Tom Stock

Poet, Essayist, Photographer, Naturalist

Month: September 2016 (Page 1 of 2)

A Walk in a Remnant Forest in Baldwin, Nassau County

I joined Colin O’ Sullivan for a walk in a woodland located on the south shore on Nassau County. It is called Grant Park, a large recreation site. Colon has been interested in this open space and the possibility of introducing and enhancing native plant species.

From the edge, it looks like non-native species have had a field day. Most obvious is ragweed (also called mugwort). With this greeting, my instinct told me that I was about to encounter another place that looks like nothing compared to a century ago.

The major use of this park is sports. There are fields for tennis, soccer, baseball, track, swimming, and skateboarding. A trail runs through “Colon’s Preserve” ( my designation) which runners and bikers use. I don’t understand why this section of the park was left undeveloped. Colon has visited several times and has adopted it. He alone, wants to transform it, a daunting task. To remove the invasives and keep them out is herculean.

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I looked across a meadow in Calverton. Once farmland, it is now studded with succession plants. Way off, I spotted an orange dot. I knew it was butterfly weed and walked to see it. It makes a decided accent to the tan textures of the grasses, little bluestem, switch, and orchard grass. Of all the species of milkweeds that I look at in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wild Flowers, butterfly weed does it for me. I saw pots of butterfly weed at Lowes in Farmingdale at $28.95 each. I don’t need to buy one because I have butterfly seeds.

While on a survey walk at Tobay Beach on Long Island, I spotted a single butterfly weed plant at the entrance to the 7 mile long bikeway that runs parallel to Ocean Parkway. The plant was dry and had reached maturity and no new growth with several mature seed pods attached. I marveled at the delicacy of these smaller, smooth green pods compared to coarser Common milkweed. I found some pods closed and soft. These had a way to go to open and release the delicate filamentous parachutes that carry the seeds on the wind. From this point, these seeds could travel quite far. To the west, a tangle of brush. To the south, Atlantic Ocean, to the north, Great South Bay, to the west. More brush. This prompted me to collect some partly open pods and try growing them.

Back home I e-mailed Betsy Gulotta who manages the Hempstead plains, Mindy Block, who runs the Master Naturalist Program, and Chris McHugh of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative. I asked if they would like some of these seeds. I estimate about 200 seeds. Betsy said no but the others said yes. I mailed seeds to both along with this essay and tips on how to grow butterfly milkweed seeds. Betsy said my seed was too far away from the Hempstead plains to satisfy genetic comptability.

What I will enjoy is seeing the butter fly seeds sprout and tracking their progress.

So far, I’ve experimented with two weed seeds – dogbane and goats beard. Both took two years to reach seed production. I like goats beard for its huge seed head, like dandelion seed heads on steroids. I like Dogbane because a friend taught me how to make cordage from the tough, stringy inner bark. Unfortunately, I grew spreading dogbane which doesn’t have long enough stalks to harvest the inner bark.

I decided to plant 6 butterfly seeds in each of 16 pots containing a mixture of top soil and potting mix. I planted in late September and intend to put the pots in a cold frame as soon as the first frost comes.

My goal is to plant out butterfly weed when it is strong and healthy. I will seek permission to plant some at Edgewood; a N.Y.S. forest preserve that has plenty of open meadow habitat that isn’t mowed.

Bayard Cutting Aboretum-Sept 23; Autumn Equinox 2016

Along Montauk Highway, I noticed a large portion of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum State Park that I haven’t toured. I bounded north out of the parking lot while most people were heading in the opposite direction toward the main house.

I walked among magnificent mature specimens of oak, beech, and sycamore. Mushroom caps have taken advantage of a recent heavy rainfall. Latent mycelium has waited for moisture and they have responded. It is good to see mushrooms in the fall which is their busy time.

I stopped to pick up exfoliated pieces of sycamore bark thinking I might be able to do something with them artistically as I have with browned, curled rhododendron leaves. (I have photographs here of a few that I’ve made.)

Robins hopped about on many of the trails. I heard yellow-shafted flickers chittering in the canopy. This walk turned to be a wonderful way to kick off the fall season – my 76th.

I found a bench to rest, have lunch, write, and observe. A placid pool reflected the sky. For me, this was paradise. I was alone with a lone catbird that cried in a tupelo tree. It’s leaves were turning red already. A scolding bluejay’s rasping call added spice to a peaceful early afternoon. In the hazy sunlight under a white pine tree, concentric circles on the pool surface attracted my attention. Two mallard ducks dunked and dipped. I made some “swish” sounds, staying still and only moving my eyeballs. I was able to attract a curious catbird. But, once it spotted me, it was off.

While I came here for the trees, I forgot about the rhododendron groves. I collected more dried leaves for a texture project. Using old cedar cigar boxes, I’m gluing leaves in various patterns for objects to hang.

In a sun drenched patch of goldenrod, lots of insect activity;  bees wasps, flies are all agitated and energized by the scent of aerosoled nectar and bright yellow flowers.

Remnants of summer will hold on for several weeks. Ocean temperatures are still warm. Swimmers bounce the breakers and small shorebirds fly south along the edge. Least sandpipers scamper up and down the swash zone poking bills to find food. Although tomatoes are ripening slower, I’ve seen some red maples in fall color that act as an early warning that fall is here.

The great lawn was mowed to look like the grassy outfields of professional baseball fields – lovely texture patterns of grass in bright warm early afternoon sunshine.

In an alcove next to the kitchen on the main building, I enjoyed three huge baskets of ferns and below, in the garden, a new species of goldenrod. I call it a successful day if I can identify a new species. This one is called Wandlike Goldenrod with long, skinny stalks of flowers that gently swish and swash in a gentle breeze.


Lets Be Frank

The fall festival prompted the taste for a frank. I want a frank on a soft bun slathered with mustard. So I buy the frank and a beer and go sit on a bench near the gazebo with music and the rest of the crowd. I try to open the mustard packet but no luck. I try both ends looking for the tear spot. I try again. I can’t open the mustard packet! Now I’m getting impatient. I can taste the mouth-watering mustard-clad hotdog and feel the soft bun melt in my mouth.

But with no mustard, I am frustrated. I can’t eat a hot dog without mustard! I begin to shake as I imagine myself bringing this morsel of comfort food and delight up to my wide open mouth and closing my jaw around this treat.

I’ve thought about this for  almost an hour. I am expectant and excited.  I grab the packet and tear it open with my teeth which is difficult. Finally I see it, that mustard color and smell that mustard smell. I spread it on the brown tube of meat and know that I am close, very close to the first bite. But, but, but, the mustard only covers half the dog. I tear open a second packet with more gusto, having given up on where to tear. I smear mustard on the rest of the dog squeezing as hard as possible to get as much mustard out of the impossible difficult to  open pack I take a sip of beer, take a deep breath, and the time has finally arrived. I slowly raise my hand and bun and frank and mustard to my open mouth and squash the soft bun, teeth sinking into the warm frank, and my happy tongue savoring the taste of mustard. My taste buds reconnecting with that mustard taste . The satisfaction is overwhelming. The whole struggle of all those moments of frustration has come down to the thirty seconds it took to devour, vanquish, destroy the object of my desire…a simple hotdog on a bun with mustard.

The Physics of Tossing Horseshoes

The key is practice. The whole body is involved in a complex array of muscle memory. I know from experience. I make baskets, which requires all kinds of finger dexterity and strength. After years of making baskets, each of my fingers has their own brain. It’s the same for horseshoes. You have to keep tossing and concentrating on how the shoe landed and how to adjust from there. Eventually, your arm knows how much force to use, how to step, the angle of release, the way you hold the shoe. I have ultimate respect for champion “shoers”. They put in the time to get that way. Here’s my story.

There’s nothing quite like the sound of a ringer. The shoe hits the iron post and may spin. The shoe may hit another shoe that missed. The sounds of shoes in the pit is very enjoyable. You want more. It becomes an addiction.

I tossed for a weird reason. As a boy, I contracted polio in my right arm. With exercise and the Sister Kinney Treatment, and my mother, I regained the use of my arm. However, I did loose some muscle mass. I took to horseshoes to exercise my arm.

At the start, I had to decide which way to hold the shoe. The flip method means holding the shoe in the middle with both forks facing the pit. I would concentrate on the pole through the forks of the shoe to better air my shot. The other method is the Frisbee toss. Holding one of the forks, the shoe is released so that it sails in flat spiral. After many tries both ways, I chose the flip. The goal is to have the forks arrive at the pole at just the right time.

I built a horseshoe court in my Manorville backyard. The soil was so sandy, that I carried in buckets of clay soil and poured them into the pit so when the shoes landed, they didn’t disappear under loose sand. I practiced alone as a routine. With four shoes in a set, I’d toss 20 sets. Gradually I got better.

I set the stakes in concrete and built boxes on both sides. I loved to “ting” the dirt off a shoe to knock off the dirt, another great horseshoe sound.

As a retired science teacher, I admire the physics of force. The release of the shoe at the proper point of the arm swing is probably the most important skill to acquire.

When I toss shoes, I imagine being on a farm with other hands. We hear the dinner bell, and knock off work, wash our hands outside using the hand pump, and wait to be called to the dinner table. It was horseshoe time. The four of us would take our places and play a game of 21. Ringers are three points, leaners – 2 points, and one point scored for a shoe that is within the width of the forks.

For me, the sounds of shoes against shoe and shoe against pole harkened back to an older time when there were less distractions. Tossing shoes was relaxing, socializing, and competitive. And best of all, tossing shoes keeps me out of trouble.

Water – Astounding!

Fire hydrants are like mushrooms that sprout from the miles of mycelium underground pipes. We don’t see ground water until it pops up in creeks, pond, lakes, and marshes. These, to me, are astounding. The word awesome is overused, so I’ve going to overuse an new term. The fact that we have water pressure because of elevated tank reservoirs is why the fire department can turn on hoses and we can turn on faucets.

I toured the Suffolk County Water Authorities lab complex in Hauppauge. The bottle lab, the pathogen lab, the volatile compounds lab, the herbicide, pesticide  testing lab and the museum with valves, photographs, pipes, geology, and history. Astounding.

Lab supervisor Francesco, who oversees the Volatile compounds lab showed us gas chromatograph machines that can pinpoint harmful, cancerous molecules to parts per trillion said with pride that the lab holds itself to the highest standard. He smiles and says “New York State’s lead level is 15 ppm. We hold it at 5ppm”. This tells me that the Suffolk County Water Authority has our back. We’ve got probably the purest water in the state. Nothing escapes the blue lab-coated chemists who wear latex gloves while they titrate, look under microscopes, and tend to their computers. These lab rooms are the reasons why we have safe potable water all the time.

With 1.5 million Suffolk residents and 800,000 cars, thousands of cess pools, millions of opportunities for chemicals to leach into the water table, the Water Authority has to monitor its over 250 wells on a regular basis. That’s a lot of small sterile plastic bottles. When they see something, they say something. Protecting the public is their highest priority. Let me say it again…astounding.

Water air and soil are probably the post taken for granted resources that we are in contact all the time. We are 70% water. I love to see water in the clouds and ocean waves as well as my adopted Sampawams Creek. The creek’s water quality is impared. This is not astounding.

The 700 employees work behind the scenes. They maintain over 300 miles of pipe. Let me say it one more time in capitols …ASTOUNDING!



“In everything you recognize yourself”

“There is not a single thing different inside of everything than is in each of us. We’re all made of the same stuff. It’s the construction that’s different. That construction has a long period – going back some fifteen billion years to the beginning. We are left with construction plans in our DNA and genes that contain blueprints of all those earlier construction projects.”

Albert Sweitzer said these words in a lecture in 1913. He wanted us to see our connection to the big picture. Who, for example, recognizes themselves in their pet dog? There is no physical resemblance, but there is reciprocal love. We recognize ourselves by the dog’s love because we love. We see the dog having the same functions we have.

How do we recognize ourselves in a dragonfly?   Again, common functions provide the answer. What is important is the reason why we should look for similarities in all things. All is sacred. Every single smidge of matter, no matter how tiny or how huge, no matter how complex or how simple, offers us a looking glass to reflect. Communion of all different matter each with its own individuality is the key to understanding the reason for the universe. All things in the universe have three characteristics. They are interconnected, they are differentiated from one another, and they each have their own individuality.

If we recognize ourselves in the humblest of creatures, such as a caterpillar crossing a road, is there not the possibility that we will treat that caterpillar with respect and dignity?

Behind the endless diversity of life and non-life, we seek to recognize a spiritual creator that participates in everything. Seeing God in all creation is a good way to respect, treasure, and preserve.

Tuesday Pickup – Homecoming Farm

We arrived at Homecoming farm for our weekly Tuesday visit for our work/share commitment. Our two hours of work usually involves weeding. Although there’s been a drought all summer, Don had laid out irrigation tape at the end of our work assignments, we gather at the pickup tent to take our share. This week it was big.

Strong northeasterly winds, a sprinkle and clouds covered the 50 beds and building area. I joined Mitch and Don at the raspberry bushes. “This isn’t the proper soil for raspberries.” Said Don. “I’ve seen blueberries in the pine barrens sandy soils that are loaded.” I chimed in.

Don asked me to weed the artichoke bed after I pointed out horseweed. It can grow as high as a horse, is long and skinny, and is one of two major weeds who have taken advantage of the irrigation tape. The other is rag weed. I got to work.” Having grown artichokes in Manorville, I knew that the later you harvest, the tastier the tubers are.

“Wait till the last pickup at the end of November.” I suggested.

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I Sat in the Waiting Room Shaking: A Memoir

I sat in the waiting room shaking. The principal wanted a meeting with me. I shook, sweat, and waited for the reprimand. I applied corporal punishment on one of my students. I squeezed his arm in anger. He pushed my buttons all too often. My classroom management was very poor. I happen to teach in one of the most challenging junior high schools in Suffolk County

I waited a long time stewing and imagining the worst. Finally “The principal will see you now.” His secretary said. I looked grim, I looked guilty, and I had been here before for the same offense. I had good reason to believe that my teaching job was at stake.

“What did he do.”? I stuttered, stammered, and choked as I told my side of the story. “He pushed the boy next to him off his chair. I walked over, took his arm and escorted him out of the room.”

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Strong Hands

Jeff Gottlieb has been a major force in adding to my interest in how Native Americans used nature for their survival. Early on, he taught himself the physical properties of plants, rocks, and animals. For example, one time he said, “Look how this hickory sapling bends without breaking. It’s perfect for wigwam framing. To make a cattail mat, cut them as close to the bottom as possible, separate them, and lay them on the ground to dry in sunshine.”

Our friendship grew as I accompanied him on foraging and construction trips. Through all this, I deepened my respect for the intelligence of our First People or Native American Indians. Jeff taught me how to survive by learning how to use nature.

One of his early experiences was two weeks in New Jersey where he underwent rigorous challenges with expert Tom Brown in the Pine Barrens. He was challenged to spend several days alone with just a knife.

Jeff wrapped a wet rattan strip in order to fasten two saplings. He criss-crossed the wrap, pulled the two ends tight then tied. He was building a wigwam frame. He builds wigwams with his hands, natural materials, and knows how. He gets commissions to construct both domes structures and long houses. Jeff practices primitive technology. He needs a pair of strong hands as well as a good jack knife.

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