Browsed by
Author: Ralph Gardner

A Long Overdue Visit to Mohonk Mountain House

A Long Overdue Visit to Mohonk Mountain House

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio


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


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


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


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

Maintaining a Well Groomed Road

Maintaining a Well Groomed Road

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio


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


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.

Curating My Utility Drawer

Curating My Utility Drawer

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio


Ralph’s utility drawer
 There isn’t much you can control in this world. But when you run across something you can, no matter how inconsequential, you need to jump at the opportunity.

That’s why I spent a good hour Saturday morning cleaning up the utility drawer in our kitchen. I’m not sure everybody knows what I’m talking about, or maybe you have a different name for it, so I’ll try to explain.

Obviously, there’s the drawer where you keep your knives and forks and maybe a bottle or can opener or two. That’s not what I mean.

Then there’s another drawer for larger utensils such as cheese graters, turkey basters, mandolins, and eggbeaters. This is not to be confused with the receptacle, such as a large bowl, somewhere along the kitchen counter where you store things like whisks and spatulas for convenient access; when you need to flip an egg, for example, and time is of the essence.

We also have a slim drawer for kitchen knives; though I realize others might prefer to house them in one of those slotted knife blocks, which might actually reduce the risk of getting cut since you don’t have to stick your hand into a drawer filled with sharp objects.

Next to last – and I’m more than willing to acknowledge that every homeowner has his or her own peculiar way of organizing things – there’s that drawer devoted to products such as aluminum foil, Saran Wrap, baggies, wax paper, etc. Also the ties that come with them and seem to multiply spontaneously.

Finally, there’s the drawer I tackled Saturday morning. It’s the one where you house objects such as hammers and screwdrivers. Perhaps Duco Cement. Nails.

But it’s really a repository for anything that doesn’t fit neatly into any other category. For that reason it offers a window onto many things: such as humanity and its often ineffectual efforts to tame chaos; the level of OCD of the homeowners in question; and family history.

I can’t remember the last time I cleaned out the utility drawer. It didn’t seem that long ago. But it’s probably something you ought to do every few years. Like getting a colonoscopy when you turn fifty and at regular intervals thereafter.

What prompted me, besides the fact that I was looking for an excuse to procrastinate getting to work, is that things like the hammer, sitting atop a mound of objects such as loose batteries and scotch tape dispensers, kept jamming the drawer when I tried to slide it open.

Not to wade too far into the weeds, though I suspect I already have, but I sometimes debate whether the utility drawer is actually the proper place for items such as masking tape since it’s so bulky. Batteries, too.

But if not there, where? The problem is remembering where you moved them in some fit of pique. At least if they stay in the utility drawer, you know where to find them, even if the drawer increasingly resists your efforts to wrestle it open.

I’d just like to mention a few items I found in the drawer Saturday morning and remain there because I can’t think of any more logical place to put them: a cherub head; wooden bird callers, a spiked flower frog; finials in various shapes and sizes; a child’s marble, and an onion-domed bottle stopper reminiscent of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square.

I probably found a half dozen wine corks and transferred them to the large kitchen utensil drawer. My wife may no longer be able to locate them. (Though she’s far more talented at spotting things right in front of her face than I am.) But I’m convinced that corks fall into the culinary rather than the home improvement category.

I also rid the utility drawer of perhaps twenty rusty razor blades. Razor blades pose an ongoing dilemma. You don’t want to discard them after one use. On the other hand they’re sharp objects and pose a risk if you attempt to return them to the flimsy cardboard covering they came in.

We have a couple of razor blade scrappers and holders but exchanging the blades seems a lot of dangerous effort.

By the way, we also have a slim, sectioned plastic storage tray in the drawer where I segregate screws from nails, and nails from bolts, etc. My pleasure in placing them in their proper compartment borders on the perverse.

The main source of clutter in the drawer are tools such as screwdrivers, scissors, pliers and wrenches. What turns them into a source of clutter is that over time heavy objects have a tendency to shift towards the rear of the drawer and out of sight.

So I’m forced to travel to the basement – don’t get me started on the basement, an exponentially larger organizational challenge – for replacement tools.

That helps explain why, when I cleaned up the drawer Saturday morning, I found no fewer than half a dozen pliers and as many wrenches. Some appeared as if they dated to the late 19th or early 20th century and have probably been in the family that long.

A cumbersome leather hole punch, which looked like a medieval instrument of torture, was one of the first things to go.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but marvel at these sturdy metal implements that have survived across the decades and will be around well after I’m gone. If they could talk they might offer some insight into family geneology, at least as far as its tool use was concerned. Those long departed relatives might also offer up tips on how best to organize your utility drawer.

Though I suspect that’s a skill that every generation must discover for itself.

Making Maple Syrup

Making Maple Syrup

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio


Ben Madey at his maple sugar house in Ghent, NY
 This wasn’t a good winter for maple syrup production. At least at our house.

We have one tap. My wife bought it at our local hardware store. It’s still sitting in the plastic bag.

We have lots of woods. But the first challenge is determining which of our trees are sugar maples and which aren’t.

We went to Tractor Supply in Hudson, New York prepared to invest in a bucket but then thought better of it.

I like maple syrup. Probably nothing goes better on pancakes and waffles. I’ve never liked maple sugar candy, however. Can’t really tell you why.

But the idea of tapping our own trees was enticing, even though the impression I have is that it’s rather labor intensive. I have this mental image of turning our kitchen into a factory with steaming vats and metal tubing and the volunteer fire department showing up when we blow up the house.

All in the service of reducing forty gallons of sap to one gallon of maple syrup. Or whatever the ratio is.

So before we did anything stupid, such as spending money on equipment, we decided to pay a visit to Ben and Veronica Madey in Ghent, New York.

The Madeys own Maple Leaf Sugaring, a certified organic maple syrup operation and they had an open house last weekend.

Wouldn’t any maple syrup be certified organic by definition? I mean, what can be more organic than tapping a tree.

But I never got around to asking that question. It probably ranked somewhere in the low four hundreds among my questions regarding establishing our own sugaring operation.

I liked Mr. Madey immediately. His day job is as a pilot for Virgin America. I appreciated him because he told us that it’s too late in the season to start tapping our trees. That let us off the hook and allowed us to better enjoy touring his operation.

It’s three years old, its “first boil” in 2015.

Even though it was a cold, rainy early spring day – the sort of day that makes you dream of the Bahamas – the sight of Maple Leaf Sugaring’s attractive sugarhouse, constructed from trees on their own property, and with white smoke billowing from vents in the roof – made you feel as if you were stepping into a Currier and Ives print.

Their property, or at least what we could see of it, had blue tubing running between the trees, their sap somehow ending back in the sugarhouse.

Mr. Madey, who couldn’t have been friendlier when we told him of our own maple syrup dreams, explained how the operation worked. But I lost him at “Hello.”

The strong impression I got as he explained concepts such as pumps and evaporators and reverse osmosis is that it helps to be a transcontinental airline pilot, or at least somebody who understands mechanics, if you want to get into the maple sugaring business.

I don’t. Whenever I manage to hammer a nail in straight I’m ready to declare victory and call it quits for the day.

Mr. Mabey, who grew up locally, said his is the largest maple sugaring operation in Columbia County with a little over 4,000 taps. Those include 1,400 on his own property and the remainder among neighbors who truck their sap over to his gleaming wood-fired evaporator to be processed.

That gave me an idea. Instead of tapping our own trees perhaps the maple syrup magnate would care to pay a visit to our place to see whether it had syrup and money-making potential. He could start by helping us distinguish the sugar maples from all the other maples, not to mention our oaks, willows and evergreens.

Mr. Mabey agreed to drop by at some point and we got into an animated conversation about the economics of maple syrup production. Turns out New York State is the largest producer after Quebec and Vermont.

I wasn’t so crass as to ask whether he turns a profit, though I didn’t get the impression he was planning to turn in his pilot’s wings any time soon. “We all have our hobbies on the side,” he told us. “This became more than a hobby.”

He said that were our woods to pass muster – he’d do any inventory of our tress to see whether they offered a sufficient density of sugar maples – perhaps we’d sign a ten-year lease and get half the syrup to pour over pancakes or sell.

But he said the main attraction to the homeowner is the tax breaks for turning fallow forest into income producing agricultural land. He sited a property owner on Lake Placid, an extreme example Mr. Mabey admitted, who was able to reduce his tax burden from $12,000 annually to less than $2,000 by tapping his trees.

He also assured us that if we didn’t like the sight of bright blue tubing it also came in earth tones, or at least colors that might more effortlessly blend into the landscape.

In the meantime, we purchased a quart of maple syrup and an 8-ounce jar of maple cream. I have a hunch that in the short run, as well as the long run, buying it by the bottle may be the most economically prudent way to go.

A Hudson Wine Tasting

A Hudson Wine Tasting

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

LISTEN  (5:07)

Phil Sareil leading a wine tasting at Hudson Wine Merchants

One of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had lately was a Saturday evening wine tasting at Hudson Wine Merchants. They’re on Warren Street in Hudson, NY.

Here’s how much fun it was: I don’t drink wine and I still had a good time.

I know. I know. Not drinking wine is a character flaw. My family, all devoted wine drinkers, remind me all the time. And when I confess my secret to friends they explain, feeling sad for me, that I’m missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.

I’ve given much thought to what’s wrong with me. The only explanation I can come up with is that I possess the taste buds of an eight-year-old.

I love Coke and candy. That includes chocolate and bubble gum. And I’m always on the prowl for the perfect chocolate cake. The thicker the icing the better.

To me wine tastes like vinegar.

It also makes me tired. On the other hand, Scotch or vodka, preferably with a beer chaser, energizes me.

That’s not to say I can’t tell good wine from bad. Generally speaking. Many years ago I shared a bottle of wine with my cousin on a trip to Burgundy. I still remember the wine and the year – a 1976 Volnay Clos des Ducs.

Suddenly, I realized what all the fuss was about. This wine – it was only a half bottle and even expensive in Seventies dollars, or rather French francs – was a lot more than a beverage. It was like a trip to the lush alien world of Pandora in the movie Avatar. The one with the bioluminescent plants that spoke to each other or whatever they did.

This wine unfolded in stages, each different and more interesting than the previous one. It was like a rose blossoming on your tongue.

Nothing else has measured up since. So I arrived at the Hudson Wine Merchants tasting with my wife prepared to be disappointed and probably bored, too.

But the atmosphere was festive.  Guests were seated at several long tables in owner Michael Albin and Marienne Courville’s third floor gallery overlooking Warren Street. There were also plates of cheese and pates supplied by Talbott & Arding. They’re excellent cheese mongers, also on Warren Street.

So you couldn’t help but keep an open mind.

The tasting was devoted to seven natural wines. That means wines made with a minimal amount of chemicals and additives. They all came from the wine regions of Austria and Moravia in the Czech Republic.

This didn’t sound especially promising, especially to a philistine such as me. But I was intrigued by our first bottle, a Strohmeier Schilcher Frizzante.

Even though it didn’t look or taste like any wine I’d ever had.

For starters, it was orange. Also it was carbonated. In fact, it bore almost as much resemblance to beer as to wine. Which was fine with me.

Our guide throughout the evening was Phil Sareil of Jenny & Francois Selections, the wines’ importers.

My other problem with wine tastings is that I feel inadequate because I can’t detect the flavor notes everybody else seems to be picking up. You know. Persimmon, coffee, cinnamon, eye of newt, a gentle spring breeze quaking the leaves of aspens in the Tetons.

But Mr. Sareil was a great tour guide. He described the wines and the vineyards they came from with such knowledge – even the soil conditions in different locations in particular vineyards – that it made me want to consider the possibility of switching careers. To one where travel to scenic locales and the consumption of alcohol are job requirements.

Our next selection was a couple of whites from the same area. They came decorated with colorful Mark Rothko-like abstract expressionist labels.

Mr. Sareil explained that the yellow and green label on the 2014 Muster, a light wine, signified that its grapes were harvested from the top of the hill in owner Maria and Sepp Muster’s 10 hectare pesticide-free vineyard in Styria.

That’s a mountainous area of southern Austria.

The yellow and brown label on the 2012 Muster Graf meant it came from the bottom of the hill.

Or maybe I have that upside down.

In any case, both were excellent, the Graf more complex than the Muster.

See, I’m already starting to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

If you’re anything like me, you’re more than occasionally influenced to make a purchase by the attractiveness of the label.

So I didn’t know what to make of our final selection – a 2013 Gut Oggau Josephine.

It came with a drawing of Josephine.

Not Napoleon’s wife, the first empress of France. But a contemporary figure who looked like she might have an interesting inner life.

“They created a fictional family of characters,” Mr. Sareil explained.

He was referring to the owners of the biodynamic vineyard by Lake Neusiedl straddling the Austrian-Hungarian border. “They realized wine had really strong personalities.”

I’m not sure the evening convinced me to switch permanently from my dependable single malt scotch to the wines of Styria.

But it did underscore wine as a life-affirming force that promotes friendship and conversation. That alone is worth the price of a bottle or two. And a couple of hours on a winter evening.