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Author: Ralph Gardner

Hunting For Hawthorne

Hunting For Hawthorne

 Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

An acquisition at the Kinderhook, NY Memorial Library book sale

A local library book sale isn’t the place you’d expect to go to learn you’re a has-been. But that’s what happened to me last weekend at the Kinderhook Memorial Library book sale in Kinderhook, New York.

If you’ll indulge me while I offer a little background regarding my history of book hunting. I probably need to go as far back as the 1960’s when my father, a book collector, started me collecting American first editions.

His purpose was less to turn me onto the majesty of literature than to get me into Yale. Assuming, correctly, that my high school transcript and SAT scores would be lackluster at best, he thought I might nonetheless intrigue Yale’s admissions office if I could claim to be America’s youngest bibliophile.

It didn’t work, of course. But in the meantime, I amassed a respectable collection of first editions acquired for a pittance – “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” an autographed first edition of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

I also caught the collecting bug, which is the reason I look forward each spring to country book sales, Kinderhook’s in particular.

Over the years, I’ve managed to discover a few first editions there – from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and James Thurber and E.B. White’s “Is Sex Necessary?” I never got far enough into the volume to learn their conclusion.

That is, I managed to unearth a first edition or two until the library’s volunteers wised up and weeded them out to sell to collectors for a higher price, the proceeds going, of course, to support the library.

But it wasn’t first editions I was after as much as oddities, books that were beautifully printed, or those that had slipped through the existential cracks – probably not heard a peep about since they were published back in the Paleolithic.

Some of the books were being deacquisitioned by the library itself, apparently because nobody had borrowed them for decades. One of them had even been written by my father, “Horatio Alger; or The American Hero Era.”

It was a biography of the popular 19th Century author of such young adult novels as “Ragged Dick,” and “Timothy Crump’s Ward.”

I felt a familial obligation to buy and preserve it, even though I already own a couple of copies.

But I took particular pleasure in purchasing and poring through books whose spines I may have been the first to crack in decades. For example, “Will Rogers – Ambassador of Good Will. Prince of Wit and Wisdom,” by P.J. O’Brien. It was published in 1935, the year of Rogers’ death in an Alaskan plane crash.

I was also happy to acquire “Meet Calvin Coolidge; the Man Behind the Myth.” To be honest, I haven’t read it. I just like the title.

Other small gems I’ve snapped up over the years have included a 1908 tribute to Margaret Ogilvy by her son J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. There was also “Baedecker’s Switzerland” with detailed maps and foldout panoramas of the Swiss Alps. And, from the 1860’s, an illustrated self-instruction manual to phrenology, the study of the bumps on your head.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come away from last Saturday’s Kinderhook Library book sale empty-handed. My purchases included a 700-page doorstop of a book – volume 1 of Mark Twain’s recently published autobiography.

I also took home a delightful reference book – “Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Titelman.

Do you know where the expressions “A rolling stone gathers no moss” or “Rome wasn’t built in a day” come from?

I didn’t either. But I do now.

However, among the fiction and non-fiction, the bios and history books, there was hardly an old, musty antique book for sale.

As I was paying for my purchases I brought this disturbing new development to the attention of Warren Applegate, a library volunteer. Mr. Applegate informed me that they no longer regularly stock old books because almost nobody buys them. Why go to the effort of lugging them out of storage when they’ll go right back in?

The volunteer invited me to peruse the classics and the near classics at a nearby storage room in the village. I followed him there and confess there was some interesting stuff.

But they had high price tags – and by high I mean more than the $2 they were charging for a hardcover and $1 for a paperback back at the book sale. But more to the point, Mr. Applegate had already discovered these gems, denying me the thrill of the hunt, the lust for buried treasure.

He suggested I become a friend of the library. That way I’d get invited to the Friday night party where members get first dibs on the books that go on sale to the public the next morning.

I admit it’s a moral failing that I didn’t join the library years ago. But part of the fun of the book chase is that you don’t enjoy an advantage over other book lovers. It’s like prospecting for gold, ones’ success a function of luck, savvy, and the undeniable impulse of avarice.

However, even more disturbing than my failure to add to my list of literary curiosities is the fact that many people these days are apparently only interested in shiny, new books. Part of the beauty of literature is that, no matter how ancient the covers, the words within remain as fresh as the day they were written if the author is worth his or her salt.

I’m thinking, for example, of a series of English sketches from 1863 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I bought the volume at a previous Kinderhook book sale. Some of the essays are based on his experience as the American consul in Liverpool during the 1850’s.

And to think – if I hadn’t acquired this lively, occasionally irreverent book I’d probably have known Hawthorne only as the author of that morbid classic, “The Scarlet Letter.”

Planet Earth to Trump

Planet Earth to Trump

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Photo of the Earth taken on 12/7/72, by the crew of the Apollo 17
CREDIT PUBLIC DOMAIN / NASA

Donald Trump has done a lot to amaze and disturb since becoming President of the United States. But abandoning the Paris Climate Accord struck a particularly depressing note.

As he made his defiant announcement in the Rose Garden, enabled by questionable statistics, a military band, and applauding minions, you could almost hear the flowers weep.

Since then, I’ve been trying to articulate, if only to myself, what was so upsetting about the spectacle, beyond the obvious.

I think I started to get at it last week as I was returning home on a beautiful spring evening from a fundraiser for Scenic Hudson, an environmental organization that serves as an eloquent rebuke to Trumpism. Their mission is to protect the planet for the current and future generations, at least the parts of it that radiate out from the Hudson River.

I’m fortunate to own a little of that land, most of it deeply wooded, on both sides of a country road. I was passing through it on the way back to our house from the party last Saturday.

The event was held at Art Omi, a sculpture field in Columbia County that looked especially handsome at sunset that early June night. And its glowing green fields were set off, as the party wound down, by an accommodating rainbow.

But “own” land is a rather bizarre concept when it comes to trees and streams and all the life forms that inhabit it. I don’t own them any more than they own me.

Due to a succession of evolutionary twists and turns, and the fact that my grandparents fell in love with the place seventy years ago, we just happen to be caretaking this infinitesimal patch of a particular planet in a suburban solar system for the wink of an eye. And paying the taxes.

Nobody owns anybody.

To think that the decisions of a single incurious individual have the power to abet its demise provokes a particular kind of indignation. If we’re going to die in an extinction event, at least let it be from natural causes, such as an asteroid.

It’s easy to see without looking too hard, to quote Bob Dylan, “that not much is really sacred.”

However, the Earth is.

Let’s take a moment to examine the evidence objectively – and I don’t mean the lavishly funded fake science.

I think we can all agree, whether we do on global warming or not, that we live on a planet that has its moments.

I still don’t really understand why our sky is such a becoming shade of blue when the rest of interstellar space is black, but I’m certainly happy about it. And God, or whatever title you choose for its animating force, couldn’t have nailed it any better than making the grass green; the trees, too.

And what about those sunsets, snow covered peaks, Beethoven’s Ninth, coral reefs, the fragrance of flowers, craft beer, bird song, clouds. The list goes on.

Take politics and the calculations of small, insecure men out of the equation and we live in a fairly promising, hospitable place.

Even more so from the perspective of outer space. I always thought it would be helpful to position a camera looking back at Earth from a suitable distance. We could consult it once or twice a day on our computers or mobile devices and appreciate how good we’ve got it.

It’s a fine looking place. Especially compared to everything else we’ve come across thus far. Jupiter and Saturn have their charms, but not as a place to own property. There’s that word “own” again.

And one can’t help but feel that in the mortal combat between chaos and order, between love and hate, between the indifference of the Universe and things like friendship, families and the warmth of the sun on your skin, Earth stands as a fairly eloquent argument for the comforts of home.

I remember standing amid the smoldering ruins at Ground Zero a week after 9/11. What impressed me most– and I don’t mean in a good way – was that this was destruction on the scale of nature. But it had been perpetrated by humans against one another.

It seemed at that moment that hate wasn’t the opposite of love. Anger was. Our future probably depends on getting it under control and rejecting those who exploit it.

A couple of other thoughts. Neither of them particularly original, or even my own.

I like to remind my children, not that they need reminding, that humanity is an experiment. There’s no guarantee it’s going to succeed. Our fate rests in our own hands. Fortunately, it turns on something we’re singularly equipped to do – peek into the future and predict the outcome of our decisions.

Peddling fake information and selfish math only makes the challenge greater.

Another idea I keep returning to comes from, I believe, astronomer Carl Sagan. Regarding the question of making contact with extra-terrestrials, he was of the opinion that any civilization advanced enough to return our messages would be taking a wait-and-see attitude; in other words, whether we were sufficiently grown-up as a species that we could be counted on not to wreck the cosmic furniture.

We currently seem to be at one of those tipping points. It’s been said that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris isn’t as dire as it seems. It won’t go into effect for another four years, by which time the White House may have been returned to a more far-sighted occupant. That renewable energy is an unstoppable train.

But the sin that’s already been committed doesn’t depend on whether things turn out for the best. It’s the sin of scorn, of contempt, of self-importance; the potential end of the world as we know it, not with a bang but a tweet storm. It’s certainly not the outcome the Earth deserves in return for everything it’s given us.

 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

Communing With Camels

Communing With Camels

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Miyako Kinoshita, Green Chimneys Education Program Manager, with Phoenix, a Bactrian camel
My family has this game we play. It’s not really a game; it’s more of a ritual. We call it “What’s Your Favorite Part of the Weekend?”

It started in the car returning to the city on Sunday nights. We’d go from family member to family member, in no particular order, and try to pinpoint our favorite part, aspect, moment, experience of the weekend.

It was a way, though not in so many words, of acknowledging how fortunate we were that we got to spend weekends in the country.

I believe my wife and I played “What’s Your Favorite Part of the Weekend” before our children were born. But we’ve certainly continued the tradition now that they’ve grown up and typically aren’t traveling with us when we return to the city.

It’s generally unacceptable for two people to have the same favorite part of the weekend. But a few weekends ago we did and there were no two ways around it.

So what was that charmed moment? It involved meeting Phoenix, a camel.

Camels don’t have the best reputations, even though I do recall that as a child I befriended a camel named “Artie” at the Central Park Zoo.

However, my understanding is that camels can be rather ornery and they spit. But Phoenix couldn’t have been more gracious as we petted him and touched his humps. For the record, they felt oddly spongy.

Phoenix, a two-humped Bactrian camel, native to the steppes of Central Asia, also happened to be a handsome animal. As camels go, definitely a “ten.”

As you may be able to guess we didn’t happen across Phoenix, and his sidekick Sage, during a walk in the woods since Bactrian camels aren’t native to the deciduous forests of the Northeast.

No, we encountered the even-toed ungulate when we stopped on our way upstate at Green Chimneys. That’s a special-education school that includes a farm and wildlife center, with campuses in Brewster and Carmel, New York.

The non-profit school is attended by over 100 residential and 100 day students from kindergarten through 12th grade. They’re drawn from eighty school districts around New York State. Green Chimneys is also considered a leader in animal-assisted therapy and educational activities for children with special needs.

The success of the program was evident in the care, interest and kindness the kids showered on our dog Wallie, who was along for the ride.

The farm has over 300 farm animals, as well as birds of prey and other wildlife, all of whom seem to be living the good life. A lot of them are rescues or they’ve been donated to the school and acclimated to interact with children.

Not all of them, however.

For example, the condors, whose idea of fun is to rip up old jeans as a substitute for the hides of animals they might have shred in the wild.

I asked Mikayo Kinoshita, the farm’s education program manager, whether she felt she a particular bond with an Andean condor, at that very moment, eviscerating a pair of distressed Levis. He’s apparently been around since she started working at Green Chimneys in 1997.

“From this distance,” she told me.

By the way, tomorrow, June 4th, is Green Chimneys annual “Birds of Prey” Day where you can visit the farm and smooze with some of the residents and wildlife experts. The stars of the show include local predators – such as great horned owls and turkey vultures – and others that are a good deal more exotic. For example, a kookaburra, a kingfisher native to Australia.

While turkey vultures don’t have the most appealing reputations or diets – when they aren’t circling the sky they seem to be feasting on road kill, Ms. Kinoshita told me they’re actually very sociable.

Indeed, she reported that she’s seen the farm’s resident vultures push food through their enclosures to cousins from the wild that happen to drop by.

Green Chimneys also has a bashful emu – when it was rescued it was tied to a fence along a highway – and a tortoise who managed to escape but was found traveling along one of the farm’s nature trails.

Learning to care for the animals isn’t just therapeutic for the children who attend Green Chimneys, giving them a sense of accomplishment and responsibility. The animals also impart wisdom:

For example, in observing the special relationship and living arrangement between Wilbur, a pig donated by a teenager who purchased him from a farm that raises pigs for food, and Vanilla, a goat.

When Vanilla was introduced to the farm she was placed in a pen with another goat and pig. But when it came time for her to reunite with the farm’s goat population it was discovered she preferred the company of pigs. So she was offered Wilbur as a roommate. And the animals have lived happily ever after.

Ms. Kinoshita told me: “They love each other. But Wilbur doesn’t like other pigs and Vanilla doesn’t like other goats.”

She added that there’s a valuable life lesson in their relationship for the children who help care for them: It’s okay to be different.

A Long Overdue Visit to Mohonk Mountain House

A Long Overdue Visit to Mohonk Mountain House

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Mohonk Mountain House
I filled a rather significant hole in my Hudson Valley education last weekend. I finally spent a couple of nights at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY.

I say significant and finally not just because the spectacular 259-room castle hotel, which has been around since 1869 and sits on the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County, is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But also because friends and family have been visiting for years and singing the praises of the place.

My curiosity was peeked, but never sufficiently to spend several hundred dollars a night to see what the fuss was about. Also, I’m somewhat of a snob when it comes to nature.

My preference is to contemplate it in solitude, or as close to that condition as possible. If I must have companions, the fewer the better.

So the idea of a resort hotel with hundreds of rooms, a lake with paddleboats, a climbing labyrinth, a golf course, and a spa didn’t quite sound like something Henry David Thoreau would have approved of.

Fortunately, I was able to overcome my qualms with the help of friends who invited my wife and me, and dozens of others, to help them celebrate a significant wedding anniversary.

I also have a small confession to make. On a nature walk we took Saturday morning, I dropped a tissue onto a ledge below where we were standing while contemplating one of the resort’s exceptional views.

I still feel bad about it.

The only reason I bring up this seemingly minor violation is that I don’t think I’ve visited anywhere that accommodates this many guests on a daily basis – including Switzerland, where cleanliness along its alpine meadows rises to something like a spiritual contract – with such well-groomed trails and so little litter.

Mohonk was started by Quaker twin brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley as a place to enjoy nature, and subsequent generations of the family have built upon their mission of environmental stewardship.

So I apologize. I was tempted to climb down to retrieve the culprit Kleenex. Except that would have risked spending Saturday night at the local hospital, or the morgue, rather than at the excellent dinner and dance party, with a great band, that our friends threw to celebrate their anniversary.

Our cozy wood-trimmed room came with a terrace where one could enjoy a view of the lake and fellow guests engaging in water sports, as well as swifts and swallows darting back and forth against the evening sky. We also had a fireplace that we put to good use Saturday morning.

I had only two regrets. The first was that I forgot to bring along a bottle of vodka or scotch. Since part of the fun of resorts, as well as an effective cost cutting measure, is to enjoy the view under the influence of your own poison.

And that I neglected to pack my binoculars, since Mohonk is well known for its bird walks. I was told guides might have pairs one could borrow; but I wasn’t ambitious enough to sign up for any of the scheduled walks.

However, my failure to include a bottle of Tito’s or single malt in my luggage turned out just fine. Because one of the hotel’s bars is on an outdoor terrace that offers perhaps the best views of the Catskills I’ve ever seen.

Before I forget, the food was also excellent and elegantly served. Saturday breakfast and Sunday brunch, where we joined hundreds of other hotel guests under the soaring ceilings of the Victorian era main dining room, couldn’t have been more generous or artfully prepared.

I suppose the test of any great resort is the opportunities it provides to socialize when you feel like it and privacy when you don’t.

Mohonk Mountain House tiptoes up to, but never quite crosses, the line into overkill with a rustic gazebo seemingly every hundred feet or so.

But those gazebos offer amazing views.

The most memorable part of the weekend came when my wife and I took an hour-long walk along Eagle Cliff. It wasn’t especially challenging – Mohonk borders the Mohonk Preserve and offers eighty-five miles of hiking trails, some undoubtedly a good deal more strenuous than ours – but when we turned a corner we came upon a view I’ll probably always remember.

It was of black vultures serenely riding the thermals high above the emerald carpeted ridge of the Shawangunks.

We failed to take advantage of the hotel’s spa or pool. But come Sunday morning, before brunch, I did bury my resort-phobic pride, settled into a kayak and paddled out along Mohonk Lake, among the canoers and paddleboarders.

When I returned to the dock, a cheerful attendant was waiting to guide me into a slip, specifically made for kayaks. It came with an overhead bar that allows you to lift yourself out of the scull without any risk of capsizing.

There’s something to be said for a resort with all the amenities.

Feed Your Hummingbirds

Feed Your Hummingbirds

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Homemade hummingbird nectar
 After you’ve watched hummingbirds feed at your hummingbird feeder for a while – what, you don’t own a hummingbird feeder? – you’ll realize that the box the feeder came in, the one with the picture of a hummingbird placidly sitting at each port sipping nectar; it’s a scam! The picture had been photoshopped.

A hummingbird won’t let another hummingbird anywhere near a feeder if it has anything to say about it. Or an even nastier hummingbird will come along and chase the first one away.

Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies” uses one word to describe these ruby-throated miracles of flight. Pugnacious. That pretty much says it all.

One time, I was standing on my porch enjoying a plum. A hummingbird flew over and hovered inches from my face. I’m convinced he was calculating the odds of taking me, of bullying the fruit out of my hand.

Another time I watched as two hummingbirds got into a fight to the death over my feeder.

The battle started in midair, then proceeded to the porch where one hummingbird pinned the other to the ground. The contest went back and forth, punishing blows struck by both sides, until the fight spilled off the porch and onto the grass. That’s where one of the combatants gained the upper hand and appeared to kill his opponent.

I let the victim rest in peace for about ten minutes, certain he was dead. But since I’d planned to mow the lawn that afternoon I stooped over to remove the sad corpse. As I did he zoomed off. He was only playing possum. Which I realize is a curious saying to employ when describing bird behavior.

But this is the sort of viewing pleasure you can have if you own a hummingbird feeder. You don’t need cable. You don’t need to subscribe to Netflix or HBO or Amazon. Just buy a feeder for a few bucks.

And one of the best parts is that after your initial investment, it’s essentially free. Ignore anyone who tells you that you have to buy hummingbird nectar at a store. Just stir one cup of sugar into four cups of water, boil and let cool.

Apart from all the other pleasures my feeder provides, saving money on hummingbird food ranks high.

Hanging my feeder also signals high spring. My first hummingbird arrived from down south the second week in May.

The event typically also signals that it’s time to retire my regular bird feeders for the season. I’d heard that if birds come to rely on your feeders and you stop filling them they’ll die. So I once asked a bird expert whether that was true. His response: “Do you really think birds are that stupid?”

In other words, if they can’t find a free lunch at your place they’ll go elsewhere. Besides, come the warm weather months nature more than provides.

I have precise rituals surrounding my hummingbird feeder. For example, after I make the nectar on my stove I pour it into its own designated green Pellegrino bottle.

The bottle has a label drawn by my younger daughter Gracie when she was a child. It has pictures of hummingbirds and the warning, “Stay away from the hummingbird food.” In case anyone mistakes the nectar for water.

I like the way she captured the tiniest of birds’ iridescent green bodies, their needle-like bills, and the way they hover while feeding.

Gracie is now twenty-three, and a professional chef, but I’m proud that I’ve managed to preserve the label, more or less intact, through dozens of washing of the bottle.

But, of course, the best part is sitting on your porch and watching the hummingbirds come and go. Sometimes I’ll have as many as four or five vying for the feeder. It feels like you’re running a busy regional airport.

By the way, the ruby-throated is the only Eastern species of hummingbird. On rare occasions our area is visited by the rufous hummingbird in the fall.

Among my favorite of the ruby-throated’s behaviors is the male’s mating dance. It’s a thrilling aerial display that involves swooping up and down in a series of ascents and dives, or shuttling back and forth, their wings making a distinctive humming sound.

While they’re showing off, the female sits on a comfortable branch calmly enjoying the performance. Her head turns back and forth, or up and down, like tennis fans following the motion of the ball as it crosses the net during an especially compelling point.

The first thing I do when I return to country from the city, after unlocking the front door, is fill the feeder. It will undoubtedly have been drained in my absence.

A few minutes after that the birds are back. Actually, they’ll sometimes be sitting there waiting for me, as if to say, “What took you so long?”

I’ve been told they’re probably the same birds from year to year. It’s incredible to think they’ll have migrated all the way from Mexico and Central America, where they spend the winter, to my feeder.

Come autumn, I’ll diligently scrub the feeder, as well as the nectar bottle with the label designed by daughter, and retire both for the winter.

Until then, there will be many flights and a few good dogfights, to watch.

A Fish With No Name

A Fish With No Name

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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GRASS CARP  — Credit U.S. Geological Survey/Public Domain — Wikimedia Commons

I own exactly one fish. Lately I’ve been thinking I ought to give him a name.

He’s not a pet fish that lives in a bowl, though he feels more pet-like with each passing season.

He’s a grass carp, a species rumored to control aquatic weeds. He’s also the last of five I bought a few years back from a fish farm in Hillsdale, NY.

They suggested five in case one or two got picked off by hawks or herons. They were being overly optimistic. They’re all gone now except for that yet-to-be-named carp.

Avian predators aren’t the fish’s only foes. Hard winters also take their toll.

One spring I found every member of the previous batch I purchased deceased. They’d grown to quite a substantial size. Fishing them belly up out of the pond wasn’t something I’d recommend for weekend fun.

I also threw a goldfish that didn’t play well with others into the pond. We came to call him “Fat Bastard,” after the obese henchman in “Austin Powers,” because he grew to such a robust size. He’d even let us pet him. It was only other goldfish he had issues with. I haven’t seen him in years and can only assume that what goes around comes around and he got his.

So each spring I head out to the pond fingers crossed that my carp survived the winter.

A couple of summers ago scientists from the New York Botanical Garden visited – they were in the region surveying lakes and ponds for an invasive algae called starry stonewort. Fortunately, they didn’t find any at our place. In fact, they took water samples and pronounced my one-third acre inland sea wonderfully healthy.

It teems with turtles, a couple of them the snapping sort, frogs, salamanders, snakes and, of course, one fish.

I’m the only family member who swims in the pond regularly. I can’t seem to convince my wife and daughters that doing so on warm spring and summer mornings constitutes a quasi-religious experience.

The spring-fed pond, as opposed to a swimming pool, feels very much alive – which some apparently consider a deterrent. I feel more alive, too, as I turn my face to the sun while swimming and listen to the birds and the wind rush through the tall oaks that surround the pond.

I subscribe to the belief that all the fauna, snapping turtles included, are more afraid of me than I am of them and will run for the exits as soon as I make my ungraceful entrance off our dock.

So far, I’ve managed to avoid any unlucky encounters.

I never visit the pond without thinking of my grandparents. They bought our place in the 1940’s and really wanted water on their property. But an expert from the cooperative extension service examined the swamp they were planning to excavate and told them it wasn’t worth it. The thing would never be more than a few feet deep.

After my grandparents passed away we were having some land cleared. Our contractor took one look at the swamp, said he’d dug a hundred ponds in his time, and told us we could have a pond there if we wanted.

Today it’s ten, probably fifteen feet deep in places. I only wish my grandparents were around to see it.

For some reason, it’s hard to spot my fish in early spring. I’m not sure why. Maybe the water is too murky. Or too cold and he prefers to linger in the pond’s depths. Who knows?

Come mid-spring he’s more socialable, or at least less enigmatic. He lolls just beneath the surface. And while his responsibilities include keeping the weeds around the pond’s edge at bay, I rarely see him at work. Mostly, he just seems to bask in the sun.

Before I bought my first round of carp I asked Peter Bodo, a friend and wildlife writer, what he thought the chances the fish would keep the cattails that crowded the edge of the pond in check.

Peter predicted the result would be both fat carp and flourishing cattails.

He was mostly accurate. In fact, the fish seems to have eliminated the cattails. But not other plants that have taken its place, nor a seaweed-like substance that grows from the bottom and can make pond swimming less appealing come midsummer.

I’ve come to think of my carp as a pet, with only occasional benefits.

But when I haven’t seen him for several weeks at the start of the season, I start to worry he perished over the winter and begin writing his eulogy.

So I’m pleased to report that I spotted the carp last weekend. And, at well over two feet long, he appears to have survived the winter just fine.

He was engaged in doing what he’s always done. Which was pretty much just floating, though I prefer to think of him as patrolling for invasive species.

It’s just a matter of time until I join him in the pond, content in the knowledge that we’ve both passed another winter largely unscathed, ready to resume our relationship.

Shooting Clay Pigeons

Shooting Clay Pigeons

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Lucy Gardner shooting sporting clays at Orvis Sandanona in Millbrook, NY

The last time I went hunting it didn’t go well. I was aiming at a bird high in a tree with my BB gun. And I never expected to hit the thing. But hit it I did and it crashed through the foliage and struck the ground with a sickening thud.

I must have been twelve or thirteen at the time. And a wave of guilt so spontaneous and powerful washed over me that it made me believe that emotions such as guilt are hard-wired into our brains, threaded through our DNA.

The experience swore me off hunting, though I’m not against the sport, per se. Particularly if hunters are doing it for food. And I’m for anything that gives people an excuse to turn off their TV’s and ignore their cellphones and head off into the woods.

However, I’m not sure my visit to Orvis Sandanona a couple of weekends ago qualifies as nature. It’s outdoors, certainly. In Millbrook, NY. And it bills itself as the oldest permitted shooting club in the nation, originally built during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.

But it doesn’t quite conform to the notion of communing with nature, of listening to the music of birds and babbling creeks, of becoming one with the universe. In fact, earplugs are strongly advised.

I went there at the invitation of Idan Sims, a public relations executive, to shoot sporting clays. For those unfamiliar with the sport, as I was, it involves loading 12 gauge shells into an expensive shotgun, shouting “Pull” and blasting orange discs that resemble Frisbees, and ride the air in similar ways, out of the sky.

It sounded like fun and I was eager to try it. My only concern was that, as I mentioned, it involved shotguns.

I’m a great believer in gun safety. And there’s no better way to practice those beliefs than to avoid guns completely.

Safety is paramount at Orvis Sandanona, as it was among Mr. Sims and a group of a half dozen or so friends that meet many Saturday mornings to practice their aim.

Nonetheless, I had several concerns as I lifted one of several fancy shotguns offered to me to my eye. In no particular order, these included shooting myself in the foot, or shooting an innocent bystander. At a minimum, I was worried about nursing a deep bruise for several days, either to face or shoulder, from the weapon’s recoil.

And this coming approximately a year after I had shoulder surgery, followed by several months of rehabilitation. I’d prefer one of the byproducts of my adventure not be a second operation.

I’d also brought along my daughter Lucy. Lucy fancies herself something of a latter day Annie Oakley – as much for the sharpshooter’s “Anything you can do, I can do better” ethos as for her aim.

But Lucy looked nervous, too, as she stepped up to the shooting stand.

Fortunately, we had nothing to fear. Mr. Sims and his companions couldn’t have been more encouraging, generous or patient with us as we blasted away, initially hitting nothing.

In my mind’s eye, shooting clays involved walking through fields of high grass and aiming at birds, or bird-like objects, flushed by loyal and well-trained Labrador retrievers.

But that’s an altogether different sport – I think it’s called bird hunting — though one shooting clays can help to hone your skills.

The action at Orvis Sandanona was more about moving from one station to the next, some no more than a few dozen feet apart. Each featured slightly different terrain – a field, a stream, a gulch – and a trapper (that’s the guide that travels with you, offering shooting tips) who releases the clays when you shout “Pull!”

And the clays presented themselves slightly differently from station to station. They might come from different directions, fly above or below you, be released singly or in pairs, and in one case rolled along the ground simulating the movement of a rabbit.

I’ve heard clay shooting described as playing golf with a shotgun. But it felt more like mini golf where you face different features and obstacles in a confined space.

I wasn’t very good. But my hitting percentages improved when someone asked me my favorite sport and then compared blasting the clay to striking a tennis ball with a racquet.

You don’t wait until the ball is on top of you to judge its speed and distance. You follow it from the instant it leaves your opponent’s racquet. Approaching it that way, better prepares you to hit the target.

Lucy also improved over the course of the morning. It took place against grey skies, as well as good-natured ribbing among Mr. Sims and his friends, all of whom were excellent shots.

There was also much learned discussion about the beauty and virtues of various guns.

In the end, I wouldn’t quite call the experience bucolic, even though the grounds and Orvis’s lodge are rustically handsome.

But the ultimate purpose of such adventures is typically to give friends an excuse to hang out and to share an excellent lunch and beverages afterwards. Which is exactly what we did.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.

Maintaining a Well Groomed Road

Maintaining a Well Groomed Road

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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I celebrated Earth Day last weekend the way I do every year. By collecting the trash that accumulated on our road over the previous twelve months.

I wouldn’t call it a fun time. In fact, what fuels me is righteous indignation. But on a more positive note, when I’ve completed my mission – it takes about an hour – I’m filled with a sense of temporary well-being. As well as a few deer ticks and a helping of poison ivy.

I say temporary because, if it were me, I’d resist the temptation to litter if I saw a country road free of trash.

That apparently doesn’t stop some of my neighbors.

You can be confident that by the following day fresh McDonald’s French fry containers and Stewart’s coffee cups will be creating new eyesores.

And I know some of them are neighbors.

I found an empty prescription bottle for oxycontin belonging to one of them among the leaves last year. But most of the cues are more subtle, based on their habits that I’ve gleaned over time.

For instance, there’s a guy – I assume the perpetrator is male simply because I have a higher, though not necessarily justified, opinion of women when it comes to defiling the landscape – who goes to the effort of placing his cigarette butts in a filled water bottle.

You’d think that if he were that diligent he’d take the logical next step, which is to deposit the brown swill in a trash receptacle. Instead, he tosses them out his car window.

I must have collected a dozen such bottles last Saturday.

I even suspect I know his brand – Newports. Because I picked up as many empty Newport boxes.

They’re not the only brand my litterers smoke. There were also Marlboros and USA Gold – a cigarette maker I was unfamiliar with — but Newports constituted the majority of them.

Sales of beer, especially premium imported beer, seem to be down this year based on the number of bottles Heineken and Beck’s I collected. Also, Arizona Iced Tea and Angry Orchard hard cider seem to be taking a hit.

Come to think of it, I doubt I’ve ever found a bottle from a craft brewery. Does that mean that drinkers of craft beer are also tree huggers? Perhaps.

Also down somewhat are discarded lottery tickets. I tend to think of their purchasers as double losers – the first time because they missed the winning numbers. The second time because they tossed the cards out their car windows.

You’ve probably deduced I have a lot of anger when it comes to litter. I also couldn’t help but feel solidarity with the marches going on around the country, last weekend as well as this one, as I made my solitary trek along our road. The protesters seem to be stating the obvious – that this delightful, hospitable planet isn’t ours to destroy.

We’re hardly even renters. Molecules miraculously coalesced in a certain way that led to us. We’re simply the Earth’s designated drivers until we evolve into something with better road skills. So let’s not crash the car.

I found nothing as interesting as the size 14 stiletto my younger daughter discovered when she helped me collect the trash a few years back. Though I did come across a handsome black ceramic beer glass that I’m thinking of running through the dishwasher and keeping.

The exercise isn’t without risk. I’ll climb up hills and slide down culverts, wade into streams, and battle thorn bushes to retrieve a single eyesore paper cup or candy wrapper.

I assume the occasional cars that pass think me misguided, if not a madman. Maybe the spectacle will give them pause the next time they consider chucking a pizza box, of which I found several this season, out their windows.

Actually, a driver once pulled over as I was collecting cans and bottles and generously offered me his empties.

I declined. But I do take some pleasure in returning the ones I gather myself, and aren’t too battered, to the supermarket for the deposit.

To my mind, the worst criminals are those who dump old tires on the property in the dead of night. I’m taking poetic license here. People who feel no compunction about discarding their tires – that goes for major appliances, too — are probably perfectly content to do so in daylight.

I’m thinking of collecting as many of them as possible – at least a dozen — taking them to the town transfer station, and paying whatever the fee to dispose of them properly.

In a way, that only rewards the culprits. But I’ll consider the thirty or forty bucks it will cost a contribution to my favorite charity.

Birding with an Expert

Birding with an Expert

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Birder Elisabeth Grace examining a warbler nest at Ooms Conservation Area in Chatham, NY

When I started spending weekends upstate in the late 1970’s I didn’t know a blue jay from a bluebird. Having grown up a city kid, I owed my early birding education to two sources: my wife, who was raised in the suburbs; and a weekly birding column in the Chatham Courier, a Columbia County newspaper, written by Kate Dunham and her partner Elisabeth Grace.

As informative as the columns were, what stood out even more boldly was the excellence of the writing. It transmitted a passion for nature that took them from the roadsides to the rivers and fields, and sometimes even the swamps of upstate in search of interesting birds.

The women often birded together but wrote separately on alternate weeks.

The first time I met the authors of “The Birders Corner,” as their column was called, was on a rainy July 4th in 1996 after I phoned them to report a possible rare bird.

Actually, my wife is the one who spotted it after the subject crossed the road by a marsh about a mile from our house. But I returned with my binoculars and identified it as a Virginia rail, a small, secretive brownish water bird.

Journalism, especially when it’s an account of something you’ve experienced personally, seldom lives up to expectations. But the column Kate wrote after she and Elisabeth went to the marsh exceeded my hopes and rose to a kind of poetry.

She described stands of cattails whose green fronds “swayed slightly, gracefully beneath the pattering raindrops.”

She told of red-winged blackbirds that “stood guard on these wild watchtowers.”

And green herons “startled into flight.”

But the meditative scene suddenly turned into an adventure story as they spotted not just the rail but also two of her babies and a sora, another water bird that neither of the women had ever seen before.

They reported their findings in the following week’s Chatham Courier, crediting me with the rail.

Needless to say, I had the column framed.

Unfortunately, Kate died in 2006 but Elisabeth continued writing the column regularly, 39 years in all.

And she agreed to go bird watching with me last week at the Ooms Conservation Area, a 160-acre site managed by the Columbia Land Conservancy in Chatham, NY.

It looks like it ought to be in the British Lake District, and includes a large pond surrounded by rolling hills with views of the Catskills and the Taconics.

It’s still early in the season; migratory birds are only now starting to arrive in the area from down south. So I didn’t have high expectations.

But I started learning new things as soon as Elisabeth slung her high-powered Swarovski binoculars around her neck and we began our walk.

For example, I was under the impression that bluebird boxes should be far apart. But there were brand new boxes set in pairs around the pond.

Elisabeth explained that’s because early arriving swallows tend to take over the homes before bluebirds can. But they’re territorial and, while they refuse to let a fellow swallow move in next door, they’re perfectly content having bluebirds as neighbors. Twin boxes increase the odds of a bluebird claiming ownership of at least one of them.

I was as interested in learning about Elisabeth as I was in sighting my first Yellow-rumped warbler or Scarlet tanager of the season.

She told me she grew up in Great Britain during World War II and moved to Philadelphia as a social worker in the early 1970’s. That’s where she met Kate, who was also a social worker. Together, they came to Columbia County in 1975 and took over the birding column a few years later.

An osprey flew overhead, though Elisabeth reported that none have yet taken up residence on either of the Land Conservancy’s two stands, set up for that purpose, high on telephone poles.

While we didn’t see many birds in the end, bird watching doubles as a form of meditation. The more you’re able to synch your senses to nature, the greater the likelihood you’ll spot something. Or at least depart feeling more at peace with the world than when you arrived.

While Elisabeth wears her knowledge lightly, she corrected me when I pointed out what I thought was a hummingbird nest left over from last season.

“It’s a typical warbler nest, beautifully made,” she explained, as she observed the way its owner had lined the bottom with milkweed.

“It’s much too big for a hummingbird,” she added. “Hummingbird nests are minute.”

Beavers are apparently also a subject of minor, if involuntary, expertise. Elisabeth pointed out the damage they’d wrought to trees around the pond and some muddy water on the pond’s edge that she suspected might have been the result of very recent beaver activity.

If it wasn’t, certainly a large tree that bore their teeth marks and that now leaned dangerously against some telephone wires was.

I got an email from Elisabeth almost as soon as I returned home, letting me know she’s already reported the downed tree to the phone company.

Being a birder has a way of increasing one’s sense of responsibility — not only for birds but also for their habitat and for all the other animals, us included, that share it with them.

A Visit to Lover’s Leap Farm

A Visit to Lover’s Leap Farm

Farmer Curt Gobrecht in the farrowing barn at Lover’s Leap Farm in Kinderhook, NY

 

Spring marks kidding season for goats.

Sheep, at least their owners, call it lambing season.

Any idea what this rite of spring is when it refers to pigs?

I didn’t until last weekend when I visited Lover’s Leap, a heritage pig farm in Kinderhook, NY.

In fact, I realized my knowledge of pigs was largely limited to the fact that they’re the raw ingredient in great bacon. And I think we can all agree that the world would be a less interesting place without bacon.

But to answer your question, or at least mine, Curt Gobrecht, Lover’s Leap’s farmer and a partner in the operation with neighbor and businessman Heinz Grossjohann, told me this time of year is called farrowing season.

The population swells to as many as two hundred sows, boars and piglets in the spring and summer. They inhabit sixty acres of reclaimed farmland. Or rather farmland that Mr. Gobrecht is in the process of reclaiming with the help of his pigs.

It turns out they’re an ideal animal for grazing hilly and overgrown woods and returning them to a productive ecosystem for producing food.

“Our main goal is to reclaim the land,” he told me as we walked the property just off Route 9H, a busy road. “It was an orchard 100 years ago.”

While I may have known little about pigs that doesn’t mean I didn’t have strong opinions. They were based on sources ranging fron Saturday morning cartoons to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

My impression is that hygiene wasn’t a priority, but that they were the smartest animals in the barnyard. I also seem to recall that I played “Snowball” in a high school production of “Animal Farm,” an admirable porker modeled on Leon Trotsky.

For example, I didn’t know how many teats they had. To be frank, I hadn’t given their teats much thought.

But Mr. Gobrecht informed me that the number of teats on a sow is a genetic trait and something they breed for. He described it as “motherability.”

Nonetheless, I was impressed to learn that fourteen nipples are about average and that one of their pigs gave birth to eighteen babies. Though she was an outlier and they had to take turns nursing.

Mr. Gobrecht, who offers tours by appointment, said that a typical litter among heritage breeds – his include Tamworths and Berkshires – is eight to ten piglets.

He sells his antibiotic-free animals, they’re raised on pasture and forest with local hay, whey and grains. The farm also does pig roasts, either on or off site. They already have five scheduled for this summer.

And the animals lead a good life, the farmer describing them as the “1% of pigs.”

They get to forage in their natural habitat. That means the woods that overlook the fields where they were hanging out on the blustery early spring afternoon that I visited.

Part of the allure of pig farming besides being his own boss for Mr. Gobrecht (he has a masters degree in teaching) — is that he grew up on the property, partly owned by his family, making tree forts and playing in its creek.

We made our way to the farrowing barn where a sow (forgive me but I didn’t get her name) flopped on her side so that her babies could nurse.

Most of the structures at Lover’s Leap are produced from trees cut on the property, as well as the cedar and locust fence posts.

“She’ll actually sing to them,” Mr. Gobrecht said.

I didn’t find the melody especially catchy – it sounded more like rhythmic snorting – but then again I’m not a piglet.

“If they’re out in the field,” the farmer went on, “she’ll start doing this sound. It’s calling them to nurse.”

In the summertime, they’ll give birth in the woods. And one of the signs of a good mother is that she’ll construct a well-formed nest from bushes.

A mountain lion was spotted on the ridge one evening in September with a chicken in its mouth, solving the mystery of where the farm’s poultry was disappearing.

Yes, a mountain lion. Not a bobcat. Mr. Gobrecht said he got a good, sustained look at it from about fifty feet away.

But he added that pigs have little to worry about from predators, even mountain lions. Since they’re ornery, weight close to 400 lbs. and surprisingly fast on their feet.

They’re also herd animals, alert at all times, and highly protective of their young. “Rarely will you see one pig wandering by itself,” he said.

Or as Mr. Gobrecht put it, predators that might be considering adding pork to their diet, “Can smell the strength of them.”

I smelled something else. But found it reassuring, nonetheless.