Archive for the ‘woods’ Category

2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.



Running the mighty Stroudwater

June 8, 2013

A couple of weekends ago, Emily, Andy, and Elsie came to visit, and Andy (who has done a lot more paddling than I) got the notion to run Stroudwater falls.

In dry times the river running through our front yard is little more than an overgrown brook, but when multiple inches of rain fall over a day  or more, it swells impressively.  Instead of sneaking around and through the abrupt ~1m rocky upper fall at low points in the bedrock, it rushes directly over the drop in a handful of weakly organized chutes into the millpond below.  We scoped it out and judged it (and the rapid below the ruined dam) doable.

running the stroudwater 1

Borrowing Joshua and Kelsey’s 16′ fiberglass canoe (not the beautiful cedar one his brother made for him), we carried upriver and put in.  The main channel in low water is a tight 180 degree bend at the far right, but we didn’t think we could maneuver that, so we went through the next largest chute, immediately to the left.  I half-expected we would end up swamping the canoe out of the knee-deep shallows below the fall, but although we shipped a few pails of water over the bow (which is not nearly as high as in some whitewater canoes), we passed without incident, and proceeded to run the rapid below the ruins of the dam and under the bridge, where Kelsey snapped some photos (see below).  Though these rapids were less imposing, we actually shipped more water over the bow, giving the boat a slow, plowing character in the flatwater below.  We pulled out on the  north side of the river shortly below the old bridge site and carried the canoe back over the bridge and home.

running the stroudwater 2

It made me wish the next half-mile or so of flatter water below the falls wasn’t so choked up with blowdown, so we could paddle to work – Pika Energy’s new home in Westbrook is similarly only a few hundred feet from the south bank of the Stroudwater, perhaps 3-4 river miles downstream.

running the stroudwter 3

The birch of Damocles; thinning south of the orchard

November 25, 2012

After the last storm blew through, someone in Five Islands noticed that a birch tree just to the west of the orchard had partially crumpled about 20′ up, and leaned over into a tall maple tree to the south, where it threatened to crash down on the orchard fence.  So while I was up for the holiday, Dave and I pulled it down and added it to the firewood pile.

The leaning tree was perhaps 14″ at the butt, one of a cluster of three, and all of them were dead or dying – we’d been watching them for some time, but obviously should have acted sooner.  We winched the two west-facing trunks downhill with a rope-a-long into a slot we cut in the underbrush, then skidded them out to the firewood area opposite from Um and Pops’ house.  The leaning tree was trickier – the trunk was flattened and bent maybe 15 degrees, with more than half of the fibers of the trunk broken.  The top was pretty well enmeshed in the maple it fell against, so it wasn’t likely to roll off to the west if we winched the whole tree that way; it could easily slide off to the east and crush the fence if we pulled the base out from under it.  There was enough dead wood in the top of the tree to make a serious headache for anybody standing too close to the base when it started moving. I considered just hooking the cable of the logging winch to the tree above the break and attempting to rip it off the lower trunk and drag it toward the northwest,but there was a chance that the lower trunk would force the top against the fence as it fell.  So we ended up with a hybrid approach, and in the end it worked out slick.  We put up a ladder and rigged chokers both above and below the break, and I put a little bit of tension on the cable.  Then Dave cut the tree at the base, leaving a hinge significantly stouter than normal, and cleared well out of the way.  Then I winched it over, with the chokers holding the two ends together after the wood broke, such that the whole mess just doubled up on itself and fell clear of the fence, landing with a big crash. It turned out the break corresponded to a giant hole that had been made by a pileated woodpecker, who was probably after ants in the soft core of the tree.

Then this morning we had an hour and a half free, so we went back over and started thinning in the woods across the stone wall to the south of the orchard, in preparation for finally putting up the woven wire fence to define the permanent southerly extent of the orchard.  We cut out a bunch of small maple and oak that had been topped over by the dominant trees; my thought is to thin down to the really nice specimens (mostly oak) closest to the fence, so as to let more light in, and then there are a bunch of nice maples a bit further south, so selectively thin that as sugarbush.  The route around the east side of the orchard is mostly high and dry, and gives good access to the woods to the south and further down the hill to the west, so someday we will probably use that access to improve the stand further afield.  But for now, keeping the orchard project moving forward is at least as much as I can handle in sparse free time.

Finally, a decent snow

January 21, 2012

After a brown holiday, and a couple of mangy frustrating icy attempts, winter came on in a satisfying way. We got five or six inches of perfect, fluffy snow to cover the crust and turn everything beautiful. Alexis had to leave early for a 24-hour stint in the ICU, so I got up and plowed out the driveway before traffic on the main road got too bad. The driveway was a sheet of ice from previous storms, and I didn’t have enough time to chain up the truck, but it did the job, just barely – had the snow been heavy it would have been a nightmare.

Nerves a bit frazzled with the sun not yet up, I put on my skis and broke in the perimeter trail on the north side, then Joshua joined for a second lap. On the way back we skied straight down the frozen river, which formed a perfect highway, both for us and for the deer. Back inside just after 8; for once I earned my breakfast.

Wild apple trees, firewood

September 10, 2011

A stunning, glorious late summer day. This morning I took the chainsaw-on-a-stick over to the north side and spent some time cutting branches to let some sun in on a bunch of reasonably healthy wild apple trees that are growing on the property, mostly in the shade of huge, unruly pasture pines (at least that’s what we call the white pines with half a dozen crooked interwoven trunks). There are already a goodly number of small apples on some of the trees, and I think with some additional clearing and rough pruning we will have at least as many wild cider apples as we’re willing to backpack/wheelbarrow across the bridge. We’ve also made a start at grafting over some of the younger and better-formed trees to recognized varieties.

The danger in this is the potential to give aid and comfort to invasive species. We’ve already got glossy buckthorn and bittersweet established on the property, and creating openings in the canopy risks allowing them to run rampant. So far my approach is to only work in places that I imagine are tending towards orchard in the future, and that I’m willing to scythe once a year – the buckthorn can’t grow bigger in a year than can be cut with a scythe, and the bittersweet can’t do much if it doesn’t have anything to climb. We’ve been attacking the buckthorn groves with chainsaw and loppers, and spraying the cut trunks with glyphosate to keep them from suckering the next year. The place it gets sticky is where you want to leave some undergrowth, say some bayberry or wild blueberry is growing; this makes it labor-intensive to cut out the bittersweet without damaging the natives. One thing we’ve learned since last year is that we need to be really fastidious about swamping out all the brush we create; it’s a nightmare to try to scythe around fallen brush, especially once the vines start twining around it.

By the time I managed to put a whole tank of gas through the pole pruner and swamp the brush, it was early afternoon, and my forearms were totally spent, so I took a bit of a break, then worked on firewood. I hauled the oak from the tree that blew over in Irene, and Alexis and I split it up – we don’t have a hydraulic splitter here yet, but AC is getting pretty good with a six pound maul. I think we’ve got about as much wood stacked under cover as we’re going to have for the winter, and there’s a bit more left to split that will get stuck on a porch or somewhere. I have a notion of a design for small, skid-portable (when empty) three-sided woodsheds that would hold 2-3 cords and encourage us to get a year ahead on firewood. But that’s lower on the priority list that a lot of other house projects, so it will probably be some years before it comes to pass. It would be a lot more satisfying to build them out of wood harvested off of our land, but that would require we come up with some sort of traction solution for the north side, and a high line or something to get across the river.