Saturday, January 27, 2007

Low Battery

I don’t know if it’s the lack of sunlight this time of the year, the cold cloudy weather, or just hormones, but I haven’t had the energy to get out into the woods much lately. I feel Moose Hill calling to me, trying to save me from myself, but I have been unable to find the will to respond. Maybe the pain in my knees makes me reluctant to pound the pavement and push up steep trails. More likely, it’s just too cold to think about sitting quietly in the forest.

We are in the depths of winter. The temperature chart in the Globe shows that the normal low bottomed-out for the year at 21 degrees just a few days ago and as of Thursday was up one tick to 22 degrees. This turn of the thermometer, although only an average, is now heading in the right direction. Even more than the solstices we like to observe, this turning of the temperature trend is in some ways more significant to me. Every day brings hope that it will be a little warmer than the day before. The lengthening of the days is becoming evident now, and I was happy to gain the confidence that they would also soon be getting warmer.

But for now, it's cold we contend with. We have been hit with a short, sharp cold snap. As forecast, the temperature was in the low single digits (F) when I woke up Friday morning. It is my hope to visit Moose Hill in all its seasons, to sample its extremes, and this was a great opportunity to do that since it doesn’t often get much colder than that around here. I felt compelled to go. I knew I wouldn’t be sitting still for long in the frigid air, so I had my oatmeal and second cup of coffee at home before donning five light layers, my heaviest gloves and fleece hat. When I told my wife I was leaving, she said, “It’s freezing out there. You’re crazy.” I said, “I know,” without saying which observation I was agreeing with. I pulled my hat down over my ears and headed for the hill.

Only the most dedicated cyclists would ride in this weather. While I know a few such hardy souls, I’m not one of them. I started walking to warm up gradually and get my knees lubricated before starting to run. By the time I started jogging on the bridge over the commuter rail tracks, the breeze hitting the bare skin of my face felt like a blowtorch. It was the kind of cold you can feel in your lungs.

When I turned onto Moose Hill Parkway and into the shelter of the trees, the cold didn’t seem so bad. I passed a big SUV sitting in a driveway, empty and idling, a plume of vapor rising from its tailpipe into the icy air. It was started, no doubt, from the warmth of the house with one of those remote car starters. I wondered how many of our young people we should sacrifice so we don’t have to sit on a cold car seat for a few minutes. In a few months this same motorist may leave the car running in a parking lot while they shop - doors locked, air conditioner running - so they won’t have to suffer in the heat for a few minutes when they return. Have we grown so soft that we can’t bear even a few moments of discomfort to save irreplaceable fossil fuel that our grandchildren will need?

Not far up the road, I turned into the woods to take a brisk hike along the trail through a plantation of big red and white pine and then to climb Hobbs Hill from the back side. Although the trees were brightly illuminated by the rising sun, the woods were quiet and I worried about the bitter cold on a mostly snow-free ground where frost could penetrate deep into the uninsulated forest floor, making life difficult, if not impossible, for the creatures sleeping there. When I got to my favorite rock on Hobbs Hill I paused to think about the time I spent there in the warmth of summer, listening to the hum of insects and watching the birds moving among the green leaves. I felt my eagerness to do that again. I still have mysteries to ponder.

I took the trail down the other side of the hill, checking to make sure the letterbox was still in its not-so-secret hiding place. At the bottom of the hill, I took the long boardwalk across the swamp, the frozen planks creaking loudly across the quiet wetland. Following the trail back toward the street, I paused beneath the yellow birch that put out its leafy welcome mat in September and looked up at the bright sun filtering through the trees, letting it warming rays hit me full in the face. I was hoping the sunbeams piercing the clear, frigid air would infiltrate my being to set some ancient biological clock, to set off some mysterious biochemical reaction that would lift me out of my funk.

Back on the road, heading for home, I saw a small flock of juncos with the familiar flashing of their white-edged tails. There were also a few of our other reliable winter companions, the chickadees. I marveled at how such tiny creatures could live, and seemingly thrive, in such bitter cold. How miraculous their downy fluff, how hot their tiny engines. I heard the chickadees call, not a scolding chattering, but the more melodious descending two-note: deee-dee. Could that be a sign of the change in seasons ahead? Are they, too, thinking of spring? I hoped it might signal a change in my spirit and that I would soon be able once again to hear the call of Moose Hill.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Moose Hill Moosewood

There haven’t been any moose on Moose Hill for a very long time. So long, in fact, that I don’t think anyone knows how the place got its name. Who knows? Maybe it was named after a tree. Right beside the road, between the visitor’s center and the caretaker’s house is a small patch of moosewood. Every time I bike or jog by it, I think of the north country. Acer pensylvanicum, is also known as striped maple because of vertical white stripes on green bark, or goosefoot maple because of the shape of its leaf, and it is also known as moosewood. Maybe moose like to browse it. It is typically a shrub or small tree and is most often found in cool, moist, shady places in northern hardwood forests. It’s uncommon around here, so seeing it can transport me to other places, other times.

I recall attending a lecture by William M. Harlow, dendrology professor emeritus when I was in college in the late seventies and author of Textbook of Dendrology, a classic text for those studying trees. He taught his appreciative and attentive audience how to properly sharpen a pocket knife and then use it to make a moosewood whistle. This must be done in the spring when the sap is flowing. Cut a short section of twig, slip the bark right off the wood, cut a notch to make the sound and slide the core in and out of the bark like a tiny trombone slide to play a tune. I didn’t get any credit for that lecture, but nearly 30 years later I remember it better than most other things I studied in school.

I suspect many people are far more familiar with The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen than they are with a small maple of the north woods. This classic vegetarian's bible was published in 1977, and while I didn’t discover it until about ten years later, I knew right away it was the cooking guide for me. I’m not a vegetarian, but about 95 percent of my meals are meat free and I love simple, wholesome vegetarian dishes. I used Moosewood to learn and internalize some basic cooking techniques that I use to this day.

I’m a man of simple pleasures and limited ambition and discipline, so I limit my cooking to the basics. I like to cook hearty soups and stews and throw everything – greens, protein and carbs - into one really big pot. I try to make enough to provide two of us with two or three meals. I find my approach is particularly well suited to cold winter nights when it gets dark early and I find myself in a Moose Hill state of mind. After work, I get everything ready and simmering and then head out the door for a jog up into the dark woods. Here’s a ‘recipe’ I used last week:

I pour olive oil to coat the bottom of one of the larger (8-quart) pots I have. As the oil heats on a low flame I peel and chop up any vegetables I can find and toss them in. These usually include onions (about four), carrots (about four large) and celery (about half a bunch). I let these sauté for a while and sprinkle on some salt. About the time the onions start to turn clear (or brown, if I have the patience), I might throw in a pound of edamame. Edamame, for those not familiar with it, is green, shelled, frozen soybeans. I enjoy its subtle flavor and appreciate its high protein content. My local mainstream suburban supermarket doesn’t carry it, so I have to get it at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Lacking edamame, I might throw in a pound of tofu. Then, I usually add two cans of garbanzo beans and two cans of red kidney beans. If I was more of a purist, I would soak and cook dry beans, but I’m lazy.

Here, I have to decide. If I want a bit of an Italian flavor I add a large can or two of tomatoes and go heavy on the basil and oregano. Often, I’m in the mood for something a little different, so I’ll go with cumin, dill, and rosemary. A dash of cayenne pepper adds a little kick for cold winter nights. I have no idea how much seasoning I add. I buy the big bottles of spices at the warehouse wholesale store and dump in generous amounts that feel right. I figure this is a big pot with about ten pounds of stuff in it, so it going to need plenty of seasoning, especially if I want to go easier on the salt.

Finally, I add enough water to cover everything, and bring it to a boil. Then I turn the heat way down, cover the pot and head to Moose Hill for a nighttime jog.

On my last run, the moon was not up yet and after I left the road I had Orion with his belt and sword to light my way. I ran up the gravel road past the Billings barn to the small opening where I watched a vireo build a nest in a birch tree on a warm morning in May. It was a cool, clear night and a cold wind swept the sky clear so I could see more stars than usual in this light-polluted corner of the world. I paused, alone in the darkness, to peer into the vastness of space and wonder what secrets the stars held on this lonely night. I listened for the hoot of an owl, but the breeze blurred all sounds. As the cold began to sift through my shirts, it was good to know that a simmering pot would be waiting for me when I got home.