Sugar trees

On our recent trip to New England, my husband and I ventured into Vermont with the promise of cheese trails to rival California’s wine trails, maple syrup concoctions, and a few quiet, unhurried days to unwind.

Vermont is a lovely place in late spring (even though it felt like full-on summer when we were there). We drove among rolling hills, lush and green from trees leafed out. We saw signs at small country stores for maple cremees, and our southern brains scrambled for a moment to decipher the term. My husband’s guess was right: something akin to soft-serve ice cream.

We took a morning drive out to a working farm, Sugarbush Farm. The scenery along the way was stunning, and even without the reward of the farm at the end, the drive was worth making. The farm was filled with friendly staff, the aroma of cheese smoking in the smoke house, and lots of talk and explanation of maple syrup. We sampled cheese and syrup when we first arrived and then walked around the farm a bit before heading back in to buy a few food souvenirs. Continue reading

A musical nature

I grew up in a home where music played constantly. My dad loves classical music and has shelves and shelves of records that he frequently played while I was growing up.

In kindergarten, I started to learn violin and trained to play classically until eleventh grade, at which time I set the violin down with no intention of picking it up again.

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My violin, waiting for me to tune it up and play

My brother played piano and then guitar and then electric bass, a gifted musician who would go on to tour the country for several years with his band. While my dad and violin teachers were educating me about classical music, my brother was passing along his passion for rock and roll.

As an adult, I discovered Irish dance and music. I picked up my violin again, started referring to it as a fiddle (a word that was like nails on a chalkboard in my days of playing classical music), and began to play for fun instead of duty.

My husband’s love of music drew me to him early, and he admits to being smitten when he found I knew of Tift Merritt and her music. On our second date, he took me to a show that introduced me to singer-songwriter Todd Snider. Ours has been a life filled with music ever since.

Of music festivals and the bands that make them fabulous
This past weekend, I got to spend four days at MerleFest, one of the premier bluegrass and Americana music festivals in the country. For those four days each year, I lose sense of the outside world and drink in song after song after song.

Old favorites made appearances: Sam Bush, Scythian, Donna the Buffalo, Todd Snider, Steep Canyon Rangers. For the first time, I saw Old Crow Medicine Show and Carolina Chocolate Drops perform live. “Wow!” is all I can say about both groups’ performances.

There’s nothing better than watching talented musicians have fun while they play – and these acts did not disappoint.

A newer group, Della Mae, is one I’ve learned to love over the last two years at MerleFest. They’re a young, all-female bluegrass group, and I enjoy their playing and singing in equal measure. My ears perked up when I heard one of their new songs, Pine Tree:

Pine tree, pine tree, growing from the soil of Galilee,
Don’t be scared now, don’t be slow.
If you don’t go, the roots won’t grow.

I think there’s a sermon tucked away in that chorus. You can listen to a snippet of this song and others off the group’s upcoming record release.

Singing trees
Della Mae’s song was not the only time music and trees connected with one another at the festival.

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I love the message on the back of this t-shirt!

This shirt made me wonder if at least some music fans also have a deeper appreciation for nature because we know what goes into making the instruments sound so beautiful and what we lose when whole species of trees die out.

Take the violin for instance. Each violin likely consists of wood from at least eight different trees (among them spruce, maple, poplar, spruce, willow, ebony, rosewood, boxwood, mahogany). The pernambuco tree once made up most Western violin bows, but now, because the tree is endangered, violin makers are searching for other woods and synthetic options to make great bows.

Even the rosin that enables the bow to draw sound from the violin’s strings comes from tree sap.

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The scroll, pegs and neck of my violin — all made of wood

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I’m partial to my own violin, I know, but I think its back is simply beautiful.

Without trees and the gifts they provide, what would become of the violins, mandolins, guitars, banjos, cellos, dobros and basses that make such beautiful music?

Nature has its own wonderful music, but I’m grateful for the music it enables humans to create, too. Today’s weather may not be serene and calm where you are (it’s getting ready to storm again where I am), but the next time you find yourself outside on a peaceful day, I hope you’ll think of the message from another t-shirt I found at the festival:

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Nature and music inextricably linked

Will you listen? And will you make the trees sing?

The promise of spring

“Ha!” I can hear many of you saying as you sit blanketed under snow today. Or is it a “Bah!” that you’re calling out to my promising the return of spring.

Spring seems an unreal probability in this wintry season. Even here in the south, we got a little sneeze of snow last night. Not enough to cover the world with its cleansing white cover, but enough to get the local kids excited about a school delay and enough to glue the little kid still inside me to the windows as the snow drifted down last night. I dream of a proper snow day while many of you are ready for it to just. go. away. already.

I will admit to wishing for warmer weather. too. This has been an unusually cold winter, and if it’s going to be this cold, I’d prefer snow to accompany it. While I’m busy wishing for more snow or warmer weather or both – after all, it could be warmer here and still snow, too – I thought I’d share some photos from my recent visit to San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden with you.

Some of the trees in the gardens are bare, but there are cherry blossoms, too. And nothing promises spring to me as much as a cherry blossom. So enjoy these photos and a cup of something warm. I promise: spring is on its way, but for some of us, it can’t get here soon enough.

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Nothing promises spring to me like a cherry blossom

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Someone is having fun training these shrubs (trees?) to grow like this.

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The koi and the trees’ reflections mesmerized me in equal measure.

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More reflections, thanks to a clear, still day

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I love the shape of this gnarled tree and am thankful for winter’s opportunity to see the flinging shape of its branches.

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A garden of dwarf trees, while a pagoda looms over the garden

A quick note about this garden of dwarf trees. Sometimes even trees get caught up in wars, and these dwarf trees are no exception. The Hagiwara family that cared for this garden from 1895 to 1942 was, according to the plaque nearby, “forced to relocate” during World War II. I guess that’s the genteel way of describing the internment of Japanese Americans during that war. The Hagiwara family left these trees in the care of a landscape architect Samuel Newson, who later sold the collection to Hugh Fraser. Fraser’s wife gave the collection back to the tea garden in her will, and they’ve been back here – flourishing – for almost 50 years.

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One last picture of these hopeful koi (I didn’t feed them, but they hoped nonetheless.)

What are the signals or promises that you look for to prove that spring will return?

Among the ancient trees

My husband and I spent the weekend out in California’s Bay Area, and while it wasn’t his first trip to the area, it was mine. I wanted to find some things to do that would be new for him, and so I polled friends on Facebook for some suggestions. Several friends mentioned Muir Woods, and one used these words: “A few minutes north of there is Muir Woods where you can stare at the bottoms of very big trees.” I thought, “I must go.”

Another friend who lives in the Bay Area cautioned that traffic had been terrible getting to Muir Woods and that several of her out-of-town friends who tried to visit there had given up because of that. But I was determined. After all, how can someone who writes about trees miss out on this opportunity?

We tried for an early start, getting breakfast bagels to eat in the car, and that seemed to make the traffic and parking problem less of an issue. Even in the parking lot, I felt like I was entering an enchanted place.

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A tree canopy in the parking lot invites visitors into this enchanted place.

I quickly realized my friend’s comment about staring at the bottoms of these trees was dead on. It’s hard to even imagine the scale, and I post these pictures knowing full well that even the pictures don’t do justice. It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon in person instead of looking at its pictures. Pictures alone cannot convey the majesty of this place.

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Looking up at one of Muir Woods’ majestic redwoods

Muir Woods is a national monument, instead of a national park, because the landowners who were donating the land wanted it saved more quickly than national park status would have. William Kent and his wife Elizabeth Thacher Kent bought the land to protect it from logging that wiped out much of the redwood growth in the area, and then they donated it to the federal government, hoping to ensure it would remain unlogged, which it has. The Kents asked that the place be named in honor of John Muir, the great conservationist who played a key role in the National Parks movement. In his letter thanking the Kents, Muir wrote of this place: “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world. You have done me a great honor.” Continue reading

Humor and other diversions

Originally, I thought today’s blog post would be my response to Chad Stafko’s snarky Wall Street Journal article about runners, Okay, you’re a runner. Get over it, but then I read Mark Remy’s hilarious response here in his Remy’s World column at RunnersWorld.com. So I’ll just share the links with you and tell you a different story, though it also has to do with emotions like anger and humor and other things integral in the aforementioned articles. Enjoy! I’m curious to know which article you relate to more.

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My day started off all wrong yesterday. I had gone to bed the night before anxious about an email related to some work I’ve been doing, and the emails started up again early in the morning. Confusing, long emails filled with the “my way is right” subtext.

By 8:30, my breathing was jagged, and my mood was, too. I knew I needed a diversion. I had the perfect thing in mind. Over breakfast, when I would normally be checking email or Facebook, I decided to cull my growing magazine pile and came across an article about an art installation at the local museum. An artist, Tom Shields, had put chairs in trees. You read that right. The magazine article included some great pictures, but this was something I had to see for myself.

I grabbed my camera and plenty of warm layers to combat the chilly wind and headed out the door. On the way to the museum, I bought a salted caramel hot chocolate. There are very few foul moods that a salted caramel hot chocolate can’t make better.

Here was my first look at the little patch of woods, a mini forest of sorts, where the chairs were. I knew they were there but wondered how close I would have to get before seeing them. The title of the installation is Forest for the Chairs, but at first, I was missing the chairs for the forest.

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The camera could see what my eyes could not. Can you see the chairs yet?

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A closer look

I felt like I had stepped in Wonderland, or an Escher drawing or maybe even Oz. Continue reading