National Park Weekend 2015

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Mild spring weather arrived just in time for National Park weekend on the 18th and 19th of April. Along with the warm, fresh air, new young leaves, and the first blossoms, come a stream of visitors eager to head outdoors.

This is Julian Alden Weir Farm National Park/Historic Site, where I work for the National Park Service as a volunteer. At 60 acres, it is a speck compared to the big names, but remains a jewel nestled in the wooded hills of Wilton and southern Ridgefield. Julian Alden Weir, after which the park is named, was a painter and pioneer of American impressionism, using the landscape as inspiration for his masterpieces. During National Park weekend, visitors are encouraged to use art supplies provided by the park to experience en plein air, carrying on in Weir’s legacy, and tours are offered to the Weir house and studio as well as the Young studio.

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There are also activities for the kids to do and earn a Junior Ranger badge, so get them involved :).

My focus isn’t so much giving tours or discussing impressionist art as it is to be a steward of the land. My responsibility is to preserve the trails and work with maintenance employees in order to manage the park grounds.

Welcome to the office, let me show you around :)…

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This is the beginning of a short 1 mile /1.6 km trail loop around Weir Pond.

 

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Among the throngs of American Trout Lily, there is one whose flower bud has opened, becoming the first bloom in the forest.

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Overlooking Weir Pond, an addition Mr. Weir constructed for fishing after winning first-prize for a painting he entered at an art show in 1896.

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This is one of the older trees on the property, a hefty Black Oak. My staff is 5 ft 10 inches/ 1 meter 78 cm for comparison. At that size, it may be second-growth (pre mid-1800s).

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Continuing on the path around the southern side of Weir Pond, where a gentle brook meanders from the woodland, bisecting the trail, and feeds into the water body.

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A geocache partially hidden beneath a Sweet Birch. You’d think it would be fairly easy to spot, but for the most part it remains unnoticed.

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At the eastern edge of Weir Pond, the trail loop connects to branching paths of Nod Hill Refuge, 29 acres of public land owned by the town of Ridgefield.

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There were some Wild Strawberries as well. 🙂

Making my way back up the trail, I was reminded of a growing problem that appears to be affecting many Sweet Birch in our area. I’m not sure what insect causes this, but the damage done to the trees severely weakens them, causing potential hazards where they lean over the footpath. I marked 5 or 6 trees for the maintenance crew to deal with.

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The bottom pic shows wounds higher up on an adjacent tree. If any of you can identify the bug causing this, please let me know in the comments.

Up and over the hill, and here we are back at start, across the street from the Weir house.

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Perhaps what I like most about volunteering, besides being outside, is knowing that what I do makes a difference…and I enjoy what I do ;). In 2005 alone, 137,000 volunteers worked 5.2 million hours at national parks across the US. Currently, that number has grown to over 200,000 volunteers :).

 

 

Birch Tapping

Cheery bird song has summoned the great awakening of spring, and all around me I see the life force in the land rejuvenated after a grey, frosty slumber. I don’t know about the rest of the Northeastern region, but winter was rather unusual for us…then again, when is it ever predictable here? 😛 The season started late, and then a snap into action in January with lots of snow followed by seasonably chill temperatures, continuing into March. Our last significant snowfall was on the 20th with 4 inches accumulation. The final tally according to my own calculations is 58 inches for my locality…a lot of snow within a relatively short time-span, but not a record season. If you want to check out data from previous years for inland Connecticut (Windsor Locks area), go to http://www.erh.noaa.gov/box/climate/bdlsnw.shtml.

Except for sparse patches of snow shielded from the warming sun and leftover ice on ponds and lakes, all signs of winter have faded away. The buds of Long-beaked and Cat Willows have blossomed into their characteristic fuzzy catkins, and for me, this is a clear indication that the sap is once again flowing.

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During these early days of spring, it has become a sort of seasonal ritual for many outdoorsmen/women to collect birch sap. There are a variety of birch species one can choose from, and all will generally have the same slightly sweet flavour due to minute quantities of xylitol. In the Northeastern region, our native species include Golden or Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), Grey Birch (B. populifolia), Paper Birch (B. Papyrifera), Heart-leaved Paper Birch (B. cordifolia), River Birch (B. nigra), and Sweet or Cherry Birch (B. lenta). I have found Sweet and Golden Birch to be the best because there is also a faint taste of wintergreen in the sap, a naturally occurring form of methyl salicilate. There are also two naturalised European species you may find – Silver Birch (B. pendula) and Downy Birch (B. pubescens).

Now, some of you may notice that I did not include Bog Birch (B. pumila), Dwarf Birch (B. minor), and Glandular Birch (B. glandulosa), which are native dwarf trees…the reason is that these species are classified as rare. Even if they weren’t, their small size limits the quantity of sap you can collect. That said, I do not recommend harvesting sap from birches that have a trunk diameter of less than 20 cm/8 inches. The mature trees (31 cm/12 inches and larger) will yield more and should heal quicker than younger ones.

There are many different ways of harvesting sap, some of which are less injurious to the tree than others. The method I will show you has been tried and tested, and it doesn’t require any fancy tools besides a knife, a pot or bucket (or whatever you want to use to collect the sap), and a glob of pitch. Done with care, it does very little harm to the tree and is a sustainable practice. Birch sap is best harvested in early spring when the flow is at its greatest.

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Select a mature birch (here I’ve chosen Sweet Birch) that is live and healthy. **If there is a water source close-by, be aware of the possibility that it may be contaminated with pollutants which the tree may or may not filter. If the water is known to be contaminated, don’t risk it. Find another tree in a different location.**

Begin by carving a tap from a piece of downed deadwood. It doesn’t have to be intricate, just something that will carry the sap down into your pot or bucket. A split twig will work great, just be sure to remove all the bark and scrape out the pith…this will act as a channel for the sap to flow. Shave the twig about 2.5 cm/an inch down from one end to roughly 2-2.5 mm thickness – this will be the part that inserts into the sapwood.

At around chest height up the trunk, take your knife and angle it slightly upwards against the bark. You don’t want to angle it straight into the tree, because gravity will not be working in your favour. Too steep an angle may break off a chunk of inner bark and expose an area of sapwood that can later become infected from insect damage. Push the knife into the tree gently at first, and then tap it in about 2.5 cm/an inch, but no more than 4 cm/1.5 inches. If sap doesn’t start to drip down your knife blade, carefully wiggle the knife side to side slightly. Once it starts to trickle, remove your knife and insert the wooden tap. Sometimes you have to make final adjustments to your tap so that it fits into the tree and carries the sap. Once it is fitted, all you need to do is place your pot or bucket on the ground to collect the drips, and wait for it to fill. You can also tie the container to the tree if you wish.

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In the meantime, I scouted the surrounding area for Partidgeberries. It was too early in the new season to find any edible greens. After about 45 minutes of foraging, I gathered a small handful. Nothing substantial, but enough for a quick snack :).

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Patridgeberry is perhaps our most abundant woodland ground cover. Further north and in higher elevations, however, Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and Snowberry (G. hispidula) will be found more prevalent.

I returned to the tapped Sweet Birch and found a little over a cup (237 ml) of the precious liquid in my pot. For me, this is all I need… I don’t make birch beer or wine, that requires a lot more sap. When you’ve collected the amount of sap you want, it is important to respect the tree and take some time to close the small wound we’ve created, else it will attract insects and may become infected. Remove the tap, push down hard onto the wound until the seepage slows to a halt, and hold it there for about a minute. This closes off the opening and will allow the tree to heal itself properly. You could leave it at that, but I like to plaster on some fresh pitch to seal the wound – this will speed up the healing. Conifers are well adapted to fend off many types borer insects because they exude a tacky sap from their wounds.

So then… what do I do with my birch sap? I just drink it raw, as is. I find it to be incredibly refreshing, more so than plain water. In Scandinavia, the Saami people drink birch sap as a booster tonic. Some folks like to use it to brew up a bush tea (mind you, you’ll need more than a cup of sap for that), so feel free to experiment. 🙂

To Live Like Thoreau…

At Juniata College in Pennsylvania, there is a senior student by the name of Dylan Miller, who lives outside off-campus. For the past 10 months, he has lived in a self-made shelter of dead-fall timber, leaves, and a tarp roof as part of his senior year project at the university. He is a Philosophy and English major, studying Henry David Thoreau’s works and attempting to get a much clearer understanding of the man by way of immersion, just as Thoreau described.

“It’s a lot like jumping into a cold lake, and after a minute you’re used to it and you’re swimming around happily. I just wore shorts all winter because my body was so well acclimated.”

College officials were at first rather alarmed of Dylan’s idea to live in the woods about 30 minutes away by foot from the campus, but he submitted a 21 page essay addressing their concerns and explaining his well being. Of course, he would keep a cellphone with him in case of emergencies, and during the winter, he spent a week at a friend’s place when temperatures plummeted well below freezing.

What I find most interesting is that this man has made this choice a comfortable one. Some might think that living outdoors during the winter to be over-the-top extreme, but Dylan has remained self-reliant. His shelter has a wooden floor to act as insulation from the ground, and it is warmed by a propane burner when the temperature drops below -7 C/20 F. As for food and water, Dylan buys his own, carrying gallons of water to his shelter and consumes rice, beans, and dehydrated soups. Trash is removed and properly disposed of, and human waste is buried in an outdoor latrine.

In May, when Dylan will graduate, he plans on disassembling his shelter: “Everything in the woods rots and changes and becomes everything else, so I wouldn’t have it any other way with the shelter.”

http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/College-Senior-Gives-New-Meaning-to-Living-Off-Campus-298571441.html

I think there is a lot we can learn from this man. His commitment to live a simple life removed from modern luxuries is in many ways a purification, one we all need from time to time, and is no doubt why many of us head outdoors. To fully appreciate our modern technology and conveniences, we need to remove ourselves from it and remind ourselves of what we as people used to be. I, myself, have a had but a brief taste of living without luxuries during late October and November of 2011, though under different circumstances. Still, the impact was the same. That experience has taught me think more of our modern lifestyles. We are surrounded by conveniences and extravagances, yet many of us do not give them a second thought, yet when we are suddenly removed from them, we act like spoilt children. In my eyes, we have become slaves to these luxuries…we cannot imagine living life without them because we have become spoilt. We no longer have to hunt and gather for our food, heat our homes with wood, or travel on foot or horse.

As a final closing thought, I’ll leave you something to ponder: “Not till we are completely lost or turned around… do we begin to find ourselves.” ~ Henry David Thoreau