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Be Whole Again

Tina Hartell

I’ve spent a good part of the last few months running and hiking in the woods trying to wear out this guy.


But, as everyone knows, that runs counter to a well-established law of physics which states that No Amount of Distance Travelled Will Exhaust a Ten-Month Old Labrador. So pretty much it’s just tired me out (which isn’t bad) and also allowed me to explore new trails and woods that are near home.

The other day I was running on a trail I had never been on in the summer - having only skied it years before. And it was on the way down that I saw this, just to the right of the trail.


A cellar hole.

It took my breath away - as they always do.

Evidence of an old house, an old farm that used to stand right here. The foundation is all that is left. And I can’t help but think of all the hours worked, and the births, deaths, music, tears, and life that occurred here years ago. And what happened to them? Did they want to leave or did they have to?

The ghosts are there. I felt as though I was intruding, as a spent 15 minutes looking around at the old barn foundation, the well, the plowed forest floor, and the stone walls.


I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry recently because in dark times, it is the artists who show us the light. Robert Frost, one of the lion voices of rural northern New England and often a comfort to me, says this in his poem, “Directive.”

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry -
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion. 

Seeds in Flight

Tina Hartell

There are a lot of seeds around right now. I’m shelling dry beans from the garden, the kids come running in with “stick tights” stuck tight over their shirts and shoes, turkeys are running around eating up the acorns, and milkweed seeds are blowing from alongside the pond. Seeds do get around. They’re supposed to, that’s their job - to get as far away from the parent plant as they can and set up shop to grow and reproduce. Seed dispersal is a plant’s one big shot at horizontal movement.


These maple samaras (a.k.a. helicopter seeds) are in abundance now. They are the twins of the seed world, clustered together on the ends of branches, waiting for the right time to take flight. Once airborne they twirl either clockwise or counterclockwise with precision, as the angled “wing” weighted on the top side and papery on the bottom side give a lesson in perfect physics.


These ash seeds are also samaras, but in a different style. They have a single straight wing and the seed is much smaller and less heavy. The seeds all hope to land in a spot just right for germination. Most don’t. And then even those seeds that do germinate never make it to maturity. But trees play the long game - sending thousands of seeds out year after year at great energy expenditure with pretty incredible success.

Plowing the Woods

Tina Hartell

The Vermont woods are littered with evidence of past human disturbance. Many of the stone walls that criss-cross the woods and lines our roads were made in the late 1700s/early 1800s as European settlers deforested and plowed the land for crops. Every time their plow came across a rock in the ground they would stop, pick it up, and carry it to the side of their field - an arduous task as the glaciers dumped horrible amounts of rock during their retreat 10,000 years ago. Stone walls are often nothing more than stone dumps. While some of them do delineate old (and current) property lines, many of them just separate different fields.

In this photo, the forest floor on the left side of the wall comes up higher - almost to the top of the wall - whereas the right side drops down. This is called a plow terrace, and is further evidence of plowing, as repeated turns of the plow caused soil to be pushed down hill until it hung up against the stones. 

 A plow terrace on the left of the stone wall

A plow terrace on the left of the stone wall

On either side of the wall, you can also see that plowing over 150 years ago has smoothed out the natural irregularities of the forest floor making the ground fairly smooth and even, a trait that doesn’t exist on unplowed land.

Much of this cultivated land was turned over to pasture land when sheep were introduced to Vermont in the mid-1800s, and then much of it returned to forest between 1900-1950. Vermont has young forests - but aggressive as hell as it is a fight to keep land open. Trees are an unstoppable force.

Degree Days

Tina Hartell

During sugaring season, I am forecast obsessed. I’m not a true weather geek because, while it’s super cool, I have no idea how to make weather-forecast models based on existing data. 

So I just frantically check two different weather forecasts probably to the tune of six times a day.  It’s strangely necessary because a 2-3 degree difference in either daytime or nighttime temperatures can determine whether the sap will run through the night, when we turn on and off the RO during the day, if the sap tank could overflow, when I might actually go to bed, when we start boiling, etc. Temperature becomes the governing factor of my entire day for weeks on end.  

I find I interact with people differently too. I’m horrified that people don’t know that we might get 1” of freezing rain on Thursday or that the nighttime temps will be above freezing for three straight nights. HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW THIS! Can you believe that it’s not going to get above freezing for the entire first week of April?!? Unthinkable! What is going on? And wait till you see what’s going to happen on Tuesday!

But that’s farming, and we are farmers because of this one fact: We are temperature bound. We cannot control the temperatures and the temperatures control when the sap runs. What we can control is how much sap we get once it starts running and how quickly we can process it. But we can’t make it run.

But then sugaring ends and spring eventually does come, and I find I might go an entire day *gasp* without checking the weather. Or I might look at the week’s weather on Monday and then be duly outraged when the sunny Friday predicted on Monday is actually rainy, and  I happily get caught in rainstorms and wear too many layers. 

2018 Season Wrap-Up

Tina Hartell

April 23, 2018

Last boil. The sap just sputtered out. Nothing fun or dramatic like filter presses jamming or stinky, unboil-able sap. We just stopped getting sap. The period of time between tapping - early February - and these late sap runs was just too long. The tap holes started healing over and reducing the amount of sap we were getting. And despite the long season, it was only just average in terms of yield. We didn't break any production records although we did break a number of other records

Earliest boil: February 20

Latest boil: April 23

Longest stretch of time between boils: 24 days

Number of days boiling in April: 7 (we generally boil every day in April until the season ends). We had two week-long freeze ups in April. 

Number of feet of snow that came in March: 6

But, as our in-house first-graders say, 'You get what you get and you don't get upset.' We have no control when the season starts and finishes. All we can do is be ready and try to keep it going as long as possible. 

It seems the season is extending longer and longer. Back in the day, old timers wouldn't even start tapping until Town Meeting Day (the first Tuesday in March). Now people are tapping in January and having to keep the vacuum running in an attempt to prevent the tap holes from sealing. 

April 2, 2018

After 6' of snow, a 24-day freeze up, and a lot of powder days on the hill, the sap finally ran March 25 and we have been going straight out since then. We're hoping to push out through into next week although the weather isn't too favorable. We're constantly scanning the long-term weather forecast for when night temperatures will be consistently above freezing, as that signals the end of the sugaring season. Until then, I am hoping to make the last 1/3 of our crop. 

March 11, 2018

The sap stopped running March 2 when the first of the two nor'easters blew through. The second one, which hit March 8, dumped 30" of snow on Bobo's Mountain and through the mountains of southern Vermont. Between powder runs, we finished off the syrup in the pans, cleaned them, and are now waiting for the next sap run which really may not come for a while. Another storm and up to 12 more inches of snow is coming tomorrow. The sugarbush is buried, and I am hoping optimistically that the snow will "settle" before uncovering lines and fixing anything that's popped or broken in the last two weeks. 

February 28, 2018

The 2018 sugaring season has exploded onto the scene like Chloe Kim and Jessie Diggins in Pyeong Chang. We boiled seven of the last nine days in February. And the sap keeps running. And we keep filling barrels. What this means for how the rest of the season plays out is anyone's guess. 

Improvements to the sugar house this year include a separate, insulated kitchen area with a coffee maker and stove; actual chairs; and a brand new barrel mover. It's the little things. 

Magical Mystery #1: Our filter press and reverse osmosis filters have been working hard to keep up with what appeared to be dirty/mineral sap. We thought it was just the first sap run and it would clear. But it didn't. Then we thought there was something amiss with our equipment, so we checked around. It turns out many sugar makers in our area (and maybe beyond) are experiencing this, and that the word on the street/text threads is that there is a high manganese content in the sap that is choking all our filters. If anyone can explain this and why it's cyclical -we haven't experienced this before- give us a shout. I haven't had time to research it: I've been too busy making coffee. 

Freezing Trees

Tina Hartell

How do tree wells form?  Why does the snow directly around the tree melt faster than the snow in the surrounding area? I’ve always imagined that trees must emit heat because they, too, are alive and warm and have juices flowing through them. And while their juices (sap) aren’t exactly 98F like ours, they’re above freezing, right? Maybe. 

These yellow birches do emit heat but not through an internal furnace like mammals and birds have. Trees have a lower albedo than the surrounding snowpack. Or to it put another way, they’re absorbing more radiant energy from the sun. This absorbed heat then melts the snow. Some plants do have an internal furnace so to speak and can generate energy (aka heat). Bulbs, in particular, demonstrate their capacity to generate energy as they pop up through the snowpack in early spring. 

At our house two nights ago it was -7F. If trees don't possess an internal furnace, what is it that keeps them from freezing? They do absorb some sunlight like ectothermic animals (reptiles, amphibians, insects), but a sunny, -10 degree day won't keep cells from freezing. The snakes and frogs know this. They spend their winter buried in mud or locked down in a cave in some strange dormant torpor. Alas, trees do not have horizontal mobility, so those evolved to live in northern climes, must ride out the bitter cold. 

Like any living thing, if a tree's cells die, the tree dies. Water is plentiful inside the tree's cambium - the thin layer of xylem and pholem just under the bark. Their job is to move water and nutrients (aka SAP!) up and down the tree's stem. Xylem carries water and on cold nights it does freeze! As the ice crystals expand in the xylem, the surrounding wood cracks and makes a sharp "pop" noise that I often hear when I'm outside trying to warm up the truck on cold mornings.

But xylem and the surrounding wood is made out of dead cells. So if they freeze, the living cells of the tree aren't affected. The living cells are in the phloem, the tissue carrying nutrients. So how does the phloem not freeze? Supercooling. 

Supercooling is a strange phenomenon in where liquids can sink below their designated freezing point by not allowing any nucleation (growth) sites for ice crystals to form. This can occur up to -36.6F for water but because there are dissolved solids in phloem, it lowers the supercooled temperature to around -41F without freezing. What if the temperature goes BELOW -41F? Then trees employ another strategy that involves the dehydration of the phloem cells. The trees (somehow) force water out of the living cells into the extracellular space (the space BETWEEN the cells). There, the phloem freezes. But the cells survive, completely dehydrated and shriveled, waiting for it to warm back up so the phloem can reenter.

Of course, forest composition changes as you move away from the equator and eventually the great boreal forests of the far north peter out to tundra. It just becomes too cold for trees. But they survive some intense conditions with just a few pops.  (Adapted from a previous post.)