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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.)





Tina Hartell

I'm finally back in the woods for the first time since May.

Bobbie Jean and I are cruising the sugarbush replacing drop lines and old tubing. It's a good place for me to be right now - a necessary place to be to soothe election/world-frayed nerves and restore hope. The Japanese have a term for this recognized form of relaxation called shinrin-yoko or "forest bathing." 

Long ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Burt Barnes was my beloved forest ecology professor. He was small, brilliant, elven, and could move through the woods faster than I thought anyone was able. 

We students stumbled along after him, never quite keeping up but always enjoying the chase.

Years later when I became a high-school forest ecology teacher of sorts, I too started moving through the woods with more ease. Or perhaps it was just more in comparison to my students who scrambled behind me. Now I was the one who had to wait, who wasn't out of breath, who knew how to walk in the woods. 

It takes some time to learn how to bushwack over uneven ground, over rocks, and through face-slapping vegetation. 

You constantly have to change your pace, look ahead, skibble here and there, and pay attention to the ground. The fall leaf cover is especially tricky. The leaves cover up ankle-biting holes between rocks and hide slippery logs. The first day I wiped out several times and was slow and unsteady. I even came home with a bloody shin after falling through a hidden hole in the rocks. Eventually though I got my footing - literally - and started moving with confidence through the crunch. 

I have renewed encouragement for my former students chasing my through the woods and am grateful for Burt's patience with me long ago. For it's a gift to be able to smell the deep musk of these mushrooms or see a chilly garter snake before she heads to her winter den. If you don't see me on Wednesday, I'll be bathing.






Mammal Invasion

Tina Hartell

I spent the first part of 2016 crowing from the rooftops about how mild the winter was: No snowshoes needed in the sugarbush ever, one driveway plow, only one night in early February when we thought the heat in the house couldn’t keep up with the outside temperatures (it did), and an epic sugaring season. 

There were some other effects the mild winter had on the rest of our northern woodlands. Specifically, there was incredible over-winter survival rates for our furry mammalian neighbors. They are the ones who truly had an epic winter, and there sure are a lot of them around right now. 

Bobo and I are keeping track. To date:

(Note the absence of photographic evidence. Mammals are notoriously photo shy and also enjoy night-time mischief - a challenge to capture with a crappy iPhone while not wearing your contacts)

  1. Voles: So these larger mouse-like critters repeatedly ate all our lettuce, kale, beets, and spinach seedlings. Once the tiny shoots popped up, they nibbled the cotyledons off just leaving frail, translucent stems. However, I’ve since then won that particular battle. 
  2. Woodchuck: This guy/gal was wretched. It destroyed all our Brassica starts (TWICE) including red cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. The green and Napa cabbage somehow survived. We’re taking a total loss on the Brassicas this year. 
  3. Porcupine: “Pruned” our raspberries. Leaving us with the potential for a great 2017 crop but not so much for 2016.
  4. Bear: Never have I ever seen so many bears. We have two at our house who we have established a relationship with vis-a-vis our trash/recycling and compost. They’re insanely (large) strong and clever and can generally undo any thing-a-ma-gigy you try to put together to keep them out of said areas. We also have one cruising the sugarbush which I’m scared to uncover what damage it’s done on the tubing once I get back in the woods come November. 
  5. Mice: DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED. It feels a bit Hitchcock-ian. 
  6. Cat: Bobo’s adopted a cat to address the situation in #5, but to date Echo seems more of a lover than a fighter. We don’t mind.

I have spent quite a bit of time this summer trying to outwit, outsmart, outdo, and just OUT these fellas with very little success. Hats off to you my friends. Party on.

Cool Kids

Tina Hartell

I really don’t know much about hipster culture, and I certainly couldn’t ask one because living in rural Vermont there’s not a hipster to be found within 20 miles. So I did what any self-respecting Gen-Xer would do, I consulted Wikipedia.  

“The hipster subculture is composed of affluent or middle class young... broadly associated with indie and alternative music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility ..., generally progressive political views, organic and artisanal foods, and alternative lifestyles.The subculture typically consists of white millennials living in urban areas”

They seem cool. But clearly Buzzfeed doesn’t think so because anytime you drop the f-bomb in the title about a group, it seems like there could be a level of anger and fear that might be more appropriately directed at, say, the GOP than a group of people fortunate enough to have some extra cash to spend on food. 

Does Buzzfeed think that maple syrup is made in some DUMBO commercial kitchen by someone wearing distressed jeans, amazing glasses, and riding a fixed-gear bike? In reality, the maple industry is made up of really unhip farmers. I missed being a hipster by like 15 years. I generally throw on long underwear, 20-year old clogs (that was a good buy), and head to the sugarhouse after dropping my kids off at preschool. 

In this case, Buzzfeed equates hipster with expensive and being daft enough to buy expensive food made by individual people (not General Mills) who tricked them into it with excellent graphic design. As many people know, making maple syrup is a labor of love. But keeping in mind the individual who wrote in the comment thread, “It's hard to stab a tree and let nature do the rest.” Here's why it is. 

Labor: In our case

    ~ felling, bucking, splitting, and stacking 12 cord of wood every year

    ~ cruising the 40-acre sugarbush with 10 miles of tubing more than 10x a season 

    ~ slogging around in snowshoes for over 85 hours to tap 2500 trees with a cordless drill 

    ~ battling black flies for over 25 hours to remove the taps at the end of the season

    ~ working 18 hour days when the sap is running boiling sap into syrup. 

    ~ hot-pack bottling, labeling, and shipping syrup around the country

 Equipment: We carry overhead on specialized maple equipment including arch, pans, Steam-away, vacuum pump, storage tanks, and reverse osmosis. 

Seasonal whims: We make syrup for only a few weeks every year. That’s our crop. If mother nature makes the season long, we’re stoked. If the season is short, there are financial consequences. 

Of course not everyone can afford maple syrup. Food insecurity is epidemic in this country, and many people are operating on a harsh food budget. I wish maple was available to everyone; it has a low glycemic index, is nutrient rich, and is high in antioxidants. If you're going to use sugar, maple is a pretty good one to use. 

But ultimately if being hipster means we care about how our product looks want to have fun with an aesthetic, I'm pretty happy about my new designation. Drink up Hipsters! 

Sugarhouse Fare

Tina Hartell

Amtrak's "Empire" is hurtling down the Hudson river valley alongside marshy river bottoms, riverside mansions, and recently-inspired villages. Bobo, my fellow passengers, and I are headed "to town." Bobo's Mountain Sugar is invited to attend tonight's Maple-Run dinner at the James Beard House on West 12th St in Greenwich Village. Five chefs from New England and Canada are whipping up a maple feast, and Bobo's will be representing maple producers. 

The menu consists of ten amazing dishes. Things like: curried lamb turnovers with chiles, maple, pickled onions, and fennel; maple-braised beef short rib with kimchi stew; waffle baba with maple–bourbon syrup, vanilla–bourbon ice cream, brown butter, and maple meringue. 

This is not the kind of food that makes it's way into our sugarhouse. Not even from the same planet. I was thinking this last night at 11pm when I ate my gazillionth hotdog of sugaring season nestled in half a hamburger roll with a shot of Sriracha. 

We, in large part, eat incredibly well at home: whole grains, our garden vegetables, locally-grown meat and eggs, nuts, fruits. But there's something about the month of sugaring that permits to impulse-buy all our cravings at the IGA. 

Tortilla chips and salsa, sour cream and cheddar potato chips, hot dogs, pickles, cheese and crackers, cheese dip, ham sandwiches, kielbasa. In rural Vermont, take out isn't much of an option but Jake's pizza from Londonderry usually makes an appearance once or twice a season. Once, our friends from Ludlow brought us Mexican take-out from Mojo's Cafe. That caused a hat dance. 

Grilled meats are ubiquitous: venison steaks, venison burgers, and every form of sausage-type fare imaginable. Will Reed's favorite cheese-filled kielbasa shows up at least once a season. Things that eat well out of a slow cooker are also big hits. There's been lamb chili, venison chili, venison stew, and lentil soup. These provide a nice counter balance to the grilled meat but once they're gone it can be hard to find the time to prepare another round. Vegetables take a back seat and you know that the the season is winding down and the sugarmakers are weary when salad fixings appear. 

A bit of  a mess. 

A bit of  a mess. 

Historically I think the "womenfolk" would prepare elaborate meals for their men who were up all night sugaring - elaborate meals meaning the quintessential hot-dish casserole. And lots of it. Nothing nearly as elaborate as what's going to be dished up tonight at the Beard House, but maybe we'll invite the chefs up for a boil next year. 






Winter Peace

Tina Hartell

Well winter showed up, finally, as we all knew it would. The El Nino-induced extended stick season (the season after the leaves have dropped but before the snow arrives) ended on December 27th with 3" of snow. It was warm up to then, including a sweatshirt-only, Christmas-day hike up Styles Peak in Peru, VT. The sweatshirt being the only orienting indicator of day.

But people around here are worried about the lack of snow, and when you live in an area with four ski mountains and countless people making their living off the industry including those involved with restaurants, hotels, retail, and snow plowing, it's ok to be worried. Although if you've been following the El Nino year science, it's not really a surprise. 

An interesting piece from Scientific American that explains how this year is different from other El Nino years

Personally, Bobo and I are quietly enjoying this mild winter especially after two consecutive whopper winters that even drove the most hardened Vermonters to cry mercy. A whole extra month to split and stack another year's wood, fertilize the garden beds, and cruise the sugarbush fixing lines? Yes please!  A whole extra month of feet in anything but boots, of snow gear in the closets, of not having to use mental space to know (at all times) where the kids hats, mittens, and winter socks are? Oh yeah. And time to finish great projects like this, complete with drawbridge and reinforced birch beams.

Not surprisingly, every single farmer I spoke with during December smiled shyly, and echoed the sentiment. 

And some industrious sugar makers around the state, used our "spring-like" December to make syrup! The conditions were perfect: days in the 50s, nights in the 20s. What a run!

People ask me all the time what the warm El Nino winter has in store for the sugaring season. We can't predict, but the thought of a good run in late February and maybe, even, doing some boiling in March, has me ready to get out and tap. 

So Happy 2016 from all of us! It's good to be here, in this year, despite it all. I went for a walk with the littles today, skirting the edge of an inhabited beaver pond, and walking swiftly on top of the three inches of hard-packed snow. We built a fire, roasted marshmallow, slid down the ice on the frozen beaver dam, built a tipi, and saw the tracks of snowshoe hare, beaver, moose, and coyote. It's afternoons like this when I breathe in Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things" and feel hope. 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Peace be to you in 2016.