Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Municipal Composting

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

   Hanover -- Town Manager Julia Griffin's job description does not mention banana peels, coffee grounds or leftover pizza. There's no reference to moldy bread or rotting lettuce. But lately, Griffin has been thinking a lot about these things. She's on a mission to get Hanover to compost.
   "We could really extend the life of the Lebanon landfill if we could pull all the food waste out," Griffin said from her office last week. "Not only can we reduce our solid waste cost and volume, but we'd be recycling the waste going to dumps to food production instead."
   Griffin is perhaps breaking the stereotype of what comes to mind when people picture a compost connoisseur. She doesn't wear Birkenstocks or muck boots to the office, and her work generally focuses on town ordinances and finances rather than tractors and chickens. She's known around town as a woman who gets things done. So when Griffin leans forward in her office chair and talks excitedly about a plan to entice Hanover's downtown restaurants to recycle their food waste, she seems to be driving home a point: composting has gone beyond the realm of farmers and natural-food junkies and made the leap into the world of business and city planning.
   "Our challenge is to make it cost-effective," Griffin said. "It's simple and straightforward, but there's a level of logistics to work out."
   After taking a tour of Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District's composting facility in Montpelier last year, Griffin approached retiring Bernice A. Ray Elementary School principal Bruce Williams about starting a composting program there. Williams, a gardener himself who had already helped implement a school vegetable garden, was immediately receptive.
   "We'd been talking about this for many years," Williams said. "But Julia Griffin and the town of Hanover were really the organizing forces that got this thing rolling."
   Griffin is more modest. She says others in the Hanover area had broken ground well before she got involved: Dartmouth College composts and reuses 263 tons of food waste annually, Kendal Retirement Community also composts, and the group Sustainable Hanover has long pushed for measures to reduce waste. But the kind of successful, large-scale operation that Central Vermont Waste operates is yet to be found in the Upper Valley.
   "We need a force like that around here," Griffin said.
   In the meantime, the most logical place to start a pilot program was with some of Hanover's youngest residents.
   "The idea from the get-go was, you start with the younger children and they'll become advocates," Williams said.
   Though they've been recycling for three decades, this past school year was the first that Ray School students practiced composting, and they've so far diverted more than a ton of food waste. Because each class eats lunch individually, instead of in one large cafeteria, each room has its own bucket system that students flock to at the end of lunch.
   "That makes quality control easier to manage," Williams said. "We make sure we're clean and efficient."
   Behind the school, next to the big green Dumpster and bins of recyclables, a line of clean, trash-barrel-like "totes" stand ready to collect the food waste. Custodial supervisor Brian Lukowitz said that some people were initially skeptical about the hassle or hygiene of composting, but "we think the composting process is actually cleaner than having all that slop in the Dumpster -- boy does that stink!"
   With the compost system, a layer of sawdust (donated by the high school woodshop) is placed over the food waste, and the totes are picked up weekly by Bob Sandberg, who brings the waste to his farm in Corinth and returns the containers clean and ready for the next batch.
   "We don't have any issues with either critters or insects," Lukowitz said.
   Eventually, Williams envisions a system that will enable the school to use its compost in the vegetable garden. But for now, employing Sandberg makes the most sense.
   Sandberg's service makes sense to Emily Neuman, too. As sustainability coordinator for the Co-op Food Stores, one of Neuman's tasks is to ensure the grocery stores in Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction meet their zero-waste goal.
   "Being a company that deals with a lot of food, we had to figure it out," Neuman said, of the logistical challenges. "There was no other way about it."
   Neuman said that the Co-op stores currently donate about 40 percent of their unsellable food to the nonprofit organization Willing Hands and 20 percent to local farms for pig feed. The remaining 40 percent -- about 315,000 pounds of food waste last year -- goes to Sandberg.
   On his twice-weekly trips around the Upper Valley, Sandberg makes about 40 stops to pick up bins of waste, utilizing Vermont state regulations that allow farmers to compost just about everything, including meat and dairy products. New Hampshire does not allow meat at composting facilities, which makes large-scale composting difficult there, as few businesses or restaurants have time to sort their food scraps, Neuman said.
   At Sandberg's farm, Cookeville Compost, a 30-by-30-foot pile stands about 10 feet tall. Sandberg churns and aerates the massive compost pile regularly with his tractor.
   Heat generated by the composting process reaches temperatures up to 150 degrees -- hot enough to melt snow in the winter. Once it "quits heating up," Sandberg said, he lets it cure for a couple months, and then, presto: "the most beautiful fertilizer you can imagine!"
   Unlike chemical fertilizer, Sandberg said, compost isn't water-soluble, so it doesn't wash away in a heavy rain. And unlike food that decomposes at a dump, the composting process doesn't give off methane.
   About half of Sandberg's compost is sold by the tractor-load to local farmers and gardeners for $25 a bucket. The other half is spread on his hay fields. He hopes to expand his operation in the future: more and more businesses contact him about composting every month, he said.
   Sandberg thinks more and more communities will follow in San Francisco's footsteps and enact mandatory composting laws. "Might as well get a head start now, because we're going to have to do it anyway," he said, referring to the thinking of some of the businesses that employ him.
   In Hanover, "the Co-op became a test (for the town) to see whether Bob (Sandberg)'s program worked," Neuman said. And has it?
   "It has worked perfectly. Bob does all the things we couldn't figure out how to do," she said.
   That includes saving money: The Co-op pays Northeast Waste Service by the pound for its waste removal, so reducing the amount of trash that goes to the landfill results in savings.
   With the implementation of its compost program, the Co-op has halved the amount of waste it sends to the dump. And while there's a cost to Sandberg's services (around $14 per tote), Neuman said that in 2010, the Hanover and Lebanon stores alone saved around $7,000.
   There is one sticking point: No one else in the area seems willing to take on the job of picking up and transporting the food waste.
   "It's a fair amount of work," Sandberg said, noting that an interested farmer would need to apply for a permit, have a truck and a trailer for picking up the waste, and also have a tractor, a pressure washer and the 150 or so totes he keeps in constant rotation to get the business started.
   "The big challenge for this project to take off is to find a site where the food waste can be taken, to work out hauling and to make it easy for businesses to compost," Hanover's Griffin said. Businesses also need a financial incentive.
   Toby Fried, owner of Lou's Restaurant and Bakery in Hanover, said that he tried composting last year and lost money on the venture, because he and other downtown businesses share a large Dumpster. No matter how much -- or how little -- waste they fill the Dumpster with, each business pays a flat monthly rate, not a per-pound rate like the Co-op (which owns a trash compactor).
   "Nobody has individual trash cans," Fried said. "We just dump into one big one and we get billed on a monthly basis whether we use it or not."
   "In theory, if you compost you'd have less trash and reduce your trash bill, but in this case it didn't work," he added.
   Matt Brown, a sales executive with Northeast Waste, said that his company's dump truck picks up 150 Dumpsters daily, including those shared by Hanover's downtown businesses. Weighing each one just isn't possible.
   However, Brown said "there's something on the horizon that will certainly make a difference for the food industry."
   "We just got introduced (recently) to a new machine," he said. "It extracts all the water out of the food waste ... and turns it into steam and evaporates. What's left can be used as a fertilizer."
   Brown said he didn't have any further information about the process yet, but will know more in coming weeks.
   Griffin is open to the idea. Her goal, and that of the town, is to reduce the amount of waste entering the landfill each year. "Whether you're composting in a local farm or doing machinery-based composting" doesn't matter, she said. She added that an estimated 40 to 60 percent of restaurants' total waste is from uneaten or unused food.
   Fried, of Lou's Restaurant, said he hopes the town, the waste companies and downtown businesses will be able to figure out a way to make composting feasible.
   "It comes down to the logistics," he said. "Most restaurants would do it if it made sense."
   Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.

Monday, July 25, 2011

the real world.

I have a great deal of respect for the people who go to their jobs every day and painstakingly crank the wheels of this powerful, invisible megolith called the economy. I admire the people who have the fortitude to function for an extended length of time in what gets called the real world. I am strong, but they have a strength that I lack.

Put me too long in front of a computer, in a line of traffic, and I begin to unravel. Even now, as I write this, I'm aware of the piles of paperwork in hidden caches in my room, envelopes I've avoided opening. Out of sight, out of mind; looking at those stacks of words and numbers is overwhelming. That's what I feel, most of the time I'm here: overwhelmed. Too many clothes in the closet – and yet I buy more! – too many worries swept under my bed as I fall sleep.

I hide it well. I pay my bills on time. I'm a competent consumer, I blend in in a city. But I always end up running away. I don't think you can camp outdoors in the fresh, open air for a month and a half at once and return the same person. And those seven week trips in Alaska represent only a fraction of this expanse of air – this raw, unfiltered, wet, dry, pungent, sweet, silent, roaring air – that has wormed its way into my brain holes and turned me into somebody unwilling to function too long in what I often think is a dysfunctional society.

I have my parents to thank for this. The other day, I was talking to my dad on the phone, probably babbling about some great adventure I saw online and want to pursue, when he interrupted me and said, “I don't know how much anything has to do with anything, but did you know you were conceived in a tent? I think that explains a lot.”

I grew up happiest outside. I was an only child with a fondness for Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery, and I hid under the cloistering yellow canopy of the forsythia bush in our backyard for hours at a time reading and playing with bugs. I climbed the black walnut tree. I explored the shallow canals in bright summer sun and the scrubby forgotten woods between neighborhoods when the leaves turned gold and dusty. I jumped out of our canoe in the middle of north country lakes and lost myself in the shadowy depths. I soared above cliffs on the Maine coast.

Inside, at a bar or in the aisles of a store, I've been told that I'm awkward and clumsy. I get too excited too fast and my energy flies out all elbows and knees. Jerky. Flailing. I've been ridiculed for not having any rhythm, but there are rhythms I understand much better than those that come out of a speaker. I was told that I'm like a bull in a china shop by an ex-boyfriend, who then stood at the bottom of a cliff and watched me scramble up it. He watched as I dashed and jumped ahead of him, from one rock to the next, and he finally said, in awe, you're like a whole new person out here. You're like a goddamn mountain goat!

Years later, in the middle of the Tongass National Forest, I was standing on a seaweedy rock in the sunrise next to my friend Ben, who said to me, I feel like I've just now seen who you really are. You're yourself out here.

Inside, I worry about my hair, my clothes, what I'm saying, how I come across. Outside, my actions flow as uninterrupted as a waterfall; my words are always right. I rarely hesitate.

My favorite thing about the year I spent in the Marshall Islands was that not once, on the outer islands, did I have to go inside. Never. There were buildings, of course, and I slept in them, but always there was fresh air and open walls. I learned to watch the stars and the moon and the rise and fall of the ocean. It was absurd to me that there had been I time I'd gone to sleep without knowing what the moon was up to, or woken up without knowing which direction was east.

In Idaho, I remember camping in the high desert for the first time with no trees to shelter me, and being awake most of the night, feeling exposed and vulnerable. But that air got into me too. In an L.M. Montgomery book, a strict aunt says to an orphan, aghast: don't sleep with the window open! You'll get consumption from the night air!

Maybe that's it. I've been bit by a bug in the cool darkness of the nighttime air and it has warped my poor, pliable brain until I'm no longer fit to be closed in. Give me wildflowers that look like stars and a sky that looks like a painting. Give me my breath. Give me a rhythm that cannot be approximated.

I will always run away, I will always play hooky to go outside. I know there are people who are wondering when I'll grow up. But I've been grown up, and all I feel is stifled, overwhelmed. Maybe everyone feels that way, sometimes, and they either get used to it or they power through and find joy in doing what needs to be done. The world needs people like that. But I think I'll always be somewhere on the outskirts, drinking the pure air that has addled my head so. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"An embarassment of riches"

Just a few pictures from the weekend ... feeling thankful for all the hard work that's produced such bounty!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Water, part 1.


It's too long after midnight to be awake, but who can sleep in so much water? I lay awake in the darkness composing poetry in my head, enjoying the comfort of my bed and the sound of summer rain falling outside the open windows. Summer: I taste it in the dark, linger on it.

Tonight I walked away from a party and came home to this big empty house, appreciating its silence, my contentedness to be alone. I boiled water for tea, and while it was heating up I stepped outside, walked down the slope of what passes for a backyard and closed in our 12 hens for the night. In the beam of my headlamp a colorless mist swirled, the water collecting in the air, catching on my breath. I felt raindrops gather in my hair.

I had to fill the chickens' water bucket and, in the midst of all that water falling from the sky, it seemed a common sort of miracle that the hose nonetheless sprung to life. I could feel the water leap through it, from the spigot to the nozzle, and when I directed its spray toward the metal bucket a different kind of mist rose, hitting me square in the face, smelling like childhood summers, garden hose. My skin and mouth drank it in. After, walking back toward the glowing windows of the house, wet clover slapped at my bare shins and clung to me like velcro. Leaves already made of water and dripping with excess, more than they can hold; gleaming, slippery, ragged leaves.

In the kitchen, I pour my tea. A small puddle, dripped slowly from the underbelly of the sweaty fridge, has collected in the center of the sagging floor and I wipe it up. Then I decide to take a bath. Water pours from this faucet too—city water, not as clean as it looks, perhaps, but a marvel nonetheless, that water pours from the sky here, seeps from the ground, fills the vascular tissue of plants and forms puddles, and still it gushes from our metal spouts whenever we turn the handle. I sit in the steaming bathtub and drink my tea and watch my stomach rise and fall in the calm pool.

My life sometimes seems as simple as a bunch of stories about water. The presence or absence of water tells its own stories, and they flow from me without warning on nights when I should simply close my eyes and let the drumbeat of rain hitting the roof rock me to sleep.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On The Connecticut

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

I read once that everyone has a river of their birth, a place where, when you return, you feel immediately at home. For a long time, I wished to be able to tell people that mine was a clear trout stream tumbling from the Rockies, or a deep turquoise gash slicing through Alaska on its journey from glacier to sea. But that wouldn’t be true. I was raised on the banks of the brown, sluggish Connecticut.

Living in the West, I’d stand with my mouth agape at the edge of the rivers I’d dreamed of, taken aback by their force. But now I’m back in New England, and standing ankle-deep in the warm Connecticut River as the setting sun stains its surface a glassy purple is like breathing a sigh of relief. The air is humid; it smells like river, like silt and soil, like growing things. Like home.

The Connecticut River is the longest waterway in the Northeast, and its meandering path has shaped this region’s history. Though it can be powerful during spring flood, it’s more often an old, lazy river, warm and welcoming. This is the river where I first learned to cast a baited hook and dip a canoe paddle beneath the surface, and today I have the chance to pass on those experiences. I’m here with my friend Elizabeth Cadle and her 3-year-old daughter, Una Moore, to canoe a portion of the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail. This is Una’s first time canoe camping and her first time fishing, and this is the perfect place for an introduction.

Because we’re never far from the Connecticut River here in the Upper Valley, it’s a convenient venue for an impromptu overnight adventure. An overnight paddling trip can seem daunting, but this one is great for beginners or families with kids. Elizabeth, Una and I prepared for our trip in just a few hours: we started planning around noon, and were on the water by early evening. 

The Paddlers’ Trail is a series of primitive campsites and river access points spanning 240 miles from the river’s headwaters to the Massachusetts border. Some of the sites are on public land; others are privately owned and maintained for free public use. Most are only accessible from the water; and most offer a picnic table, firepit and pit toilet. All are first come, first served. 

Once Elizabeth and I had chosen what section to paddle (Orford to North Thetford), I printed a couple of complimentary maps from the Upper Valley Land Trust website, laminated them with clear packing tape and marked the locations of our put-in, campsite and take-out with a marker. Then all we had to do was pack.

A rubbermaid tote and a couple heavy-duty trashbags are fine for storing firewood, a tent, a day’s worth of food and some sleeping bags. I’m religious about double-bagging the important stuff — lighters, dry clothes, headlamp, camera. Everything goes into a two-gallon Ziplock, then into my drybag (or a trash bag). My favorite thing about canoe camping is that you can carry just about as much stuff as you want. It’s an activity that combines the luxury of car-camping with the off-the-beaten-path privacy and escapism of backpacking. Bringing a cast-iron skillet and sack of split wood will hardly slow your progress at all.

There are a number of places to rent canoes, depending on what section of the river you decide to visit. We picked up ours at Fairlee Marine for $29. Some outfitters in the area offer self-guided trips or shuttles to make things even more convenient, but if you want to do it yourself, Fairlee Marine’s basic services are adequate. They just pointed us toward a boat and took our money. 

We put in at the Orford Boat Launch as the evening light lay low and slanting across the calm water. The Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail website assigns mile markers to all the access points and campsites, so measuring the distances and planning a trip that fits your schedule and ability level is easy. The Orford Boat Launch, right off Route 10, lies at mile 239 of the river; the take-out in North Thetford is at mile 232.5. In the six-and-a-half miles between, the map shows two potential campsites: one called Birch Meadow, and another called Roaring Brook. There are clear explanations of how to find each campsite using landmarks or river features, as well as GPS coordinates. Really, the UVLT people couldn’t make it any easier.

We headed to Roaring Brook. The paddle took about an hour and a half, even at a leisurely pace with several snack and swimming stops. Una showed great restraint staying mostly still in the center of the canoe, taking on such important jobs as watching for boat traffic (of which there was little), skimming her paddle across the water and acting as the all-powerful Boat Balancer and Keeper of the Water Bottles. 

It can be tempting to dismiss the Connecticut River, passing over it as we often do on our way to work or running errands. It’s easy to think of it as little more than a geographic marker, a band of blue running between two states. 

But out on the river, taking it in from the unhurried vantage point of a canoe, it takes on its own beauty. Though it’s been damaged and polluted at times in its long history, the Clean Water Act has turned things around, and it’s now a corridor of the natural world running right through our backyard. Every time Una started to get a little antsy from staying still in the center of the boat, we’d see a gaggle of geese clustered on a bank or a red-winged blackbird clinging to a strand of marsh grass, and she’d be enthralled once again. We sent water bugs skittering over the surface of the water with our paddles, and Una laughed with joy.

Roaring Brook was simply lovely — a well-cared-for, grassy clearing about 75 feet long and 45 feet wide on a low bank with a wide-open view of the river. Silver maples drooped over the bank on one side of the campsite, making a perfect shady spot to string my nylon hammock, and the area was surrounded by black raspberry bushes.

 Two small freshwater streams burbled on either side of the clearing. The pit toilet, located back in a stand of spruces, was as clean as you could ask for. And though we could hear cars passing on Route 5 not too far away, we didn’t see another soul. We cooked over the campfire, roasted marshmallows, and then Una and Elizabeth climbed into their tent and I lowered myself in my sleeping bag into my hammock.

 As the night darkened and fireflies flickered in the branches, the traffic on Route 5 subsided and the sounds of a summer night took over. I lay awake and listened to the hooting of an owl, the intermittent thwang of a bullfrog, a yapping chorus of coyotes somewhere on the far bank. The moon rose behind the black silhouettes of trees.

The next morning, we cooked eggs and fished (without success) and reluctantly packed up our gear for the two-mile paddle downstream to North Thetford. Before we pushed off from camp, Elizabeth remembered the notebook left as a guest book and log in a mailbox nailed to a tree. 

We jotted down our own words, then flipped back to see who else had been to the site this year. There were four other groups before us, though Jason Berard of the UVLT estimated that about 30 people use each site per month. 

Shannon, age 12, had been here on a canoe trip with her parents. “Went fishen and I got two nibbels and one perch and one bass,” she wrote in a careful hand. “Then the most beuteful unicorn came out of the woods. … I was good so she granted me a wish and my wish was … I’m sorry, I can’t tell you or it might not come true, but I can tell you this: I love the rivers in Vermont and hope they will always stay beautiful!”

When Elizabeth read the entry to Una, Una nodded her head seriously, wide-eyed, and said: “me too.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

bloom where you're planted.

Worked hard at the newspaper all day, then came home and wandered down to the river to swim. On the way back, picked berries in the straggly sumac woods, collected eggs and closed the chickens up for the night, and harvested bunches of salad greens, snap peas and radishes. Then ate a big salad for dinner and sat in the hammock swing on the front porch trying to play banjo.

There are times when the grass always seems a few shades greener somewhere else. As much as I loved working in the wilderness and enjoyed the transient, vegabonding life that accompanied it, my journal entries from those times consistently express a longing for constancy, to have the time to read and write, to have a garden and room for creativity; to learn about beekeeping and wood working and putting food by. To sleep in a bed and have a kitchen.

Now I have all those things, and I spend hours in front of my computer or behind the wheel of my car longing again for the wild, open places; the simplicity of carrying everything you own and need in a single load; the camaraderie and adventure and sheer exhilaration of being alive. I plot how I can leave this behind and be there again.

But then, too, there are times like this evening when I'm completely content where I am.

*Bloom where you're planted* KB said to me yesterday as we finished our beers, sitting above a waterfall at a perfect wooded swimming hole. It was dusk, and the air was hazy, the light slanting just right. I'd never heard that phrase before.

Against Climate Control, Briefly

This was an exercise from Craig Childs' workshop that I thought would be fitting for this hot weather we've been having in New England.

Here in the north, it's a big hulking thing hauled from the musty basement at the end of May, maybe June, and wedged in an open window with some cursing and perhaps a smashed finger or two. No longer are hot, humid summer evenings spent dripping sweat, immersed in a bath of humid air, sitting on a shaded porch with a can of beer or glass of lemonade beaded with condensation, engaging in lazy summer talk with the neighbor, who's likewise escaped his unbearably hot house for the front porch to watch the thunder clouds build up in the distance. Now, we have “climate control.” Every day, every season the same carefully moderated temperature. You put it on in the car, wear a sweater at the office while the 90 degree sun glints off the building outside. You go to the cool restaurant so you don't have to cook and there you can order red wine or a soup, even, because it's always the same stale temperature. Wasn't there something valuable, something you can't put your finger on, about trying to sleep on hot summer nights with the sheets kicked impatiently around your ankles and a creaky fan billowing the curtains while you toss and dream of icebergs, ice cream cones?

I hate air conditioning.

Plus, it's expensive to run. But maybe I'm romanticizing a past that was never was, as I have a tendency to do. And I can't deny that there are places where air conditioning is a blessing. I thought I'd won my own personal war against the evil A/C if I could deny its whirring siren song in the steamy river valley where I grew up or in the swamps of Florida. But four degrees north of the equator on a sun-baked strip of coral, stepping out of the plane is like getting punched in the face with a wall of heat. Immediately, even your belly button starts sweating. There's nothing else like it. I knew I'd be spending 11 months in that heat without so much as a window fan, and so for that first month, in the capital, I relished the luxury of sleeping on the floor, sardine-style, in an air-conditioned kindergarten classroom crawling with cockroaches. I would push open the door and collapse into the cold, dark air, loving every second of it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Intro to Wild Edibles

 Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed.
Slightly altered.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

   Mike Hebb and his wife Kathy live in a log cabin on a steep wooded hillside in South Strafford. He built the cabin from a kit in 1971, “because I didn't know that much about building back then.”
  When you meet Hebb, the setting makes sense. There's something in his countenance, his careful gait and quiet voice that suggests he belongs here. In the 40 years since he first laid the groundwork for his home, Hebb, 64, has learned a great deal -- much of it from simply observing as he walks the same paths day in and day out, in every type of weather, collecting firewood, watching the forest grow and die back around him.
   Much of what Hebb does is intertwined with the woods: He handcrafts exquisite violins, lathes bowls and vases and patiently sands cedar canoes in his garage. And he knows a lot about local plants -- especially those that taste good.
   After he posted on the Strafford listserv to remind neighbors that the highly sought after black morel mushrooms were making their brief appearance on the ground in hardwood forests, I asked Hebb if he'd mind going for a walk in the woods with me. The next morning we headed out on his 15 acres.
   We begin the day sitting at the table in Hebb's cabin, looking out into the woods. Hebb doesn't talk much at first; he's like an old engine that takes a while to warm up. I ask him if he's lived here all his life.
   "Not yet," he says seriously.
   He pulls a small piece of paper out of his pocket. On it, scrawled in pencil, is a list of what he plans to tell me about: fiddleheads, ginseng, mushrooms, dandelions, knotweed, ramps, wild ginger, wild asparagus, spring beauties. First on the list: maple syrup.
   "Maple syrup is the first wild edible of the year. It just takes more cooking than most," he says, noting that he boiled about 40 gallons this year.
  We get up to walk. Just behind the house, a cluster of ferns are unfurling. Though it's only mid-May and the last patches of snow in the shadows and hollows have only just melted, the ferns are already nearly a foot tall. They're the bright, almost neon green that distinguishes plants in early spring from those in August's maturity. Outside, stretching his long legs, Hebb starts talking more.
   "The fiddleheads are mostly gone by," he murmurs as if to himself, bending down to brush aside the feathery plants. "Look, there's one. See that scaly business -- only fiddleheads have those. Some have a furry covering."
   Though all ferns start as fiddleheads -- the tightly coiled spirals that line roadsides and streambanks in early May -- only the ostrichhead fiddleheads are really edible. Steamed, they taste like asparagus. I ask Hebb about the possibility of picking the wrong kind and getting sick.
   "There's no danger," he says. "If you're really insecure about it, try to go with someone else the first few times, or go to the supermarket and observe."
   A book on wild edibles I read recently dedicated pages and pages to warnings so dire it made me afraid to pick even the plants I knew. But Hebb's approach is nonchalant.
   "See, this looks like fiddleheads but it's not, because it doesn't have the little scaly wrapper," he says, pointing to a fiddlehead with fur instead of chaff. "You just have to be observant."
   "There's a lot of edible foods out here -- you could eat the grass if you wanted to," he continues. "But there's a big difference between edible and good to eat. Like when they talk about mushrooms, 98 percent are edible but maybe 5 percent are really good to eat. In the books, they call them 'choice.' But edible just means they won't make you sick."
   Walking with Hebb through the still-brown woods is like being given a new pair of eyes. He notices things most people overlook.
   "These are spring beauties," he says, pointing to tiny whitish-pink flowers with long, narrow leaves. Once you know what you're looking for, the flowers are everywhere. He picks a bulb about the size of a shelled almond.
   "The bulbs are kind of like little potatoes. They're small but they're a good survival food if you don't know what to eat. They just happen to be there and if you knew about them, it wouldn't take too long to get a few cups."
   Walking up the path, Hebb, who grew up in Thetford, talks about his background with wild edibles.
   "Well, you start as a kid picking berries, and you just go up from there, you know. ... It's a natural progression. You start reading books about it, then you get influenced by other people, just like any other interest," he says.
   Quiet and unassuming, Hebb doesn't seem to care much for talking about himself. If it were up to him, the plants would talk about themselves, and he could stand off to the side and admire them, out of the spotlight.
   "If I lived on a city block I would probably not go out of my way very much to (harvest wild plants)," he says, continuing to walk. "I don't try to make it a big part of my diet. ... But I'm here and they're here, so I try to promote them and they feed me."
   Hebb reaches the spot he was looking for and stops. It's a south-facing slope dominated by hardwoods, morning sunlight filtering through tree branches and lighting upon hundreds of low-lying, leafy plants.
   "These are ramps," he says, looking around with a faint trace of pride. "They can be hard to find."
   He bends down and picks an unadorned, roughly 6-inch leaf off a plant at his feet. He rips it in half and hands it to me. It smells just like a garlicky onion.
   "Now, nowhere have I seen ramps like this." He gestures at the blanketing of plants around us. "Those are all ramps."
   The bulbs of ramps, also known wild leeks or spring onions, were an important food for Native American and white settlers alike, from the Appalachian mountains to Quebec. They can be eaten like any onion: pickled, fried with potatoes, chopped in a salad.
   "They come up like that," he says of the elongated, drooping leaves, "and then the leaves die and you think they're all dead. But couple of weeks later a big stem comes out and a flower comes up on top and creates a whole mess of little black onion seeds. And if you're in the woods when they're in bloom, they'll be just humming with bees all around."
   I ask Hebb how many ramps someone should pick, were they to stumble upon a hillside like this. He thinks for a moment, then answers slowly.
   "If everybody went and picked only 10 percent of what they saw they'd still be gone. There's just no way for the last people to know how many there used to be. So basically I'd say transplant a few and manage your own patch. That way they wouldn't get wiped out in the wild."
   "Another thing I found up here that's very rare is ginseng," Hebb says, bending over a small plant that he's encased in a wire fence to protect it from deer. It doesn't look like much -- sort of like a small basil plant with toothed leaves. But the plant has been hunted nearly out of existence, Hebb tells me: today, you need a state license to pick it.
   "There used to be big money digging that up. Back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, there were whole families that lived in the woods searching out ginseng. They were called the 'sengers' and the 'sealers' because they went for ginseng and golden seal. They were both pretty valuable back then.
   "The root is generally sold as tea," he continues, noting that it's particularly popular as a stimulant in China.
   The sun is rising and it's turning into a warm spring day. So far, Hebb has talked about wild asparagus: "If you've ever picked asparagus from the garden, those big fern-like tufts, if you're awake when you're driving you'll see them along the roadside and you'll recognize them. Then you come back in the spring and you get them before they get like that because they'll be in the same place the next year."
   He's talked about dandelions: "They could be the most harvested wild edible this time of year. I often see people out off the road, in the fields digging them. Every part is edible, the crown, the leaves, the root."
   But he's only hinted at his knowledge of wild mushrooms. And those are the things I'm most eager to learn about. Apparently, they're his favorite too -- he's been saving the best for last.
   Black morels are said to be comparable to French truffles, a culinary delicacy and a fungi that inspires passion in both nature lovers and foodies. I ask if he can describe what they taste like. "How do you describe a flavor?" he asks, shaking his head. "They're not like anything else."

   Many people who hunt mushrooms as a hobby are protective of where they find them, like surfers defending local waves from outsiders. It's not that morels are inherently better than other kinds of wild mushrooms (though some would argue that they are), but they're the first to poke out from the mat of dead leaves on the forest floor after a long winter, when avid mushroom collectors sit longingly at their windows and dream of the day the snow will stop falling and the scent of morels frying in butter will again fill their kitchens.
   Morels are found in mature hardwood forests. A good place to start looking, Hebb said, is where ash, maple and oak trees rise above spring flowers like jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium and trout lilies. And when? "Usually about the first of May, when you see the ramps, a little later than the trout lilies."
   That's all there is to say on the matter, really. Finding your own morels requires time, patience and a strong dose of interest. Some Internet research or a book or two would help the beginner, along with the ability to identify other plants that suggest the presence of morels.
   Perhaps most important, searchers need a sprinkling of luck. Mature hardwood forests are common. Healthy morel beds, like the one Hebb is about to reveal, are not.
   Walking along a pleasant path carved into a hillside, Hebb suddenly stops. Out of his back pocket come a handful of orange stakes.
   "Stay up there a minute," he instructs, stepping around gingerly like he's dancing, planting the orange stakes in the ground where clusters of morels hide in the brown leaves.
   "OK, now," he says, and I step down carefully. There are morels everywhere: black and buff, maybe 40 of them in all, each about three inches long and perfectly camouflaged to blend in with the crinkly carpet of leaves.
   "These mushrooms are pretty small. Later on they'll grow as much as a foot high, the big ones," he says. "That's unusual, but very usual is eight inches.
   "But they don't all get that big, the slugs go into them and start to work on them within a week. If I see the bugs start to go after them, I'll cut them." He cuts one at its stem. "Smell -- it smells like a mushroom," he said, handing it to me.
   It does indeed smell like a mushroom, faintly pungent, redolent of dirt. Morels have conical, deeply pitted fruits atop a firm, whitish stem. Tilted at an angle, they look slightly comical, like a cartoonist's depiction of a mushroom. And the sight of someone on all fours, nose to the ground, in the moist spring forest admiring a morel specimen might seem comical as well -- until you try one.
   If you become a convert, Hebb said, it's crucial to harvest morels carefully.
   "It's important not to leave a big opening where the stem is cut off, because the mycelium -- that's the parent of the mushroom -- can grow 10, 20, 50, 100 feet underground, practically invisible. They grow very big. And that's prone to infection like any living entity."
   Making a clean cut without leaving a gaping wound in the "stump" of the mushroom will help protect the underground mycelium -- which can be thought of like the bulk of an iceberg hiding beneath the surface of water -- so that the mushrooms we see aboveground will return next year. If a mushroom hunter finds a productive bed, he or she can sell the morels to fine restaurants or local food co-ops. They go for $46 a pound on eBay.
   But most people interested in hunting wild mushrooms don't do it because it's lucrative. The pleasure is in eating something that can't often be bought, and in the thrill of finding something so elusive.
   While there is certainly a danger in picking wild mushrooms, Hebb said, the main thing is to stick with easily recognizable varieties.
   "There is a false morel," he said. "But it's a really ugly thing, very asymmetric with deep whorls, not conical usually, like the regular ones, and they're just inconspicuous. If you've seen morels you'll know it's not one. You'll know it's really questionable. If something is questionable, just leave it alone."
   After admiring the morels for a while, there's little left to do but make our way back toward the house. As I'm getting in my car to make the white-knuckle trip back down Hebb's steep, switchbacked driveway, he calls to me from the porch.
   "I forgot to tell you," he said, pointing toward a commotion in the woods. "One of the best wild edibles is wild turkey!"

Notes from Alaska

Notes from my journal in Alaska.

Quote from Pico Iyer: “It can, of course, be dangerous to live too long in so protected a retreat, so far removed from daily strife. Any serious monk does not seek to leave the world but seeks merely to step out of it for a while, the better to see it, and return to it with new strength and clear direction.”

7 a.m. December 6, 2009. Frosty morning. Writing from totally inside my sleeping bag. Camped on a spit of frozen grass that doesn't get any light this time of year, spruces sparkling with frost like tiny Christmas lights. So strange that it's December now, and I came out here before Thanksgiving. I haven't thought of Christmas shopping, of warm buzzing shops and food and parties. I'm camping under tarps on the Alaskan coastline instead, enthralled by the ice that clings to every blade of grass, this cold, glittery otherworld; chunks of ice floating in the ocean we push through in our canoes. Last night, our fire seemed the only sign of life in this great expanse of sea and sky; a lonely speck of light in thousands of miles of wilderness.

December 7, 2009. Five days without a drop of rain. Freezing cold and dark by 3 p.m., starry skies and big fires of dry wood. I get up before everyone else and stand on a point of rock jutting out into the deep northern ocean, watching the first pink and orange hints of a sunrise appear. A seal pops his head from the calm bay and stares at me. Then the kids get up and it's nonstop action until they go to sleep again. The days fly by, one merging into another, paddling for miles across open ocean in clear, cold, slanting sunshine.
Yesterday we were paddling in good spirits; three green canoes with yellow spraydecks sliding by the dripping rock cliffs. In the distance, spews from a lone humpback whale. We watch and paddle on. Then, closer, behind the humpback, a pod of orcas appears, flipping their tales, black dorsal fins slicing through the water. Suddenly one, apart from the rest, rises just behind our boats and breaches! Incredible!

6 p.m. Friday night, February 26, 2010. Just enough gray light to write by, darkening with each word. An almost-full moon glowing behind a foggy haze, rising over white-shouldered mountains. The shaggy humps of the island-mountains loom darkly; steep mist-shrouded forests rising straight out of the water, rocks dripping wet, echoing. In the moonlight, the moutaintops glow white, pine trees standing out like carefully placed toy trees on a diorama. This is day 7 of staff field straining and there's been no rain all day; into camp by 3 p.m. after an easy 10-mile paddle. Behind me are the sounds of a busy camp—armloads of wood dropped on the rocky beach, laughter, the crackling of a driftwood fire, clank of the cast iron skillet. I'm sitting alone for a few minutes in a tiny cove blanketed with shiny purple mussels. Big red starfish left on the rocks by the receding tide, hot chocolate in my thermos. I listen to the water lap the shore and think about going back to Wrangell tomorrow, and of doing this for 50 straight days shortly thereafter.

We push into these dense forests like intruders hoping to discover a secret. Past the first line of defense, the heavy branches, you break through, pause, and raise your head. You find yourself in an oversized wonderland, a snowglobe of thick, cushy moss, ancient cedars draped with lichens, a glowing green that filters out all other colors except the delicate white snowflakes that sift softly through the canopy. Mossy hummocks decay into rich soil, soft earth, massive branches stretch high and wide. I'm in awe that this is what I do for work; I marvel that this is my life.

March 10, 2010. Wrangell town. “The only frontier left is the world of intangibles, of ideas, stories, music, art...” Mornings, I wake up slowly, look outside: more rain, the town near to floating away, it seems. I think of Adam and the others out in this and imagine it must feel like a punishment of sorts, forcing yourself out of your tarp every morning, paddling through the driving rain with freezing, numb fingers; searching vainly for dry firewood to make a smoky fire under a tarp, huddle around it as the dark wet ocean slaps at the rocks. I've been there. And yet I haven't. Here in town, I wake up slow, warm, to coffee and poems and music and a day's worth of dreams and plans. I play a game of cards and bump into friends at the store, a chance encounter that turns into an hour-long conversation. I take a bath in the middle of the day and run my fingers softly down my sides, watching my stomach rise and fall in the filmy water. I contemplate things, this week: my own body, the year 2010, things other people have written, things I've written, the splatter of rain on the window, the slow building drum roll behind a song. I have a cigarette with my morning coffee, then I go to the gym.

March 30. I was walking to the shop today when James drove by in the forest-service-green clunker and said he'd be back in 20 minutes. Waiting, I cut through someone's driveway and found a weathered gray log on stone pilings overlooking the harbor to sit on. Light and wind on my face; 45 degrees in Alaska and people are wearing shorts and tee-shirts. Below me is a working dock: orange buoys, a rusty oil barrel, a coiled hose, crab traps, lengths of chains and ropes. Crates, boards with nails sticking out, a ladder. Wrangell has made a conscious choice not to be gentrified; it has bravely refused the lure of the cruise ships. Now it's a matter of opinion whether it's suffering or thriving because of it.

6:24 p.m., April 13. One week into Program 4; me and 12 guys between the ages of 13 and 36. I'm sitting away from the group on a boulder-strewn beach, barnacles and strands of popping seaweed clinging to every rock. Huge chunks of soggy driftwood thrown here by storms. Across a short, still bay is a pine-silhouetted shoreline in at least 50 shades of green, rolling mountains beyond mounded with snow. Seals swim silently in water as calm as a lake, and wispy purple-gray clouds streak across a pale sky. Big wool thrift-store sweater under rubber overalls, feet clad in Xtratuff boots too valuable to put a price on. The beauty is that we stay out here as long as we do; we could stay out here indefinitely, I sometimes think; never go beyond this life of moving from one place to the next every day, concerned only with food and water, heat and shelter. I feel prepared and confident, quietly pleased that my rubber outer shell renders me impermeable to the sharp edges and wet salty winds of this remote coast.

5:54 p.m., Friday, May 25. 2,000 feet above Anita Bay and Zimovia Strait with views to Canada, the coastal mountains jagged and hazy on the horizon. Will mountains ever cease to stun me into silence? Will I ever get over them? Closer, Virginia Peak just across the bay starts at the dark blue sea with a line of aspen, barely yet green with spring. As the mountain rises, it blends into the darker green of pines, then gives way to the bare rock and sheer white of the alpine zone. Behind us, blanketed in pure white, is Navy Peak: our destination, looming, reminding us of what's ahead. It's still days away; travel in this country is slow, especially with a group of teenage boys.

Sitting at the edge of camp, the ocean spreads out thousands of feet beneath my boots, glassy on this sunny day, dotted with small white boats forming “V”s of wake behind them as they move slowly across my vista. From here, I can see the shades and textures that make up the eternal waves and tides and currents that rule our days down there. Instead of highways and intersections, we've come to understand this world in terms of straits, bays, channels, inlets, islands, coves. Which ones the tide pushes through most strongly, which the winds howl down, where the deep spots for dropping crab pots or spotting whales are. From above, from this new and unexpected vantage point, it all becomes clear and lucid, the swell and pull of the marine world. My feet are dry and warm and sun hits the back of my neck. Our orange-and-white mountaineering tents are perched on a snowy edge, on an open mountaintop surrounded by patches of stunted spruce that melt the snow at their base, starting already to bud. A stream trickles somewhere under the snow—I can hear it, and know I've got to get up soon to find it and fill up our water with one of the boys.

We worked hard to get here, to a place few others care to see. We climbed through muddy forest deep in skunk cabbage and over mossy logs the size of mattresses, fell and swore and sweat. Up into the muskeg, sloshy and moist, buggy as hell. We've fallen down countless slippery slopes, slogged through mud to our knees, sank in muskeg holes, pushed through forest we couldn't see through, branches scratching at our faces. Then into the snow, just a little bit of it at first, in patches, slushy; then more and more until we got to a ridge that made the boys cry and swear – and eventually call out words of encouragement to each other as we crept along its edge. Now we're close to the sky, blessed with sun.

May 16, evening, in my tent. Two nights ago, the steady drip started in the middle of the night and never let up. We slept in until 8 and awoke in the middle of a cloud. Gray fog swirled over the precipice, our view swallowed up. Packed up camp with grumpy kids in a rain just this side of snow and climbed straight into the mountains, hunched under heavy packs, a silent line of figures marching against the gray. We stopped at a flat spot when we couldn't go any further, no visibility to orient ourselves in relation to the peak we're shooting for. Hiking up a hill before dinner to warm up, I looked down on our four orange tents huddled against the driving wind, a cluster of gear and people small and exposed against the endless clouds, the stark rocks, fields of snow, twisted and bent trees.

But this morning the sun burned off the mist and fog, and suddenly we realized we were on the edge of a bowl with peaks rising all around, alpine clarity rinsing our vision clean, freshly washed air, waterfalls tumbling down. From there we hiked down a ravine then back up again, higher, to base camp. Tomorrow we'll try to summit. So much work to get up here, navigating such a jumbled topography of muskeg and forest and snowy cliffs.

But I love these wild, open places; this open alpine tundra bathed in evening light. We're camped in a broad, rolling expanse, bare rock cover interspersed with sopping puddles of moss and lichen; fragile plants clinging to life, patches of snow melting. Water trickles everywhere, but we are all dry and happy again after last night's wretchedness. I walk to the edge of a point and below the sweeping white ridgeline of Navy Peak is a wall of snow trickling down to brown rocks, sloping into muddy rivulets, draining through tall brown grasses to a lake far below, fed by a rushing stream, perfectly reflecting the bowl of mountains that surrounds it. I stand on one of them, somewhere. 

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