Saturday, December 27, 2014


     "Absence makes the Heart grow fonder."  Thomas Haynes Bayly

     The sun has been noticeably absent in December, the double-whammy victim of endless overcast skies and the long nights of winter solstice. On the bright side, the occasional nice day has been on the weekend, just when we need it most.
     Last Saturday I was doing chores in the predawn darkness but could see it had cleared. There was a slender crescent moon in the east, Jupiter shone bright in Leo, and the sky was full of stars that gradually faded as the morning pinkend.
     I did some quick math and came up with this equation: sun + Saturday = SAW. SAW is the Salem Art Works and I'ld been wanting to check out their new trail system so the decision was easy, "Let's do it."
     The trip to Salem was memorable.  Holly drove her blue Civic with standard shift and I rode shotgun. Unfortunately this is her puppy Lala's reserved seat and she wasn't about to give it up. So I had a much-larger-than lapdog on my lap and Holly had to negotiate Lala's butt just to shift the car.

     But it wasn't till we turned down Cary Lane that things started getting really weird. Everywhere you looked big, colorful objects were poking up out of the snow. Sculptures galore grace the SAW grounds, a former dairy farm complex of barns, sheds and fields. We checked in at the house and got an enthusiastic thumbs up to explore.

     Not quite sure where to go we walked along a lane with Beaver Brook dancing along one side and a colorful mural on the other. A short stroll brought us to a pond ringed with trippy, rainbow painted vintage campers, apparently an artist's encampment in summer. Today all was quiet but it's easy to picture the place verdant with life and activity a few months hence.

     We wound our way up Cary Hill following tracks in the snow past the Salem DPW building. Apparently you can drive up here at times and someone had made an ill-advised attempt just recently that appeared to end in the ditch. It's actually a nice walk up the steep hill. Just take it slow stopping often to catch your breath and enjoy the whimsical art that dots the hillside. Looking to the east you see a breathtaking creation of another sort - the frost white panorama of the high Taconics.
     From south to north I noted Grass Mountain, Red Mountain, Equinox (with it's trademark line to the summit), Bear and Egg Mountains and Merck Forest's Mt. Antone. This is a fine vantage point to sense the tremendous compressive forces that pushed these rocks up from the sea floor thousands of feet into the air and many miles from east to west. Such is the heavy lifting that tectonic energy is capable of when Earth's plates collide.

     Near the top of the hill, past an arrangement of orange girders that can only be described as monumental, is a big stone circle that must host amazing bonfires in season. I can imagine magical star-filled nights here with flames dancing and sparks flying. Salem nestles like a toy village far below.
     A little farther are some big maples that mark the transition from fields to woods and the beginning of the trail system. We didn't see where any people had been but did see tracks of deer, rabbit, squirrel, mice and birds. After circling the crest of the hill it was a short bushwhack thru open woods back down.  
     Lala had an excellent adventure at SAW and so did I. But within minutes of reaching the car she was sound asleep. On my lap, of course.


Friday, December 26, 2014

Gift of New Skete

     "I'm dreaming of a wild Christmas."

     No white Christmas this year. Two days of warmth and rain washed that away. Our family tradition of a holiday ski tour had to take a break although Gwenne and Holly did manage some skiing (and splashing) on Christmas Eve.
     "Wild" filled in for "white" as we opted for a Christmas Day hike in the hills beyond Cambridge. From the village we drove east on Co. 67 to Ash Grove, taking time to admire the Scotch Highland cattle and, a little further on, the ghostly sycamores along White Creek. We turned right on Chestnut Hill Road where we watched Pumpkin Hook Brook staging a spring flood preview.
     Finally it's up the long hill leading to the New Skete Monastery, nestled beneath Two Tops. There had been a service earlier in the morning but all was quiet when we arrived. We strolled the peaceful grounds and were given trail directions by a gracious Brother. Then it was into the woods for a few hours of easy hiking.
     The Monks have over four miles of marked trails on their forested hillside. I've wanted to come back since going on a guided outing lead by Sue Van Hook several years ago. Stone walls tell of a time when this was open sheep pasture. Now it's mature hardwoods, full of wonder any time of the year. Reading the Forested Landscape  by Tom Wessels would be a good primer before a visit. It's a book that looks at the changes New England forests have experienced over time.
     We enjoyed our walk so much we hardly missed the white this year, and stopping for cheesecake at the Nuns of New Skete didn't hurt either. Brothers who create enchanting trails and Sisters who bake yummy desserts, now that's wild! Here's hoping you can visit and support the New Skete community in the year ahead. They are a part of what makes Washington County such a great place.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Big Tease

     Here are a few things I know and some things I'm not sure about:
     -Washington County once had a huge sheep population.
     -Woolen mills dotted the countryside.
     -Teasel plants are part of our flora.
     -Teasel has been used in the carding of wool.
     And the uncertainties:
     -Was teasel used here in wool processing?
     -If so, was teasel grown as a crop or simply harvested from wild populations?

     If you're wondering what kind of plant could be used in manufacturing, I suggest a drive north on Rt. 4 past the intersection with Rt. 22. Look for a large pull-off on the east side of the road and  you'll see big weeds growing there. Careful! This is botany that demands discretion and heavy gloves. Teasel is a plant covered in spines but it was the bristled, cone shaped flowerhead that was used in the mills.
     There are probably patches of teasel throughout Washington County but this spot's accessibility is hard to beat. It's over-your-head height keeps the plant above the deepest snow and visible all winter long. It is a biennial, native to Europe and Asia (invasive here). In the first year teasel produces a low rosette of leaves and the second year brings a tall stalk topped with the distinctive spiny eggs. These have purple flowers in summer and delicate curving bracts all year.
     I'm hoping to learn more about this curious plant and its role in the areas agricultural/industrial past. Anyone out there who can help?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Beholden to the Holdens

     I recently drove from Saratoga County to Warren County so I could research Washington County. Life would be so boring if it made sense.
     My destination was Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls. More specifically I wanted to spend some time in the Holden Room, located in the Folklife Center downstairs from the Glen Street entrance.
     Dr. Austin W. Holden was a Washington County boy, born in White Creek in 1819. He was a medical doctor while also spending time as an editor, teacher, school superintendent, soldier and cabinet maker! Did I mention he was also the area's leading historian. Following in these big footsteps his son James became the first New York State Historian. Their combined collection of some 2,500 books, maps and documents was donated to the library and forms the core of the Holden Collection of Americana. Further gifts from A. B. Colvin and A. W. Miller plus ongoing acquisitions have created a little slice of heaven for anyone interested in the region.
     The shelves are filled with an eclectic mix that defies description. There are cookbooks, phonebooks and yearbooks sitting beside family, community and church histories. There are 1840's era manuscripts from the first geological survey of New York State by the likes of Emmons and Mather next to a delightful new book titled The Hudson Valley  in the Ice Age  by Robert and Johanna Titus. Folk arts volumes ranging from basketmaking to blacksmithing to tattooing are here as well.
     The Washington County curious can read about a haunted house in Hartford, Bigfoot in Whitehall, Fort Ann's Shelving Rock Falls and the Welsh quarrymen of Granville. Even the map covered walls here are rewarding. Check out the 1884 Birdseye view of Sandy Hill (Hudson Falls) to see what's changed and what's stayed the same. Then there's the 1842 Geologic Map of New York State and an 1853 map of the county where Roger's Island was called Monroe's Island and Eagleville was East Salem.
     It isn't just the books that make the Holden special. Erica Wolfe Burke is here to help as archivist and special collections librarian and Todd DeGarmo is director of the Folklife Center. Todd has a Washington County connection: he lives with his family in beautiful downtown Shushan. He's currently working on a Battenkill River exhibit that will open in the Folklife Center early next year.
     Occasionally I'll visit the Holden with something specific in mind but most of the time I'm not that focused. I love to just browse the stacks, open to some serendipitous bit of information that will send me out into the Washington County landscape looking for a fossil site, an old mill ruin or an outcrop where Native Americans chipped arrowheads. It mirrors the pleasure some find in shopping (something I remember doing last, maybe 25 years ago). It's the thrill of that special find only here there's no sales tax!
     Nothing circulates at the Holden so remember to bring a notebook and change for the copier. Hours are Monday thru Friday 10 to 12 in the morning and 1 to 4 in the afternoon plus Tuesday evening from 5 to 8.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Wild Week

     A favorite segment of A Prairie Home Companion begins with Garrison Keillor telling us, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my hometown." We're a long way from Minnesota so I'll try, "It's been a wild week in Washington County, my roam ground."
     It seems like the sky and things that fall out of it take center stage this time of year. Last evening I was out doing chores when a big orange moon rose about 6:00 PM. It was just one day past full and popped up far to the northeast, nestled amongst the familiar winter constellations of Gemini, Orion, Taurus and Auriga. Even bright stars like Capella and Betelgeuse fade into the background as if bullied by the big kid passing thru the neighborhood.
     Thursday morning served up a special treat. I was waiting for the skid-steer to warm-up and wishing for the warm-up that comes with sunrise. What I got was a blazing orange sun pillar against a purple gray cloud. It was over in a few minutes but the memory lingers. Here's a little info I found on the phenomenon:

Sun Pillars
vertical shafts of light

A sun pillar is a vertical shaft of light extending upward or downward from the sun. Typically seen during sunrise or sunset, sun pillars form when sunlight reflects off the surfaces of falling ice crystals associated with thin, high-level clouds (like cirrostratus clouds).

 Photograph by: Rauber

The hexagonal plate-like ice crystals fall with a horizontal orientation, gently rocking from side to side as they fall.

When the sun is low on the horizon, an area of brightness appears in the sky above (or below) the sun as sunlight is reflected off the surfaces of these tipped ice crystals.
     Credit Illinois WW2010 Project.

     A Sunday swing thru southern Washington County left me with pleasing images: Wampeack Creek running cold and blue between tawny banks, a big flock of wild turkeys along Co. 59, mallards in the Battenkill at Rexleigh (they seemed happy to have a river empty of fishermen, swimmers and paddlers), a squirrel's tracks in crusty snow and lots of holiday spirit at Bailey's Christmas Tree Farm in West Cambridge where cars with bushy green things on top lined both sides of the road! Something to smile about in every season