I Think that I Shall Never See A Blog as Lovely as a Tree…

“Camperdown Elm” by Jacques Hnizdovsky

Mutants have caught my attention lately. Little Things have also made me take note. (I don’t think I ever mentioned my 43 spider bites). Well, here’s a happier story that combines mutants and little things.

Once upon a time (in the late 1830s), the head forester for the Earl of Camperdown discovered a mutant contorted branch growing along the ground in the forest at Camperdown House, in Dundee, Scotland. For reasons lost to history, the fellow grafted it to the trunk of a Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), and henceforth every “Camperdown Elm” in the world sprouts from a cutting taken from that original mutant cutting, which is then grafted on a 1.5-2 meter Wych Elm trunk.

“So what,” you say, but this wizard says “Wow! What a cool tree!” (I had seen its picture).

Prospect Park is a 585 acre public park in Brooklyn, NY, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux after they completed Manhattan’s Central Park. It’s a wonderful oasis of meadows, forests, ponds and small brooks. I know, because when I come out of the woods and visit New York City, I am drawn to such places – even when I could as easily be tromping in Times Square – and this Thanksgiving I wanted to see the Camperdown Elm.

In 1872 it was planted near the Boat House, and in recent years it has been lovingly tended by The Friends of Prospect Park (a non-profit, volunteer organization). It is considered the outstanding specimen tree in Prospect Park, but rather than towering high above the others, this oddity looks like an oversized bonsai. And a wizard’s tree it is: gnarly, arms outstretched and reaching, wizened by time, wonderful.

Death Be Not Proud

Last weekend the broken gravestone for “Elizabeth wife of Jonas Jones” was dug up by an assortment of related wizards and clowns. It revealed a four-line verse, but unfortunately the break in the stone had occurred right through the final line, making it impossible to read.

We carefully brushed away the dirt, then smeared some in the inscription to facilitate our deciphering, but still could only guess at the final words.

“Friends nor physician could not save,
This mortal body from the grave;
Nor can the grave confine it here,                                                                                                     ?  ?  ?  ?  ?”

It seemed that the punch line to the rhyme on the headstone might be a precious clue, but what was it??

Luckily Cousin Don, telegraphing from a train station somewhere in the Rockies, solved our mystery:

Friends nor physician could not save,
This mortal body from the grave;
Nor can the grave confine it here,
She hated drinking, let’s all have a beer!

Wouldn’t you know…

Crustaceans

Some things run in families; things like male pattern baldness, red hair, insanity – those traits attributable to genetic make-up. In my family, you also inherit pie.

My mother was a great pie baker. Her apple pie was the best anyone anywhere ever made, followed (not necessarily in this order) by her strawberry, blueberry, lemon, chocolate, pineapple, grape, rhubarb, banana cream, and pecan pies. She must have learned about pie from her mother and her aunts.

Apple, rhubarb, grape and blueberry were “double crust,” the tops being decorated with a design resembling three shafts of grain. The design also vented the pie during baking. I’ve never seen her exact design on anyone else’s pies, so as I roll out my own crust, I am aware that I am probably perpetuating a little bit of artistry handed down many generations. I am a link in a chain of women, each one of us carefully adding some sweetness to the lives of loved ones.

As I cut this design of three curved lines decorated with small leaf-like slits, I wonder if my grandmother ever thought back to her mother and her grandmother as she made her pies and drew their design (a sort of homespun coat of arms) with her knife.

I place my pie in the oven. I think sweet thoughts.

Foundations

Being still under the influence of pneumonia et al, I continue to sit near the wood stove and beside a humidifier, but having this down time turns out to be good for something.

While I snort and blow my nose, Bob has been taking daily long walks in our woods. He contemplates the numbers of diseased and healthy trees, and he’s tried to explore places that we’ve never bothered to hike. These 275 acres contain a great variety of habitats: sugar bush, meadows, hemlock woods, mixed woods, scrub, bog, beaver ponds, springs, creeks, islands, and dams, and of course their accompanying wildlife.

They also contain a few traces of people who came before us. Two days ago he discovered a small building foundation (stones) and a low stone wall that we’d never come upon in our 43 years of living here. This is the third such surprise in the past four or five years. Two others were found while tracking a porcupine back to its hollow tree den, and one when bushwhacking to avoid a bit of beaver flooding. Previous finds appear to have been used for maple sugaring; one contained the broken parts of a cast-iron cookstove. None were actual house sites.

The new find is interesting because it isn’t far from the town road and must have belonged to a family long gone. It is the fourth such abandoned house site on our land. The Stuarts, Isaac and Amy, were the first – and the only ones whose house was still standing when we moved here in 1976. A hand-hewn rafter we salvaged from it bore part of a newspaper that must have been used for insulation. On it was an 1850s date. Childless, Isaac and Amy must have had a difficult life. Another couple, Otis and Susan Wheelock, settled on a rough patch of the back forty sometime before 1860 and had five children before Otis went off to fight in the Civil War. He enlisted in December of 1865 and died on February 13, 1866 at Kalorama Hospital in Washington, D.C. of smallpox. Otis is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Susan and two of her sons continued to scrape out a living in that cabin until Susan’s death in 1911.

So now I have a project that’s occupying my recovery. As I write, I’m surrounded by deeds and maps, and I’ve been poring over census data on Ancestry.com trying to figure out who might have built that stone wall. Those old census records tell me the stories of people moving westward, of potato famine refugees and others looking for a place to call home and finding a pretty rough patch that they thought might do. Only some of the many “stuck” and are the town’s familiar names; most original homesteads are now, like this one, marked by low stone fences and crude rock foundations overgrown by woods.

Thanksgiving Memory

Many years ago, I became acquainted with an old Irish fellow named Tommy. We were among the crazy young people (at least that’s what most of the locals thought we were) who were “going back to the land.” We were figuring out how to be carpenters, stone masons, gardeners, and so forth, espousing the old ways and doing it all ourselves. [But that’s another whole story…].

Anyway, Tommy smoked a pipe that fitted in between whatever remaining teeth he had and was ever-present. It was challenging to make out whatever he said, and so it was one morning when my phone rang and the unmistakable voice of Tommy asked (dispensing with the introductions), “Do ya want some tarrupps?”

“Some WHAT??” I replied. He repeated, “Tarrupps. Do ya want some?” I’m thinking – but not venturing – building material? Food? Tools?

Not having the foggiest idea of what tarrupps were and whether, indeed, I did want some, I opted to accept his offer. He told me to come on over and get ’em. I did, never letting on that I was completely ignorant of what I was being gifted. And that was the day I first cooked turnips. And why, today, as I cut up some turnips to roast for Thanksgiving, I remember old Tommy.

Grape Leaf Pickles

My grandmother, Sarah Maud Pomeroy, was born in rural Canada back in 1884. When her mother died in 1898,  fourteen year-old Maud became the woman of the house.  She shouldered the cooking, housework, and the raising of younger siblings, and by the time of her marriage to John Wesley Andrus four years later, she was well-versed in domestic skills.  

Around 1905, Wes and Maud moved to an acre of land in Chili, NY, just west of the city of Rochester.  Wes found employment, but he also put considerable effort into growing fruit and vegetables and in raising chickens and selling eggs.  In those days, every home had a larder, and theirs was filled with the food he grew and Maud canned or root cellared.  Along the eastern edge of the acre he planted a long row of grapes.

Some years later, Maud’s sister, Elizabeth, had a recipe for 7 Day Chunk Pickles, and Maud decided to make them.  She copied the recipe.  It was one of those old methods in which you put a whole bunch of cucumbers in a large crock in the basement, fill it with a salt/water brine, and let it sit.  In this case, you were to add something to the mix each day for a week before putting it in individual canning jars.  On Day 6, the recipe said to add 203 grape leaves, so Maud went out to the grape fence and began to pick.  By the time she finished, the vines were nearly bare.  She put the resultant pile of grape leaves in the crock, but things just didn’t look right to her.  She called Elizabeth.

“Elizabeth, I’m making those 7-day pickles, and today I was supposed to put in 203 grape leaves.  It seemed like a lot, and when I got to 200, I said, ‘Good enough, but it doesn’t look right to me.”

Elizabeth told her to hold on while she checked her recipe.

Moments later, Elizabeth returned to the phone, howling with laughter.  “You were supposed to put in 2 or 3 leaves, not 203!!!

When I inherited my gramma’s recipe box many years later, there was the pickle recipe, with the directions to add “2 oOR 3 grape leaves” firmly corrected in ink.

And that’s the story of Gramma’s famous Grape Leaf Pickles.

Northern Angels

These days I am acquainted with many wonderful and amazing people because of my art. In these artists there exists the possible, the unusual, the unique, the weird and the beautiful, expressed in form, movement, sound, image, rhyme and probably a dozen other sorts of vents for the fire within. One such person is named Hope, and besides being a wonderful digital and photo artist, she is also a healer. I learned this because I mentioned having to fit a volunteering commitment in around a health issue.

Holding a small mixed media sculpture in front of me, Hope asked me to place my hands on two blue stones which were intregal to the piece. She held stones on the opposite side and closed her eyes. As perhaps a minute passed, I could feel a slight tingling in my arms, and then she opened her eyes and smiled, saying it had worked and that she could also feel my energy coming back to her.

Twenty-two hours later I was standing in line to pay for a delicious plate of organic, vegetarian food at The Table restaurant in Ottawa’s west end. A young woman in front of me struck up conversation, as women will often do when sharing such a wait. Her wavy, shoulder-length hair simply parted, she radiated a glow that didn’t come from make-up, and she brought to mind a painting from a long-ago art history class. Yes, the food is wonderful, no it isn’t the first time I’ve eaten here. “I’m excited because I think there are things here my grandson could eat! He’s allergic to lots of things; soy, dairy,” I said.

“Do you mind if I pray for him?” she asked.

That statement somewhat startled me, but I don’t think I let it show.  Good grief, I thought, another wack-o Christian, but I replied sure, if she’d like to.  I imagined she meant later, so it was quite surprising to hear her – still glowing and radiating that beautiful, peaceful smile – speaking words of blessing softly beside me.  Even more surprising was that no particular god or son thereof was being mentioned.

“What is your name?” she asked, “Judy,” I answered, and she ended her words of blessing with “and his grandmother, Judy, to whom he brings so much joy.”

And then she turned and walked away.

I joined my husband at a small table near the window and told him that I thought I had just met an angel.

Were the encounters with these two women coincidence? I’ll never know, but they profoundly impressed me and gave me a great deal of food for thought.

The painting posted here is Botticelli’s Madonna. I have not been able to find the image that came to my mind at The Table, but this one is similar to it and would be perfect if Madonna were radiantly smiling.

My life is indeed blessed. May prayers and healing be affirmed.

There are Places I Remember

Written October 22, 2007

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jill forgot her birth control
And now they have a daughter

I came from the Adirondacks. My parents had decided against having children because – in 1942 – they were convinced that there was not a bright enough future for children on this planet. That plan was undone when the two of them took a vacation in the late summer of 1944 at a rustic resort called “The Mohawk” on Fourth Lake, and my mother forgot to pack her birth control. Maybe my humble beginnings in that place of wildness and natural beauty explain in part why I ended up living where I do.

The Adirondack “Park,” as it is rightly or wrongly named, remained a special place for this family my parents created (which later included the addition of three foster daughters). Our summer vacations were spent there in tents, around campfires and in canoes or on trails; our winters always included ski trips to Old Forge or Whiteface Mountain.

To me, the Adirondacks represented heaven, and so when all that eventually remained of my parents was a pair of ash-filled plastic bags, our favorite camping place was the natural choice for freeing those remains. In August of 1999, close family and two dear life-long friends gathered at Brown’s Tract Ponds.

The chosen morning dawned wet. My father always claimed there were only two kinds of Adirondack weather, “dazzling uncertainty, and drizzling certainty,” and his description held true as the gray downpour abruptly gave way to beautiful sunshine in mid-afternoon. The canoe served as a water taxi for our small band of eight, our elderly friends making the trip with both arthritic difficulty and characteristic grace. Once assembled, in a very unplanned sort of ceremony, we scattered those gray remains from the rocks on the small island’s south shore where we had picnicked and swam so many times over the years. It all seemed very right.

Our mission accomplished, the first of the return trips was begun. Bekir and Sallie were helped into the canoe and Husband and I started paddling toward the mainland. Spontaneously, Bekir began yodeling my father’s favorite, the pure beauty of his alpine tribute soaring across the still lake and echoing back to us. It was the perfect salute, and I am certain that every person within earshot stood still to listen.

Eight years have passed, and I haven’t been back there. I always thought I’d return, but lack of time and too many responsibilities – or maybe just a failure to properly prioritize my life – had combined to stall my return until two weeks ago when a week-long photography workshop at Big Moose Lake just a few miles from Brown’s Tract put the opportunity squarely in my sights. On October 6th, the 17th anniversary of the date of my father’s death, I returned to the shore of Brown’s Tract.

It was fall and the campers were gone. I expected to be completely alone, but to my surprise, there was a lone photographer beside the lake’s outlet where I planned to launch. I’m pretty uninhibited and friendly with strangers, and those you meet in the solitude of the woods are usually kindred spirits, so we struck up a conversation. The emotions of that day probably greased my tongue even more than usual as I explained my reasons for being there. “I’m going to mess up your lake,” I told him. It was still and all-reflecting, and I knew my paddling would disturb any reflection shots he was attempting to take. His reply was an enthusiastic, “Oh, no, your blue kayak will be great on the water!” We exchanged blog addresses, wished each other well, I put the kayak into the lake and began the final leg of my trip to pay respects to Bill Toporcer and Evelyn Andrus, my parents.


Photograph by Russ Devan 

My parents gave me the gift of life and the self-assurance that has helped me to make the best of my time here, and it seems that even years after their deaths they continue to give to me, for on that Saturday two weeks ago they introduced me to a new friend and a very talented photographer.

Thank you, Russ, for this photograph that I will always cherish. And thank you, dear readers, for taking the time to travel back with me to this special place.