints that plague other species–not controlled as they are, but in control [emphasis mine–SFM].  That has not been the view of most people in world history.

Included in the volume are quite a few photographs from WPA photographers and others of the period that help to concretize Worster’s prose.

Not a dusty tome

Not a dusty tome

Perhaps most shocking–I didn’t see it in the Burns’ show–was that the Dust Bowl returned to the region two more times!–in the 50s and the 70s.  For much the same reasons–industrialized agriculture–in an ecosystem that rejects that kind of farming.

 

 

 

 

Lastly, I finished The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics most recently, on 28 February to be pedantic.  Paul B. Thompson attempts a philosophy of farming.  He succeeds–partially.

I enjoyed about the first two-thirds of the chapters, but then it bogged down in defining sustainability.  The author explains why it’s tricky (think about it–what exactly is meant by the term?) and even apologizes for creating previous material on the subject that was dull, but slogs on anyway.

Maybe worth your time, maybe not.

Maybe worth your time, maybe not.

In the end, he pushes for a hybrid of Jeffersonian and other thinkers’ agrarianism.  I could see a place for religion in his argument, but he only mentions it near the end.

Most of the titles in this series (the University of Kentucky’s Culture of the Land) have been excellent.  This one?  Not so much, but if you enjoy philosophy this might make for something different.

 

So, did you read anything of note this winter that was ecology-related?  Leave a comment and tell us if it was worthwhile or not.

See you in April!

Sweet, sweet sap

This has been the interminable winter here in the Great Lakes.  As of a snowfall yesterday, we are only three inches away from tying the all-time snowiest winter for Detroit since 1880-81.

We’ve had a few days of forty degrees and two that were just above fifty, but mostly it’s been cold and snowy.  We’re getting sunnier days now and quite often it feels like we’re on that hinge point between winter and spring, which is only just over a week away.

This time of year though is special.  As the days warm, yet the nights stay cold, the sap begins to flow in trees.  That means the first farm crop that can be harvested in Michigan is almost ready.

What am I talking about?  Arugula?  No, that would have been planted in late summer or early fall and probably the season was over in January (if you had them covered.  Asparagus?  Nope, too early.  So what then?

I could only be talking about maple syrup.  That sweet, gooey goodness that comes from a tree.

"The Collection Bucket"

“The Collection Bucket”

 

My experience with maple syrup didn’t start until much later in life (my twenties, if I recall correctly).  I was a devotee of Mrs. Butterworth’s and no tree sap was going to change my mind.

I don’t know when I made the switch exactly, but I don’t want to go back to that old corn lady.  Sure, maple syrup costs more, but hey, it’s almost guaranteed to be organic and sustainable and supports local economies.

In fact, per tablespoon of maple syrup you’ll ingest 20 mg calcium, 2 mg phosphorous, 2 mg iron, 2 mg sodium (yes, they even put salt on trees!) and 35 mg of potassium.  What’s your corny syrup have?

Maple syrup is only produced in the northeastern US and eastern Canada.  How far west the range extends, I’m not sure, but probably not west of Minnesota, if that.

The Michigan Maple Syrup Association claims it is the oldest agricultural enterprise in the US, but I’m not clear on what that means?  Older than corn and squash?  The oldest enterprise that involved the exchange of money?  The website doesn’t clarify that.  Obviously, though, the Indians were the first to discover the sweetness hidden beneath the bark.

Doing it on her own

Speaking of Michigan, according to 2004 figures, Michigan is 5th in the nation for syrup production with 90,000 gallons harvested per year.  It appears to be one of those rare products where demand exceeds supply, possibly explaining the relatively high cost–and perhaps because the US Farm Bill does not include subsidies for maple trees.

The sap is collected from the xylem in sugar, red, and black maple trees, although other species of maple can be tapped, but the sugar content is lower resulting in less sweetness, less syrup,  or more boiling time.  In Korea, people drink the sap from Acer mono, another maple species, but don’t produce syrup.  And in Alaska and Siberia, birch trees are tapped, but again sugar content is much lower.

The flavor is affected by soil type, tree genetics, and the weather during the tapping season.  Pressure develops in the tree when the temps are above freezing and this pushes the sap out of a wound or a tap.

Maples are tapped once they reach about 10 inches in diameter with one tap.  The largest trees have a maximum of three taps.  On average, given the tree, weather, length of sap season, and method, one can harvest about 10-20 gallons per tap.

Pouring sap

Once it’s bottled, maple syrup is good for over a year.

In the Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells of a winter treat where hot maple syrup is poured over snow to create a proto-snow cone.  My father-in-law can attest to this.

If you’re at all interested in making your own maple syrup, you don’t have to own 40 acres of sugar bush, you could, with your neighbors’ consent, tap the trees right around you.

The challenge this month isn’t to tap a maple tree, but it is two-fold: see if you can identify some of the still naked maples in your neighborhood (sugar maples have “peanut-butter valleys” between ridges of bark) and buy some locally/regionally produced maple syrup.

You’re welcome!

55 gallons of sap

55 gallons of sap

Information was gleaned from the Michigan Maple Syrup Association and Cornell.edu.

“Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful…”

Results of an ice storm in Mid-Michigan late December

Results of an ice storm in Mid-Michigan late December

The snowiest January on record for SE Michigan is over, but more snow is predicted tomorrow evening.  Not only have we shoveled the record amount of snow, but polar vortices dropped temperatures to record low highs and gave the winter wind more teeth than it usually has.

As usual I’m going to encourage you to go outside when the weather isn’t too frightful.  While there notice the way the wind may have scoured any accumulated snow drifts.  What kind of patterns exist?  Are you able to spot owls in the bare trees around dusk?  What animal tracks can be observed?

When you do come in from the cold, that might be the time to read a nature book (or any kind of book for that matter).  Start a fire, make some cocoa (or pour a glass of whiskey), and turn some pages.  Perhaps some of the following will be to your liking?

The Gift of Good Land by Wendell Berry.  This is less about nature than culture and agriculture, but Berry is a friend of wild spaces and the creatures that inhabit them.  The title essay is worth the price of the book alone.

The Living Great Lakes by Jerry Dennis.  Simply the most readable bit of written enjoyment about the region I inhabit.  History, culture, ecology, Dennis vividly brings the inland seas to your imagination.

Writing About Nature by John A. Murray.  Perhaps you’re ready to write about all the observations you’ve made.  Murray presents enough exercises to keep you busy and improve your chops for at least a year.

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen F. Davis.  Of particular interest for Christians and Jews, but anyone with an interest in agrarianism and what the Bible might say about that philosophy (for those with eyes to see) might like this.

All right, between trips outside and reading inside you should be busy for this shortest of all months.

"Bird Feeder"

“Bird Feeder”

“…Snow on snow…”

Yesterday was the winter solstice, so that means here in the northern hemisphere daylight will eke out a tiny bit more time everyday. Perhaps paradoxically, that also means that the temperatures will stay lower and snow will begin to accumulate in the northern climes if it hasn’t already.
Southeast Michigan has had some cold days and nights and about four inches of snow in my neighborhood, though it’s down to about one on the ground due to the rain from the last two days.
This month’s challenge is about solid water aka snow. If you live far enough north (or south) you should see some falling during the winter months.
Water in itself is a fascinating substance. When H2o molecules bond, they form 105 degree bonds which allows for quite a bit of molecular space. What does that mean? Simply put, solid water is less dense than liquid water–hence ice floats. Check it out the next time you put ice in your beverage.
Turkey(s) in the snowFor snow to form you need two things: atmospheric moisture and temperatures close to freezing. I guess some people have said that it can be too cold to snow, but that’s nonsense. As long as there’s enough moisture in the air, snow can form.
Most snowflakes are less than a 1/2″ across but some can be as large as two inches (I always called the larger, fluffier flakes “goose feathers”).
Snow is white because the way that the ice crystals form there is a relatively large amount of surface area to reflect sunlight and visible sunlight is white. However, in glaciers, blue is a prominent color, and in deep snow too.
When you go outside to explore the snow this month pay attention to your voice and other sounds. Snow absorbs sound, so your backyard and neighborhood will have a different aural quality if enough snow falls.
As I’m reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my eleven-year-old daughter currently, I learned that a blizzard, which engulfed the town the Ingalls lived in, by definition is a heavy, blowing snowfall that lasts for at least three hours. The Ingalls and neighbors endured three days of blizzard  sometime in the late 19th century.

White pine seedling in snow

White pine seedling in snow

If, in your travels in the winter, you happen to get stranded or lost, dig yourself a hole in the snow. Snow happens to be a good insulator and the layer closest to the ground is usually around 32 degrees, which is still cold, but it could be warmer than the 25, 18, or 3 degrees above the snow pack.
Another wonderful thing about winter is the ease in tracking animals. The nature of snow allows for evidence of birds and mammals to be left behind for you to follow or attempt to investigate what kinds have been around.4302872146_ee4d9cc484
So, ignore the cold (safely), play in the snow. Track animals, build a snow cave, pack a snowball. Go outside.

Afterglow

Were you able to ID any naked trees?  It certainly helps when you know what the tree is when it’s “clothed.”  Did you spot any with the beginnings of buds on them?  A couple of maples down the street from me have buds that will probably burst out late next month.

Most people appreciate a tree that crowned in glory with leaves, but there is something attractive about a naked tree.  Perhaps it is that it can’t hide any of its shape or branches.  Possibly its the contrast of the landscape with the stark, muted tones of the bark.  A snow or ice covered tree can be otherworldly if you take the time to observe.  Whatever it might be, try to get out, enjoy the last of winter and notice some details in the arbor.  Before you realize, spring will change the colors, textures, smells, and sounds around you.

The Maple that survived Death Storm 2013.

The Maple that survived Death Storm 2013.

How to make love to a naked tree

I know, I know, I stooped to such a base level to get your attention, but it’s worked hasn’t it?  The title isn’t that far off from what this month’s challenge is.  In the verdant seasons, tree identification is much easier.  After all, deciduous trees are covered with their solar panels, namely leaves.  In these northern climes, those trees undress and bask nakedly from November through March.

So, how does one identify skeletal trees?  Well, the easy way is to ID them during the growing season, IMG_0166but that doesn’t help in February, now does it?  The first step I would suggest is to just walk around.  Carefully observe bark patterns and texture.  For instance, some say sugar maples have “peanut butter valleys.”  These would be light brown vertical striations between plates of bark.  Black cherry trees appear to have “burnt-potato-chip bark.”

Notice the shape the branches form: is it roundish? tall and narrow?  irregular?  Simply looking with intent at trees is going to acclimate your eyes to patterns that exist all around your neighborhood.

The second way (and for full disclosure I use it all the time) is to use a guide much like this one.  A guide like this one moves you to attend to branches and bark, since the easiest identifier has gone missing.

It does take more effort to ID trees in the winter, especially mature trees which don’t have branches close to your level for examination.  Still, with some effort it can be done.

So, take a walk outside–the fresh air is invigorating–and ogle some naked trees.  You’ll be surprised at what you might learn. IMG_0290