Pitchforks and pine tar

One of the more common images brought up when people are said to be fed up with the establishment and starting to revolt is when the pitchforks come out along with the tar and feathers. This image harks back to a time when most people lived on farms and most stuff was made by hand.

Pitchforks are of course farming tools, used to lift or pitch stuff like leaves, hay and rubbish into barns, wagons or composters. The number of tines on the pitchfork can vary from three or four to as many as ten depending on what it is being used for.


This is the pitchfork my late father always used. As you can see, it has had a long hard life. I can remember him using this to turn over soil in the garden when I was very little. Given his parsimonious nature, it’s very likely he got it second hand so the fork is probably close to seventy years old. It’s a bit bent and has a fine patina of rust beginning to form on it, but it still has its uses. I use it mainly to stir around stuff in my composter. Since the metal part is cast iron and the handle solid wood, it’s a bit on the hefty side. Should I be inclined to join a revolt, I will probably opt to use one of the lighter cheapie versions sold at Home Depot or Walmart, just to save some wear and tear on my shoulders.

Tar and feathering has long been a popular method of publicly humiliating troublemakers and incompetent politicians, used in conjunction with riding them out of town on a rail (fencing rail, that is). Commonly associated with colonial America, it actually dates back to medieval times as a rough and ready way to deal out justice. It’s important to point out that the tar used for this is not roofing tar which is a petroleum derived product but is actually pine tar.

Pine tar has a long history of many uses, mainly as a preservative for wood and surprisingly a treatment for various skin ailments. It was a frequent ingredient in shampoos for dandruff and soaps for eczema. What makes it as useful as a medium for punishment is the fact that it is very sticky which anyone who has come in contact with pine pitch will know. This made it a good base for the feathers to be glued onto the unfortunate victim and no doubt made it nearly impossible to scrub off afterwards. You had to wait for it to wear off, compounding the humiliation.

Making pine tar, turpentine and similar substances requires a tree which produces resin. Conifers such as cedars, hemlocks, pines and cypresses are all good sources of resin. The Eastern White pine is the most common type around where I live. The majority that I see are second or third growth pines but there are a few more venerable specimens here and there. This one is located near the local high school. It looks to be well over 50 feet tall and is probably around 80 or 90 years old. As long as lightning, high winds or an ambitious logger doesn’t take trees like this out, they can live for many centuries.

White pines provide other useful products such as wood for dwellings, barns, fencing and were once highly valued for masts on sailing ships. As already noted, it has medicinal applications, not just for dandruff but for coughs, bronchitis, laryngitis and chest congestion. The needles are a good source of vitamin C when made into a tea. Even the inner bark is edible, though it may be an acquired taste given that it comes from wood.

They are useful enough so it is worth planting a small grove of them on the back forty (if you have the land that is.) As the production of petroleum declines, resinous conifers like the white pine will regain their value as sources of tar and turpentine. Early settlers routinely made their own and there are plenty of sources both online and in books giving instructions on how to make these products.

Still there’s no beating the old-fashioned entertainment value of tar and feathering your favorite rant-and-rave target. Up until now it looked as if the Orange One was headed for a slathering. However it appears that the governor of New Jersey has now overtaken him with an approval rating already down to 15 percent and a ‘Beachgate’ scandal that is bound to make his popularity tank even further. I have no doubt the POTUS will try to top him, though with what makes me shudder to think. How low will it all go before the tar and feathers finally come out? My recommendation is to stock up on popcorn and wait.

And buy a pitchfork just in case.


Spring this year in northern New Hampshire has been pretty much on the cool and rainy side with only fleeting glimpses of sunshine. However that hasn’t stopped trees from leafing out and wildflowers emerging. So I thought I would go about taking pictures of the flowers that pop up around where I live. (Please bear with me on the quality of my pics. Ansel Adams I am not.)

Bunchberries are members of the dogwood family. They are a common wildflower with four white ‘petals’ which are actually leaf bracts which frame the tiny flowers in the center. Come fall they produce a small compact cluster or bunch of red fruit. They are edible though relatively tasteless to many who are more accustomed to the more pronounced flavor of domestic fruits. Bunchberries do have mild medicinal properties and were used as both food and medicine by Native Americans.

Starflowers (Trientalis borealis) are common in my area though they are becoming rare in places like Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. It prefers acidic woodlands and spreads via rhizomes. While it has little in the way of medicinal value, its main appeal, at least to me, is the unexpected appearance of this simple but lovely delicate flower on the forest floor where you mostly would expect to find dead pine needles, sticks and leaves. The Japanese have a word for this: shibui.

The pink lady slipper or moccasin flower is the state flower of New Hampshire and while it is still fairly common here, it is regarded as ‘of special concern’. Because it requires forested areas and is nearly impossible to transplant, I strongly recommend that you not attempt to dig them up in a misguided attempt to introduce them to whatever patch of woods you happen to have, especially if the plants are not specifically native to your area. Trying to dig up lady slippers almost invariably kills them. Contact your state forest department who will be able to steer you in the right direction of how to get these members of the orchid family started. Otherwise you are better off just leaving them where they are, which is really all they would ask of you if they could talk.

I had a dickens of a time getting my dinky little camera to get a reasonably focused picture of this particular flower: the wild sarsaparilla. Its tiny nondescript flowers are easy to miss, overshadowed as they are by the large compound leaves and I often see ants climbing around on them. However I don’t know if they are attracted by the flowers or play any role in their pollination. The plant itself has an interesting medicinal history which may be what is drawing them.

Wild sarsaparilla spreads all over the place around the edges of the woods about my house which I don’t mind as it is often hard to get anything to grow well in the shade. The berries are said to be edible but I haven’t tried them yet so I don’t know if they taste any good or if they fall in the Steve-don’t-eat-it category.

Jack-in-the-pulpits are members of the arum family and are related to skunk cabbage, a plant I talked about in the previous post. They prefer woods and moist areas but can be grown in your garden. There are a number of online sources for acquiring this distinctive looking plant. Like skunk cabbage, the fleshy root can be eaten but must be cooked first as it too contains oxalate crystals which can only be destroyed by cooking. This also is the sort of plant you would really only consume in hard times anyway. Far better to leave it be and just enjoy the funky flowers and the bright scarlet berries that appear later on.

There has been a growing interest in cultivating native flowers and plants as more people become aware of the importance of biodiversity. Too many plants sold at the nursery prove to be invasive or provide no benefits to local animals and birds. Wildflowers, particularly the native ones, have their own special subtle beauty which can be overshadowed by the garish overbred blooms often found in so many nurseries and plant catalogs. Local plants are already adapted to the area they live and require little if any maintenance.

Compare this to a typical house lawn which is targeted by commercial lawn fertilizer companies that use the classic weed and feed scam convincing you to kill off the clover in your lawn because it’s a ‘weed’ while neglecting to mention clover is nitrogen fixing which eliminates your lawn’s ability to fix its own nitrogen. Hey, but that’s ok. The Weed and Feed guys also include the fertilizer to make up for that. They separate you from your money and you wonder why your lawn gets crappier every year. So you buy more weed and feed and – well you get the picture.

Mother Nature has been at this way longer than we have and has it all down to a fine art. All we have to do is follow Her lead. The benefit of that is getting to see more wildflowers and enjoying their unobtrusive elegance.

Skunk cabbage and other edibles

With the arrival of spring, plants start emerging as the snow melts back and the weather warms. Would-be foragers begin searching for some of their favorite spring goodies such as ramps, dandelion greens, fiddlehead ferns and lambs quarters. Many of these early greens are surprisingly nutritious and tasty so it’s easy to see why they are so eagerly sought out. They are sufficiently popular to begin showing up on groceries shelves. But for many going out and gathering them directly from the wild is a traditional rite for welcoming in spring. This having been said, there are some important things to remember about foraging safely.

While a number of wild plants are edible, some are more edible than others. From time to time I hear or read about skunk cabbage being listed as an edible plant. Skunk cabbage is a member of the Araceae or Arum family with the scientific name of Symplocarpus foetidus. It is a distant relative of the corpse flower which occasionally appears in the news when a greenhouse hosting the flowering plant is deluged with curious visitors determined to see if it actually smells as bad as its name (according to reports, it does). Likewise skunk cabbage, while not quite as odorous, will release the characteristic aroma the plant derives its name from when the leaves are crushed. While the dried leaves can be used in soups and stews, it is not recommended that you eat it raw as it contains oxalate, a chemical the body uses to make kidney stones and can cause burning of the mouth and throat. It is reputed to have some medicinal properties but is not something you would want to consume on a regular basis. Among Native Americans, it is used as a famine food (one of those things you eat when all the good stuff is gone and you don’t want to start in on the family pets and kids just yet…)

Skunk cabbage is also a good example of a plant many people are vaguely aware of and think they know what it looks like but really don’t. Many think the first large green woodland plant they see growing in the spring is skunk cabbage but it almost certainly is not. The weird arum flowers appear first with the greens only poking out afterwards.

Being able to positively identify any plant you find growing in the wild is absolutely essential before you should even think about harvesting anything. One mistake can very quickly put you in intensive care or worse. My late mother who worked as a nurse in the local hospital years ago, used to tell the cautionary tale of an out-of-state couple who had gone camping in Franconia Notch State Park. It was early spring and the husband spotted some large showy green plants which he was convinced was skunk cabbage. As he had heard it was edible, he was determined to give it a try. I’m not certain what sort of cooking he did (if any) to prepare this plant however when he offered some to his wife, she was quickly put off by its extremely bitter taste and refused to eat it. Her husband, on the other hand, ignored the bad taste and proceeded to eat some of it (no doubt to show his spouse what a wuss she was).

My mother said when they brought him unconscious into the hospital, he had no blood pressure. They were able to save his life, but the doctor on the floor remarked that if the husband had eaten closer to the stem, he would not have survived. The plant he had carelessly consumed was in fact false hellebore, a highly toxic plant not related to the skunk cabbage. The alkaloids in the plant were what nearly killed him. They have a bitter flavor but the husband was apparently oblivious to the warnings his taste buds tried to send him. Fortunately he lived and hopefully learned an important lesson.

This, more than anything else, should make clear why it’s so important to familiarize yourself with your local environment. Attending classes given by plant experts, or just simply buying a copy of a guide book of edible wild plants can get you started on learning to clearly distinguish between what is edible and what should be left alone.

Also it isn’t enough to just learn what the plant looks like, it’s necessary to learn what habitat it prefers as that can sometimes help you separate a wild edible from its toxic look-alike. Since guide books often only show the plant when it is fully grown, make a point to observe its life cycle through the season so you can see its growth pattern. What does it look like when it first emerges, when it matures, what do the flowers (if any) look like and what kind of seeds does it produce? If this sounds like a lot of work, perhaps it is but it’s what needs to be done before you can safely make use of any plant for food or medicine. This is something you don’t want to cut corners on.

Once you do learn what grows in your area, there is another thing to consider. Thanks to pollution and loss of habitat, many wild plants are having a difficult time of it. But overharvesting is one of the biggest problems struggling native flora has to deal with. While the encroachment of civilization has been going on for several centuries here in New Hampshire, the issue has been getting worse in recent years. Too many people are pursuing their favorite plants in wild areas that are dwindling in size and diversity.

Whether it’s for food or medicines, many plants once abundant are vanishing from our fields, wetlands and forests. More people want to engage in wild foraging as a way of reconnecting with nature which is understandable. But rather than harvesting these plants, it would be far better not only to leave them alone but help create more habitats for them so they can spread and restore themselves. Good stewardship is one of our responsibilities, especially if we want to leave anything for our descendants.

“If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food either.” – Joseph Wood Krutch

The Travails of Northern Pass

Yes, it’s Northern Pass rant and rave time again. It’s been a while since I posted anything about the project nearly everyone here in northern New Hampshire heartily loathes. I won’t go into the gory details of the project as there is plenty of info both pro and con to be found with just a little Google search. But it’s worth taking a look at the current status of the project and some recent developments to see that the road Northern Pass is going down is starting to get more than a bit rocky.

To hear it from the boosters for this project (which unfortunately includes our current governor) the power that Northern Pass would transmit would provide millions of dollars in energy cost savings, revenue for local tax revenues and generate jobs, etc, etc. Governor Sununu believes the project will be a ‘win-win’ situation for New Hampshire (buyers of inexpensive antique bridges in Brooklyn take note). Les Otten, the developer for the Balsams Resort, has accepted 5 million dollars in loans from the Northern Pass project though he insists the money has nothing to do with his enthusiasm for the project.

Many residents in Northern New Hampshire are having none of this, however. The idea of a butt-ugly line of 10 stories tall electrical pylons marching through the countryside (it’s still largely rural up here) has raised ire on many sides. Attempts to get Eversource and Hydro_Quebec to at least bury the lines has been met with stubborn resistance from the corporations, the main argument being it would be too expensive.

Over the past month, some interesting news has come to light. A story surfaced in early March stating that questions were beginning to arise over who was going to actually pay the cost for the NP project. This arose out of a report in the Quebec press stating that Hydro-Quebec was abandoning Northern Pass. Hydro was quick to state it had no intention of dropping NP but did say that they were not footing the bill for the line going through New Hampshire and Massachusetts rate payers would be paying the tab. If that’s the case, it’s likely to go over like the proverbial lead balloon with our neighbors to the south.

A week later NP attorneys approached the attorney for the intervenor towns of Easton, Sugar Hill and Franconia inviting them to name their conditions if the state approves the project. This was immediately shot down by the Easton selectmen stating that since they don’t want the project going through their area there aren’t going to be any conditions. The selectmen in Sugar Hill also refused the idea of any conditions, being of the opinion (likely well justified) that this would give Eversource and Hydro-Quebec the idea they can push them around.

One possible reason for the sudden confusion over who pays for what may stem from the fact that HQ and Eversource may not have renewed its Transmission Service Agreement (TSA) with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a critical omission if true as the TSA would indicate how Eversource will be paid for building the line. Perhaps scenting blood in the water, another utility company, National Grid, has popped up saying it has a project of its own in mind that would take an alternate route than Northern Pass providing renewable power from Canada into New England.

The underlying issue behind all this sturm und drang is what are we going to do about the extravagant use of electricity not just here in New England but basically everywhere electricity is made use of. The increasingly frantic effort to continue living in the style to which we have become accustomed for so long is becoming more evident with each passing year. An enormous price tag comes attached to all the infrastructure that makes the lights come on when you flick that switch on the wall or press the on-button for your tv or stereo. Hydro-Quebec touts its electrical generation as being ‘renewable’ but ignores the fact that all this renewability is based on non-renewable materials; concrete, turbines, generators, power lines all of which have to be created and maintained. Cheap petroleum made all this achievable back in the 20th century but as oil supplies dwindle and become more expensive to extract and refine, all of the products it gives rise to, are becoming more expensive as well. As the 21st century has gotten underway, a painful wakeup call has begun.

Resistance to this wake-up call is intense. Like anyone having a wild party, nobody likes to be told that they are drinking too much and there’s going to be a nasty hangover the next day, not to mention a big mess to clean up. Partyers just want to keep on partying. Unfortunately it’s no longer possible to do this. Resource shortages are going to increase both in the near and far future. There’s simply no way to avoid it. So what to do? Archdruid John Michael Greer suggested in a posting several years ago to ‘collapse now and avoid the rush’.

The idea behind this is to start voluntarily reducing our energy consumption along with our incessant demand for more and more ‘things’ and begin living in a manner more in keeping with the low energy outputs, and diminished resources that we are going to have to accept as the norm in the future, preferably before circumstances force us to make the change. Yes, it means a slower pace to life and a simpler one. No, it does not mean we are going back to living in caves. The web site Low Tech Magazine frequently publishes articles highlighting a surprising variety of ways to accomplish tasks using simpler more sustainable (and maintainable) technologies. The ingenuity behind these low tech solutions is surprising and heartening.

Compare this with Northern Pass’s heavy-handed corporate politicking and Brobdingnagian technology being touted as the latest and greatest solution to our energy woes. In all likelihood, even if it gets approved, there will still be a fierce fight in store for Eversource attempting to get it built. People are growing more skeptical but what it will take to make us to come to our senses and reject these types of outmoded energy ‘solutions’ is anyone’s guess. As Winston Churchill is said to have remarked; “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

March and Maple Syrup

Most of us are familiar with the old weather proverb saying ‘March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’. It’s one of those adages of uncertain lineage we like to trot out more as a way to comment about the weather rather than from any real belief in its accuracy. Certainly this March has started out living up to the saying. The past few days have yo-yoed from a balmy fifty degrees down into the single digits with a ferocious wind adding to the chill. Since technically it’s still winter, this shouldn’t be all that surprising but after being teased by pseudo-spring like conditions, it does come as a shock.

Still, the days are getting noticeably longer. The snow pack in the back yard which shortly after Valentine’s Day was over two feet deep has now shriveled down to a meager few inches. Bird activity has picked up with crows calling incessantly back and forth and tufted titmice whistling as they begin preparing to establish nesting territories. Chickadees along with nuthatches can be heard twittering as they climb up and down tree branches searching for hibernating insects. There is also that activity most often associated with New England, maple sugaring.

Maple syrup has a long history in New England, with the heaviest production coming from Vermont. Native Americans originally tapped the maple as it provided a source of energy and trace minerals in the late winter when other sources of food were in short supply. The sweet flavor helped add to the appeal of harvesting it. Traditional stories suggest that they were just as vulnerable to the temptation of overdoing it as we are today, as one of the Abenaki legends of Gluskabe relates.

Early European settlers quickly adopted the practice of tapping maple trees, gradually refining the technique of boiling down the tree sap to produce syrup. Cane sugar replaced maple sugar as the main sweetener around the time of the Civil War, but that didn’t stop efforts to boost maple syrup production and improve marketing. The technology has remained basically the same since then with minor tweaks and improvements. A farmer of the late 1800’s would have no difficulty recognizing many of the tapping techniques still in use today.

The production of maple syrup, however, has gotten dicier in recent years due to global warming. Maple trees need a combination of mild days in the upper thirties and low forties followed by cold nights below freezing to promote a good flow of sap for producers to tap. Too warm and the sap shoots to the top of the tree instead of rising slowly and dripping gradually into the sap buckets. This leads to poor quality maple syrup. Producers are struggling to adapt to the new normal, which given the current wild gyrations of the climate, is nearly impossible to determine. Given the recent struggles of maple sugarers, it’s fair to ask if there are other trees that could be tapped in a similar fashion. Well, it turns out there are.

The birch tree is often mentioned as an alternative to sugar maples. The flavor (which I haven’t tried) is different from maple syrup. Birch syrup contains only 1 to 2 percent sugar as compared to 8 percent for maple. It has been described as spicy-sweet by some and other as caramel-like with a fruity undertone. Because of its lower sugar content, it takes more birch sap to boil down to syrup, usually about a hundred gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup as opposed to 40 gallons of maple sap to make a gallon of syrup. So don’t expect to see mass quantities of this on the grocery shelf anytime soon. You can purchase birch syrup online, though it can be a bit pricey.

Another tree to look at is the sycamore. It can be tapped much the same way as the birch and maple. The flavor is described as honey like early in the season and developing a butterscotch flavor later on. I haven’t found any online sources to purchase this product if you are curious about it. Unfortunately New Hampshire (the southern part of it) is just at the edge of the northern range for sycamores, so I don’t anticipate this becoming a replacement for our beloved sugar maples any time soon.

Other trees that have potential for tapping are walnuts, ironwood, box elder (actually a member of the maple family) and hickory. If you have any of these types of trees on your property, feel free to experiment. Just be aware that each will likely have its own unique flavor which may or may not appeal to you. Also, and this is extremely important, be certain you are correctly identifying the tree in question. While I am not aware of any tree sap that is out and out poisonous, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one and it’s best to avoid unwelcome surprises. So educate yourself on what type of trees you have in your area. Once you’ve accomplished that, there are plenty of books and online sources detailing the process of tapping which can be quite laborious but ultimately rewarding.

Happy sugaring!

A little postscript:
I am pleased to announce that I have sold one of my short stories, A Change In The Wind, to Into The Ruins, a quarterly magazine published by Joel Caris. Thank you, Mr Caris!