Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Sus scrofa of Shushan

     Seen any flying pigs lately? Ok, that may depend on what you've been smoking or drinking. Way more than I need to know. Or it could be a matter of where you've driven. If you've gone down Sutherland or Dobbin Hill Roads chances are good you have seen the porkers of Flying Pigs Farm. They're out in the pastures rooting and oinking and making pighood look like a good career choice.

Flying Pigs Farm

     I've often passed them on a running loop I'm fond of. From Shushan, across the Battenkill and down Sutherland, then back on Co. 64 to the Georgi for a post-workout swim. (It's been quite a few years since I opted for the Dobbin Hill variant, scenic but way steep.) In any case, I'ld jog past the animals smiling at their antics but more focused on the sandy beach and cool water that would soon be my reward. Truth is, any outing on rural Washington County roads turns into a barnyard tour with cows, goats, sheep, horses and chickens being common sights.

Pigs Eye View of the Taconics from Dobbin Hill Road

     But you don't see as many pigs as you used to. I can remember every farm keeping a few, feeding them waste milk, garden surplus and table scraps. Our hog barn was situated between a corn crib and the ice house. It was a simple structure, slate roofed and red painted. A row of pens were on the right side, each with a small door to outside yards. That was the side where, as a young boy, I slopped the hogs and they grew fat and seemingly happy. On the left was a heavy wooden bench with knives and saws hanging above it and the back corner was filled with a bricked up firebox cradling a large iron kettle. That was the side for when the growing was over, if you get what I mean.
     We never actually slaughtered, scalded or butchered in the barn even though it was efficiently designed for that purpose. In the late '50's when my family bought the farm, times were already changing. And we only had hogs for a few years that I can remember. They would always be rooting and getting under their fence, creating a "Pigs are out!" emergency. Then there was the circus of trying to load a 250# beast into a pick-up truck for the trip to Nestle Bros. and processing down in Easton. The animals were perfectly satisfied with their accommodations and quite unwilling to leave.
     Finally, after a summer filled with attempted escapes and a loading ordeal of squeals and swearing, our pig raising days came to an end. There were cows to take care off and bacon was cheap in the supermarket. Now all that is left of the hog barn is the iron kettle which, unfortunately, was damaged in the demolition. I want to plant flowers in it and hang a sign proclaiming our place
"Cracked Pot Farm". So far I've been voted down on that one.

     I suspect a similar scenario played out on other farms because it went from everybody having a few pigs to almost no one keeping them. Big agribusiness could do it better and cheaper. Or so we were told. But then something curious happened. A few back-to-landers wanted to be self-sufficient. Michael Pollan wrote a book called The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Alice Waters pioneered the idea of restaurants serving locally produced food. Temple Grandin challenged the way industrial ag treated animals and Joel Salatin developed an integrated farm model that functioned liked a natural ecosystem.
     People became interested in how their food was produced and where it came from. Some questioned whether the Monsanto - Merck - Tyson Foods path was the way to go. Farming began to catch the imagination of young people who saw it as a viable career where they could meet their economic needs while honoring their values and ideals. Even Washington County, with a long history of traditional agriculture and rather conservative attitudes towards change was affected.
     You can find all kinds of farming here - organic and conventional, crop and animal, large and small. Dairy still seems to be most prominent with everything from several thousand cow operations, to people milking a few goats and making cheese. Seth McEachron's Battenkill Valley Creamery up towards West Hebron has been successful at processing their farms milk and directly distributing it, while the Argyle Cheese Farmer business developed by the Randles family is expanding. Go to any area farmers market and you'll see a bounty of locally produced vegetables, fruits, honey and maple, eggs, cheeses and meat. The Washington County food scene is diverse and vibrant, which brings us back to the pigs (Sus scrofa is their scientific name) of Shushan.

     A book called Pig Tales by Vermont food writer Barry Estabrook opened my eyes to our curly-tailed neighbors. It came out earlier this year and drew quite a bit of attention, with the author being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air  and also appearing on VPR's Vermont Edition with Jane Lindholm. The book is divided into three sections with the first being an introduction to pigs and their long relationship with humans. The middle part is a disturbing look at Big Pig - the industrial, warehouse model of pork production. Finally, the last few chapters offer a hopeful alternative with Flying Pigs Farm of Shushan serving as a model for how great tasting pork can be raised in a humane and environmentally sensitive way.
     The book touches on many issues including antibiotic abuse, animal rights, social justice, food elitism, heritage breeds, sustainability and more. It's upsetting, thoughtful and encouraging by turns. We can be grateful that a small farm here in Washington County is showing the world a better way.

Wild Watch
     There are life lists and bucket lists. The first is a tally of wildlife sightings and the second a collection of experiences you hope to have before that final kick. One thing you do not want on either list is seeing a wild boar. At least not in Washington County.
     These guys are the terrorists of the animal world. Nothing but trouble while paradoxically being the same species (Sus scrofa) as our friend, the barnyard porker. Taxonomically they are in the order Artiodactyla (Even-toed Hoofed Mammals), family Suidae (Old World Swine). While many ungulates (hoofed mammals) are herbivores and ruminants, pigs are omnivores with a simple stomach and do not chew their cuds. One notable characteristic is canine teeth that grow thru out life, protruding to form four very formidable tusks. The boars use these for rooting and defense. They've ripped open many a dog and even been known to kill bears! See why you don't want them around?

     Boars are native to Eurasia and were one of the first animals to be domesticated some 10,000 years ago. They grow quickly, eat just about anything and have large litters of up to 12 piglets. Columbus brought some on his second voyage, turning them loose to multiply and provide fresh meat for the sailors. Austin Corbin introduced 11 wild boars from Germany to a game park in New Hampshire in 1899. Some escaped, as they always do, and these may be the seedstock for New England's population.
     According to DEC's website it is illegal to possess or hunt Eurasian Boar in New York State. Ecosystem destruction, crop damage and disease transmission are cited among the reasons for the ban. At the same time there are hunting preserves in Washington County whose sites advertise wild boar hunts! I've heard anecdotally (from "reliable" sources) of boars breaking out of the preserves.
A "What the ....?" situation if you ask me.

     * One final note. Got up at 4:00 am this morning to look for Leonid meteors. Clear, cold with a sparkling sky of bright stars and Jupiter, Mars and Venus lined up between the constellation Leo and the horizon. Some years this shower turns into a storm with hundreds of shooting stars visible.  Maybe not this year though. I didn't see a single streak in fifteen minutes of shivering. But here's the good news - I didn't see any wild boars either.

Doing lunch at Taproots Farm - photo from their website

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Right Side of the Tracks

     If they decide to run me out of town on a rail I'll be OK with that. I've always wanted to take a train trip. But I do have one last request. I'ld like to leave from Fort Edward. That way I'll be able to enjoy one of The Stations sandwiches before I go.

     You know those franchised, cookie cutter fast food joints you see everywhere? The ones lined up cheek to jowl along traffic clogged highways? Well, The Station Deli is their opposite. For one thing, it's located in an 1900 D&H railroad station that's on the national register of historic places. It's a steep gabled, slate roofed building with high ceilings and burnished woodwork. Imagine looking at the creased and weathered face of an aged veteran or a great grandmother. You know there's depth and character and stories there. This building is like that. It's seen a lot, it has tales to tell.

     Inside you'll get creative sandwiches with whimsical names like The All-Aboard and The Choo-Choo. But you can really get whatever you want because each meal is made to order from a selection of high quality meats and cheeses on telera, ciabatta or maybe wheat or rye - your choice. On a recent rainy day of running errands I swung down East Street for a chicken and cranberry sandwich with a pickle, chips and salad. I sat outside, on the platform beneath the overhang, reading and munching while feeling the pull of the tracks stretching off into the distance.

     Canadian Pacific freights roll thru here but the route also sees a few Amtrak passenger trains. From Fort Edward you can go north to Montreal, south to New York City or east to Rutland, Vermont. The Station doesn't sell tickets so you should probably get them online or onboard. My reading of the schedule indicates you could catch the train here around 12:30 pm (after a Deli lunch!), ride north thru Washington County and along Lake Champlain before disembarking in Ticonderoga, Port Henry or maybe Westport. Then, hopefully, hitching onto the southbound back to Fort Edward for a half-day excursion. Other than that, plan on spending a night in one of the big cities, or Vermont, depending on which direction you head.

     You'll be traversing a small section of a long valley that extends north to south along the eastern edge of North America. It's the result of plate tectonics and the bumping and tearing the margin of the continent has endured over billions of years. Faults developed, blocks of crust dropped and then were filled with relatively soft sedimentary rocks such as shale and limestone. These were eroded by rivers and glaciers until a valley formed.
     Today the Hudson flows south thru part of the Great Valley and Lake Champlain fills it to the north. A train ride from Fort Edward will take you over a low divide between the two drainages, skirting the edge of the Adirondacks and then hugging the shore of the big lake towards Canada.
     This has been "the way" since the last glacier melted and its icy lakes drained. The Paleoindians may have hunted woolly mammoths here 12000 years ago and by the time Europeans arrived this valley divided the territories of the Iroquoian and Abenaki peoples. A long period of warfare followed with Indians, rangers and uniformed armies stalking the forests and floating the waterways. After the fighting came roads, canals and the railroad.
     Ever since we left Africa several million years ago humans have been characterized by the urge to wander and explore. Movement is in our genes and earlier this year we pushed our boundaries out to the edge of the solar system when the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto. It took nine and a half years of travel across many billions of miles but our restless curiosity got us there.

     Visit The Station and you can't help wonder what lies down the tracks, how exciting it would be to climb on the train and find out. Some cow-less day that's what I'm going to do. Until then I'll be the guy sitting on the platform with my Deli sandwich and a faraway look in my eyes.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Wash & Where?

     Ready to be schooled? The challenge is to  identify these "halls of learning" from times gone by. I'll give you a hint: I took the photos on a circuitous trip to Salem where I heard some great stories at Sunday afternoon's Word Plays at the Cabaret. As your teacher used to say, "There will be a quiz."

( 1 )
( 2 )

( 3 )

( 4 )

( 5 )

( 6 )

( 7 )

( 8 )

Answers Please -

 ( 1 ) This big brick box is in Thompson, Town of Greenwich on Co. 113. It recently housed the Adirondack School. I'm not sure of its use before that. It's for sale should you desire to go into education. Across the road is the grounds of the former Schuyler Prep.

( 2 ) District School No. 4 hides in the trees near the intersection of Clarks Mills Road and Co. 77, Town of Greenwich. The hamlet of Bald Mountain was a busy place in the 1800's when the lime kilns were in operation with lots of families and lots of students.

( 3 ) This little building sits at the corner of Sprague Town Road and Rabbit Roads, Town of Greenwich. It's District School No. 7 and currently sees more large trucks than eager learners.

( 4 ) District School No. 9 is a real cutie, having received some TLC. It's at the corner of North and Ryan Roads, Town of Greenwich. The sign identifies it as the Beech Hill School (part of the Sharts Farm?).

( 5 ) Big Red sits on a knoll above the pond in Cossayuna on State 338, Town of Greenwich. I believe this was District School No. 14.

( 6 ) About a mile to the east is the Bunker Hill School (built c. 1840) located at an unbusy four-way intersection - no traffic light required. AKA District School No. 15, it's in the far northeastern corner of the Town of Greenwich.

( 7 ) This colorful little character is known as the Porter School or District School No. 14. "It lives, it breathes!" as the Hebron Nature Preserve education center on Rt. 22, Town of Hebron.

( 8 ) If this one looks a little uppity it's because it's on the National Register of Historic Places. Its located across Rt. 22 from the church in the hamlet and Town of Hebron.

     Recess! Everybody outside to play. But if you want to learn more I'ld recommend An Introduction to Historic Resources in Washington County, New York, a 1976 book where most of the information for this post came from.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Haunts and Hollows

     I was at the library rummaging for "Halloweeny" DVD's a few days ago. Rocky Horror was my first choice but Dr. Frankenfurter was "out". No "Time Warp" for me this year. So it went: Dracula - out, Frankenstein - out, The Blair Witch Project - out. The story of my life, too late for the good stuff. I eventually settled for one of those Great Courses college lecture series called How the Earth Works. I'ld have to get my frights from erupting volcanos, rattling earthquakes and the chilling phenomenon of glaciation.
     That's OK because I love geology and all the natural sciences, for that matter. The way meteorology can actually make sense out of what's falling from the sky at any moment, the vast (and expanding) strangeness of the universe that astronomy reveals and the amazing diversity and complexity of life as unraveled by biology.
     We're all seeking an explanation for the world around us and science works for me. Others turn to religion or Donald Trump for their answers. But we also crave a little of the mysterious, the inexplicable. Many of our great belief systems are imbued with mysticism and miracles. As long as people have huddled around campfires we've told stories about what lurks in the darkness just beyond. There's perverse pleasure in being scared and scaring others silly. But with work, carting the kids to and fro and keeping up with the Kardashians, there's only so much time. This results in cramming ghosts, ghouls and all manner of horror into one day at the end of October and calling it Halloween.
     Back at the library I had filled my bag with science-y books, magazines and DVD's. I was about to leave when a raspy voice whispered in my ear, "Come on down. Down to the Holden Room." Never one to resist temptation, I went on down. The Holden Room is in the basement of Glens Fall''s Crandall Library. It's filled with some great stuff, much of it of local interest. The books can't be taken out but it's a real resource for researchers and the just plain curious. It didn't take me long to find a whole shelf on haunted houses, monsters and the supernatural. That's when I went over to the dark side.

     One treasure was New York State Ghosts by David Pitkin. With limited time I just skimmed it looking for Washington County stories. There were many, including not one but two haunted houses that a woman named Carol lived in on Dunnigan and Riley Hill Roads near Salem. Also sightings of
"The Grey Man" in the schools at Salem, a report on the author's visit to a forbidden farmhouse in Hartford and tales of a specter in St. Paul's Rectory in Greenwich. Then there was little Isabel Daly, an eight year old girl who, in 1889, found herself on the wrong side of the Champlain Canal when a storm came up, flooding the area. By the time her frantic parents found her she had somehow gotten across the torrent and was happily skipping towards home. Her Dad, relieved but perplexed, asked Isabel how she made it to the safe side. She replied, "Grandpa carried me." A heartwarming explanation but for the fact that Grandpa had been dead for two years.

Champlain Canal from Towpath Road
     So it went, book after book, spook after spook. A woman named Lynda Lee Macken could fill a casket with her output of ghost/haunted genera volumes. Then there's the big lurking beast category with offerings on Bigfoot and Champ. Sasquatch has a place in his hairy heart for the Whitehall area with Monsters of the Northwoods documenting several sightings. Other authors eschew the supernatural for the simply weird and eccentric. All are fun and make you want to get out there and see for yourself, in broad daylight and from a safe distance, of course.

     Between books and websites I learned that Fort Edward's Jane McCrea house is haunted (no surprise) as is the Anvil Inn just down the street. Great place to eat but if you can see thru your waitress or she has a faint glow it might be a good idea to leave an extra large tip. And then there's the Skene Manor, Whitehall's gothic castle on the hill. Legend says that when Skene's wife died he kept her in a box under the bar. She's been seen looking out windows and roaming halls ever since.

Jane McCrea House
The Anvil Inn
Skene Manor
     With imaginations riled, Gwenne and I left the library and wandered north from Glens Falls thru Kingsbury and Fort Ann. We went out past the Goodman farm to see how Erica's hops were doing, driving slow just in case we came upon any ghosts crossing the road. Then it was up thru the valley towards South Bay until we reached the Welch Hollow Cemetery.

     Fred Tracy Stiles is one of my favorite Washington County authors and I'ld been rereading
From Then Till Now and Old Days - Old Ways. They are fond memoirs of times gone by in the hills between Lake George and Lake Champlain. While life was good here, he doesn't sugar-coat how tenuous and hard it could be. The natural beauty of the area is breathtaking but I've always sensed a shadow of danger here and that's echoed in Stile's tales.
     People are bitten by rattlesnakes, mauled by bears and swallowed by icy lakes. Or, in the case of two young brothers, they go exploring on a sunny, warm day in May nearly two hundred years ago. But up on East Mountain the wind shifts, the temperature drops, snow starts blowing sideways. The boys lose their way, it gets dark and by the time searchers find them the next day they've frozen to death, huddled in each others arms.

     Here, in this little country graveyard, our day becomes a pilgrimage of sorts. I find the little stone marking Fred's burial and spend a quiet moment reflecting on how his life enriched mine and others. Then, over towards the fence beyond a yellowing clump of wild asparagus, I come across a weathered marble slab with barely legible inscription. It faces to the east looking past a stand of
gold-leaved popples to the craggy rocks of the Pinnacle. It's the monument of the two brothers who died in a snowstorm up there in the spring of 1820. While I couldn't make out the faded words, page 101 of From Then Till Now tells us it reads:

In Memory of
Abraham and Samuel Rice
Sons of David and Mary Rice
Died in a snowstorm May 2, 1820
in 16th and 18th year
Hearty ages these brothers have lost
Its tender vines crop'd by the cruel frost
Two sprightly youth snatched to the silent tomb
Read how uncertain is life's pleasing bloom. 

     I've been up on the Pinnacle a few times and it was always lovely, a real treat. This place has been good to me and I'm grateful, but there are no guarantees. Life can hand out bitter tricks, it's not always a holiday. But if every outcome was assured it wouldn't be much of an adventure and what fun would that be?