Geese, Herons, Beavers, and the Baby Steps of a Lapsed Blogger

For those who have been faithful followers of my blog, who have worried, and asked, “Is everything all right?” My reply is a hearty, “Yes!”.  It’s simply been a busy spring. So much has happened that I don’t know where to begin. Thus, baby steps.

 Scultpure. LH

Scultpure. LH

I watch the geese. We have, I think, eight families, but they often mix together and it is hard to tell who belongs to whom. They are eating machines and when I listen closely I hear their beaks snap as they grab grass, insects, and whatever else they are snacking on. They are also poop machines and walking around the farm requires attention to the ground before you step.

geese and tyvek studio.jpg

The geese love being here because of the pond. They need a body of water for protection. The hissing and tongue-sticking-out behavior of the defensive adults seems bravado distraction to give the goslings time to scurry into the pond.

The young herons are also a treat to watch.

 Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

One caught a frog in the mixed fruit orchard by the house. Another has been fascinated by something in the chicken coop. Then she or he walked across the street into the orchard and meandered down a row of apple trees. It is most unusual behavior for a heron. These young birds haven’t learned to fear humans or their domains; innate curiosity lures them close. This morning one came walking up the driveway;  I half expected a knock at the front door. Older herons have their reserved spots around the pond — one stands near the willows, another across the pond, and a third on the far side of the dam. This heron pays no attention to the medley of black, Northern water snakes that congregate on the warm rocks. I look down when I walk around the pond; sometimes the snakes prefer to hide in the long grass.

When I look up, I see my studio. There is no siding on the outside walls, only plastic Tyvek wrap like a Christo art installation. Inside, however, I am working and enjoying the new light-filled space immensely. We don’t have a CSA at the farm this year, and we don’t have any full time workers – which means I try to make time each week for art.

 New Studio (difficult to photograph)

New Studio (difficult to photograph)

So far it has been working and I’ve installed new work in four outdoor exhibits this spring.

 Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

I also try to spend a little time at the end of the day sitting in a chair with the windows wide open looking over the pond. One evening I saw something swimming, making what looked like figure eight circles on the far side. This went on for quite a while until I decided I would go up to the house to get some binoculars, risking of course, the creature’s disappearance.

When I returned to the studio and held the binoculars up to my eyes, I saw that there were two beavers, not one, swimming together.  One swam ahead while the other approached, then slid up over them, then swam off, and circled round. In silence the beavers came together again, then separated; joined and parted. Beavers making love in the pond!  A few more times and they disappeared. Now I keep binoculars by my window seat. I will not use these to make another scutlpure!

Bonkers, a Revolutionary Apple

The origin of the word “Bonkers” is British, and refers to being mad or crazy, as in “the crowd went bonkers when the Beatles first appeared on stage.” As a word, it’s alive and fun to say, with the opening bon(g), almost like a deep bell, then the hard ‘k,’ leading to the ‘ssss’ finale. But the best part is that it’s a great apple. My Bonkers apples are bright red, hard, large, and unusually clean, meaning in apple lingo, blemish free. It’s a juicy apple, and while I can’t say I’m struck by its particular subtlety — lemony, or cinnamony woodsy or musky — I do really enjoy it. There’s a thwack sound when you bite it — sharp, clear, and crisp.

I first heard mention of the Bonkers apple at a round table discussion on apples, the twenty-four-hour meeting I attend every year with a group of iconoclast holistic apple growers. Michael Phillips, the organizer and author of the book, The Holistic Apple Grower, said how much he liked the Bonkers apple. I loved the name, so that’s all it took; a few words touting its merits, and I was sold.  

 Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

I ordered my Bonkers from Cummins Nursery, a small family nursery in Ithaca, New York. It was one among the many dwarf apples I bought for our wall of espaliered trees. Once it fruited, I started recommending it to other apple growing friends. They came back saying they couldn’t find it; the commercial nurseries had never even heard of it. It turns out there is good reason. Cornell’s apple breeding program named it NY73334-35 about fifteen years ago, and sent it around to a few nurseries for testing. Cummins was one of the nurseries that got it and grew it, and they in turn sent a free tree to Michael Phillips, who grew it and liked it, and decided to sell it to his customers. Michael told me that he would go out with his daughter, Gracie, to pick the first fruit, calling it NY followed by a long string of numbers. I can imagine their pleasure making up numbers, saying whatever came to mind, NY63587 or NY7575755, enjoying a certain silliness as father and daughter went out to pick fruit.  

Cornell never did release the apple; and thus it never became an official variety. However, when Michael decided to sell these apples, he needed a real name:

I polled customers and someone suggested Yonkers for the New York connection. I shifted that to Bonkers, in part because these fruit develop parthenocarpically, and so there can be some irregularly shaped fruit. But mostly because it sounded fun.

Are you wondering about the word, ‘parthenocarpically’? I had to look it up, and learned that it’s like bananas and pineapples, when the fruit grows but doesn’t need a seed. I also asked Michael. He told me:

That whole partheno business is akin to seedless watermelons. Fruit can grow without the ovule-pollen connection. It’s absolutely bonkers that this apple does this! Not every flower becomes an apple. And this also explains the irregularly shaped fruit that sometimes I find.

Bonkers is a cross between Liberty, a tasty modern disease-resistant apple, and Red Delicious, the apple that is so often snubbed today. When our customers tell me that they don’t like Red Delicious, I explain that Red Delicious apples picked right from the tree are nothing like the insipid Red Delicious apples sold at most grocery stores. Ours are crunchy, and not too sweet, with a little lime flavor that I like in an apple. There is a reason that the Red Delicious apple was named, Delicious, and that it was the best-selling apple worldwide for decades. In India, the third largest grower of apples in the world, it’s still the number one apple.

So while production in the United States has dropped considerably, that artful dodger, the Red Delicious apple, is alive and well in its newest guise as Bonkers. It’s an underground revolutionary, making its way slowly throughout New England, from one apple grower to another. If you want to be part of this Bonkers movement, plant a Bonkers apple. And if you can’t find one, let me know. I will graft a few Bonkers apples with scion wood from one of our Bonkers apple trees. However, you’ll have to wait a few years, however, to taste this rebellious fruit.

 This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

There are Mushrooms and There are Morels

I’d heard people talk excitedly about hunting ‘morels,’ but never shared that experience. The only mushrooms I gather and eat are the shiitake we grow on logs here at the farm. When Holly, one of our farm workers, approached me in the orchard, and said, “What are those mushrooms under the trees?” I immediately went over to look.

Holly had been straightening out the irrigation drip lines, pulling them close to the trunks in the tree rows, so that when we mow they won’t get snagged. I had been weeding around young trees, putting cardboard down to suppress the weeds, and covering the cardboard with bark mulch. I followed Holly down one of the rows as she looked for a mushroom to show me. “Morels,” I said, instinctively, peering under the canopy of a large tree. I recognized the morels without really knowing I was familiar with them.

When I returned to the house I looked up morels, just to be sure. One photograph was all that was required. Sure enough, morels love growing under old apple trees. Morels have a distinctive shape, eerily similar to brain coral in surface, with elfin-like rounded turrets that poke up out of the ground, leaning this way and that.

 Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Morels particularly like apple trees, poplar, and elm, but can be found just about anywhere. The challenge is to spot them. Sometimes you have to walk by a site several times, but once you notice one, you will usually see many more. Morels like days of sixty degrees and nights of forty degrees, and, of course, moisture — just the conditions we’ve had all spring. So perhaps we have had morels before, but so few that I didn’t notice. This is a bumper year for morels, they are calling out to be harvested. Otherwise, the mushrooms will dry up in a few days, resembling dark rice paper that will melt back into the ground. It did occur to me that I probably shouldn't be writing this blog—morel seekers guard their favorite gathering locations with religious fervor!

When I decided to collect the morels, I read about the best way to harvest them. Some aficionados claim that you should cut them just at ground level; others, that pulling with just a slight tug releases the mushroom with a little knob covered in dirt. The ones who favor cutting say that plucking may damage the mycelia threads and reduce future harvests. I decided to try both techniques. I went back to the orchard with a basket and pocket knife. Pulling them seemed so easy, as if they simply released willingly into your hand. It didn’t feel like I was doing any damage. Cutting them off is neat and clean, but left a hole in the hollow stem open to the air. After trying both approaches, I found myself preferring the pluck method, and harvested enough for lunch.

Blase and the day’s workers, Kevin, Mike, and Holly, were already in the kitchen. I sliced up the morels and added a few shiitake. In a heavy frying pan, I poured a little olive oil and a generous tad of butter. When the pan was hot and the butter melted, in went the mushrooms. While they were cooking, I added a little salt, a little rice bran oil with a very small amount of shoyu, and balsamic vinegar. We shared the exquisite, rich taste. I couldn’t imagine they would ever taste this good again. Two days later, my daughter, Ariel, and I went hunting, and brought home another basket full.  I cooked them again, and they were scrumptious.

 Morels with a couple of small shiitake.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.