TODAY THE DAWN BROUGHT a gray sky with clouds scudding across the field to catch the treetops. Nothing else moved except the taller grasses, and most of the birds and all the animals were absent. One moth from the night clung to the window looking in with sleepy eyes, sheltered by the overhanging frame. It was a very dreary day indeed and good for quiet contemplation and respite from weather related aches and pains. The field looked so much greener today and the flowers out front had perked up from their semi-wilted state of yesterday.

We knew it would rain today without looking at the news report, because the robins called for rain last evening. They are such a common bird that it is easy to pass them by and not really pay them much attention, but if you listen carefully, they give quite a commentary on the state of the yard and are good weather predictors. Their hollow bones are very sensitive to air pressure changes, and they tell us about it in special phrases we can learn to recognize. Many things come to mind with the rain… “raindrops keep falling on my head,” “the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath,” “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” “singing in the rain.” We have dedicated much song and poetry to it. It is understandable since our bodies are mostly water and our lives dependent on it.

Photo contributed

We are sometimes accused of not having enough sense to come in out of the rain, but if we do, we miss so much. A walk in gentle warm rain is very pleasant and appeals to all our senses. After brutal, hot days it is very welcome. Donning old clothes for a walk through the wet trees is calming and refreshing. Sneakers squishing, the head cools and the water tickles as it runs down the face, over eyes, down a shirt and legs. It is a natural cleansing and baptism in its purist form. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Our water wells

CHILDREN GO THROUGH PHASES of bad dreams and nightmares. Mine were about old water wells and my mother, with good reason, instilled the fear. We had two behind our farmhouse. One was possibly the original 1700’s well dug into the shale hill behind the house. This was a shallow basin only a couple of feet deep and fed by a natural flow of spring water which never went dry.

The other well was many feet deep. She led me into the small concrete house that covered it and we peered down into the dark water surrounded by laid up field stone. I could not see the bottom and it was a damp, terrifying place.

I was taught where more old, uncovered deep wells were located around the area, often near old house foundations. Getting out would be nearly impossible. Read more…


“JUST SIT BACK and watch it grow!” was a favorite line proclaimed by radio talk-show personality Ralph Snodsmith after he dispensed gardening advice to a caller. The onetime horticultural guru of New York’s WOR-AM, Ralph knew that most plants want to grow if we gardeners just give them the right conditions and care. But sometimes, a plant will take its own sweet time deciding if it is going to live or make a one-way journey to the compost pile instead. This has been my experience with a species called Acanthus spinosus, a.k.a. bear’s breech.

Acanthus spinosus. Photo contributed

Hailing from the Mediterranean, Acanthus spinosus has much to recommend it as a garden plant. Growing in a large clump, the attractive, dark green, glossy foliage is deeply cut, thistle-like, and only modestly barbed. It is resistant to insect pests and rabbits. Spikes of snapdragon-like flowers in shades of pale and dusky pink are distinctive and rise to three feet or more above the leaves. The ancient Greek architect Callimachus was a fan of this plant, decorating the top of his Corinthian columns with Acanthus leaves, and it’s still a common design element in contemporary art and design. Often commonly called “bear’s breeches,” the plant has nothing to do with the slacks Smoky wears or we wish Yogi would put on, but derives from the bear claw-like flower bracts. Other common names are oyster plant, sea holly and bear’s foot. Such a historic plant with a dignified demeanor certainly should have a loftier moniker. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Green Grand Canyon

Rosebay rhododendron. Photo by David Chinery

BEING A PLANT GUY, I can’t help but turn any outdoor vacation into a busman’s holiday. On a recent trip to the Pine Creek Rail Trail for a 120 mile bike ride, I knew I would enjoy cycling amongst the mountains, seeing the landscape and maybe spotting some wildlife. I also ended up, no surprise, looking at a lot of plants. While much of the flora is the same as we see here in the Hudson Valley, it was fun to spot the differences among the wild plants in “the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”

I was rather skeptical about this loftiest of landscape titles, but Pine Creek does indeed flow through a narrow valley up to 1,450 feet deep; standing on top we were above the vultures and fog. While a good part of the area is now protected, it is a site of former widespread devastation. In 1798, the first of the giant trees, centuries old, were felled and sent downstream to hungry sawmills. Soon tremendous rafts of timber choked the creek. When the trees near waterways were gone, railroads moved in and climbed up the adjacent valleys. By the dawn of the 20th century, the canyon was stripped bare, only thorny brambles and mountain laurel remaining. Then, in 1903 wildfire swept through, opening the ground up to landslides. The timber companies made their final profits selling the exhausted land to the state. Looking at Pine Creek today, it’s hard to imagine the transformation from hell-on-earth green-cloaked paradise. Bears, deer and rattlesnakes crossed the trail in front of us, and eagles soared overhead. River birches, with their flakey bark of gray, cinnamon, and tan, lined the banks of the creek. They don’t mind life clinging to a streambank or the occasional flood. Stock-straight sycamores in uncountable numbers grew along the trailbed, their trunks like Greek columns holding up a leafy canopy. Tulip trees, their show of yellow and orange flowers past but easily identified by their distinctive four-lobed leaves, were another species common in the canyon but rarer in our neck of the woods. Exotic invasives also call the canyon home, including not a few Norway maples and many acres of Japanese bamboo. Since I was on holiday, I tried to keep my blood pressure down, but closing one’s eyes isn’t good while riding a bike. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Blueberries vs. huckleberries

WHEN WE WERE KIDS our maternal grandmother, Helen Shepard Wambach (Gram), always referred to blueberries as huckleberries. This was probably from her New England background when early colonists called them hurtleberries which was a type of European blueberry. Hurtleberries eventually evolved to the name huckleberries.

There are many varieties of these blueberry/huckleberry bushes that are difficult to tell apart and can range from one foot to 12 feet tall, with berries tasting tart to sweet. Color can be black, blue, red, or dark purple. Apparently, there are some still actually called huckleberries that have 10 large, hard seeds per berry, while blueberries have many small, soft seeds. As far as I can remember, all the blueberries I have eaten in the Austerlitz area have had small seeds.

I am not an expert on the subject and will leave this to the botanists. Most of ours were sweet, with the best ones in a clearing in the woods on my father’s farm. We had lots of shale outcroppings and rock, which helped keep big shade trees from growing. When we were young, we were sent out to learn and glean whatever edible berries we could find. My mother said they got most of their blueberries from a side road off the Dugway Road going east from Spencertown past the farm, which is the current Austerlitz Club. This area is so overgrown now I doubt that blueberries can grow. Read more…