Monday, November 28, 2011

Apple Daze

Bubble Bubble, Toil and Trouble

Aching joints and endless scrubble

Bubble bubble, toil and pleasure

Fill the hold with apple treasure

The apples are in. Yesterday I finished a last task, canning five gallons of cider. Now, aside from taking stock of the rosy fruit crowding our fridge and root cellar, watching for those rotters that might spoil a whole box, and perhaps making another batch of applesauce, we are done. It was a bumper year for our little Toad Hill Orchard after two barren seasons. At last we feel like apple farmers. When the sun shines you make hay and when the orchard bears, you put away fruit—who knows what we will get next year.

When we bought our original thirty acres in 1980, there was a pair of big old apple trees in the little sloping field next to the road, a Baldwin and a Snow. The former is a venerable New England favorite cooking apple, the latter a crisp, luscious “eater” with snow white flesh and cherry red skin. We knew them from our years working in orchards in New Hampshire and the Champlain Valley. I can imagine the first settlers in Whitesville traveling out toe western New York with these two precious and essential apple trees which would eventually fill their cellars—as ours is filled this year.

Our second spring, we planted about thirty trees of many varieties to keep the two elder trees company. Hopefully the original chart is somewhere in Fred’s desk—the untidiness of which is only surpassed by mine. Perhaps one winter day I’ll take on the project of digging it out. Several of the trees are planted too closely and they all need to be pruned to accommodate ladders. Every spring for the fleeting few days that the trees are in bloom, we savor the ethereal scent and beauty, and hold our breaths hoping that frost and rain will hold off enough for the bees to do their work. It’s an organic orchard. We could improve our management, but we have never sprayed. We’ve had some good crops in past years, but nothing like this year.

We two fifty-eight year olds felt like we were in our twenties again, climbing ladders and limbs with one ratty old picking bag and a canvas shopping bag—until evening when aching joints reminded us of our age. Twigs tugged at my hair and leaves slipped down my shirt. Geese winged southward across the sky. Ravens circled overhead. Perfect apples are rare without chemical assistance. I tuck especially lovely ones into my jacket pockets. Sometimes I find one so irresistible that I crunch right into it on the spot. Eve had it right. Apples are definitely meant to be eaten. And there is nothing like picking apples on a bright autumn day. One afternoon Mom and Dad Beckhorn, both eighty-one, helped pick the lower branches, Dad from a lawn chair using his metal grabber. Later the two of them make and can a big batch of sauce in my kitchen. We reserved a sweetly laden little tree for my six Girl Scouts to pick to make into apple crisp for one of their meetings. I’ve made apple pie, kuchen, sauce, cider, and one batch of deep red crab apple jelly. The deer have been busily cleaning up drops and I’ve been giving our three horses armfuls of apples every day.

Fred has become a fanatic hard cider maker, traveling to western Massachusetts to attend workshops, and collecting wild fruit and special varieties to add to his blends. He went to Lains’ Cider Mill in Canisteo to press large batches, three times, some of which we sold fresh. He rebuilt our antique press to do small specialty mixes. (Unfortunately the grinder is horribly inefficient and it’s a bear to turn the handle, especially when grinding hard, small apples. But the exercise is great!) Now the cellar audibly gurgles with many yeasty, fragrant brews, one mixed with black currants, another purely from wild varieties.

There is an amazing difference in apples. One of our favorite findings this year is the pale yellow, thin skinned Calville Blanc D’Hiver (white winter). Our daughter Spring, home for the holiday weekend, made apple tart with it, crumbly with butter and ground almonds. Wow. Everywhere Fred goes, he spots wild trees—potential taste discoveries. I roll my eyes. I’m ready to be done with the harvest. With Spring, we pick up yet more small, hard, wild apples for her to make chutney. “That’s it!” I say, walking back to the car. “I am finished picking apples this year!” We drive up the driveway. It’s satisfying to see the trees bare except for a few stray apples that the deer and grouse will enjoy. High in the branches of the tall old Baldwin tree, the sun catches a tantalizing cluster of bright red fruit, enough for a couple of pies . . .


Monday, November 21, 2011

Wolves in the Neighborhood

Ah-roooooooooh, ah-roooooooooh! Ooooooooooooo . . .

There is no translating the sound into human language or writing. We share the same vocal range, but only Canis lupus comprehends the message in the undulating vowels, the drawn out, sweeping, or staccato rhythms, the rising and falling tones. The sound is riveting, joyous, sad, mysterious. It is the voice of wildness. Ever since I read Little House on the Prairie, Julie of the Wolves, and The Call of the Wild, I have longed to hear a wolf howl. On occasion I have heard my own tail wagging creature, who shares 98% of her genetic material with wolves, croon her own eerie little song, but it’s not the same.

Yesterday I heard wolves.

One of the things that I like best about cities is that they are fun and exciting to visit, but you can leave them quickly behind. Head north less than an hour from the Big Apple and you will find The Wolf Conservation Center. Yes, you are still in the suburbs, but here in 27 acres of hilltop forest, you can meet wolves that are part of a program which is working to bring Mexican red and gray wolves back from the brink of extinction, and which is educating people about the true nature of wolves. They won’t eat your grandma, but they will eat the slow, the weak, and the sick ungulates and help bring ecosystems back into balance.

Here in western New York, I can’t plant so much as a white pine tree without putting a cage around it to protect it from the ravenous, swollen deer herd. I love deer—precious dappled fawns, big eyed does, and heart stopping bucks silhouetted against misty pines—I love deer in healthy numbers, and deer on my dinner plate. Maybe we need a few more wolves back in their rightful place in the world.

It was an unforgettable day. I met “ambassador” wolves who are socialized to humans. The two yearlings Alawa and Zephyr, played in their enclosure, leaping, delighted and begging for treats and attention. The autumn sunlight glistened on their fur. Each wolfed down, in a couple of minutes, a chicken carcass that I might have stuffed for Sunday dinner, tenderizing it first in their powerful jaws. The elder wolf, Atka, visited aimiably, then lay down and posed as if he were expecting Ernest Thompson Seton to set up an easel nearby and paint his portrait. I glimpsed two rare Mexican grays in their wooded enclosure. If you “hack’ a captive born wolf pup into a wild wolf mom’s nest of pups, she will adopt it 100 percent of the time.

I’m sorry my computer wan’t read my photos today, but you can log onto the WCC website. The Wolf Conservation Center needs our help to win a $25,000. grant from the Chase giving Program. You can help if you are on Facebook by going to and clicking on the link on the left.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why I Write

A rare day of brilliant sun and blue sky! I have bulbs to tuck into the ground for the winter, and a little horse in the pasture who is itching for a good gallop. I've been working on a collection of poems about my four legged friends. I'd like to illustrate them. Just trying to find time and courage. . . Yesterday at the Rochester Children's Book Festival it was exciting to meet readers who loved my books. One little girl had worn out her paperback copy of Wind Rider and was buying a hardcover, plus two for friends. That's why I write--for that one reader who connects. Here's a fun photo of one of my first riding experiences at age three in 1956. My brothers took lessons at Stewart's stable near where we lived in Loudonville, NY. They would let Cathy and me tool around on Trigger, a Shetland of un-numbered years. He was a great babysitter. Cathy was the only one who could make him canter. We have that documented on home movies that my dad made.