Living Lighter on the Land

A partnership...with the dead

Once upon a time, Westchester County’s land was cleared and trees were the exception, not the rule.  Trees were sparsely sprinkled across the landscape and grew reliably in only a few locations: shading the farm house, lining the prominent road, marking the property’s corner, bordering the swamp.

A painting of 1830’s New England.  

If trees were the exception, farms were the rule.  Specifically, sheep farms.  Oh yes – most of the old rock walls you drive past were erected to keep in place big, silly looking Merino sheep.  During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s wool was one of New England’s biggest inland industries. With the opening of the American West by mid-century, the cold rocky soils of New England were abandoned for the cold prairie soils west of the Mississippi.  Some eastern farmland was simply abandoned…and thus began the trend of reforesting New England. Starting then, trees became more of the rule and less of the exception.               

A Merino sheep in need of a hair cut.  
As an abandoned farm grows into a forest we can expect to see a certain pattern in the plants.  At first, fields of flowers and shrubs dominate.  Soon after, fast growing and short lived, ‘weedy’ trees – like birch, black locust, and eastern red cedar – take over.  Eventually, slower growing and longer lived trees – like the white oak – assume their position on the old farmland.  Across New England,  when farms were left to revert back to forests, the eastern red cedar became a very common tree.

An old field naturally dominated by eastern red cedar trees.  As forests in southern New England regrow from cleared land, they often pass through this stage, which remains evident even after the trees die.   

At the Armstrong House Education Center you can still see this early stage of reforestation.  Here, like in many other forested parts of southern New England, you will see hundreds of eastern red cedar trees standing dead or dying in the shadows of larger trees.  These trees thrived in open, full-light conditions but were slowly killed by the surrounding forest as they were shaded out.  Their naturally rot and insect-resistant wood allows them to persist in the forest as dead trees for over a decade.  Currently, living cedars are not very common; most of the cedars you will run across in Northern Westchester County take the form of fence post, gates, benches or hand rails.

The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy has entered into a partnership with this tree.  The cedar is rot resistant and strong, making it ideal as a long lasting, outdoor building material.  Here at the Armstrong House Education Center we use eastern red cedar posts to hold up our garden fence, prop up our mailbox, keep up the shed wall, strengthen the chicken coop and support the hanging branch of an old gray dogwood tree.  To say the least, we think very highly of its usefulness.

Strong cedar posts hold up our garden fence.

Four cedar posts act as the central support system to our chicken coop, seen here in progress.

A cedar helping to hold up our outdoor work shed

A slender cedar post holding up a very old dogwood branch

So what about this resource in the future?  Will our forests provide us with eastern red cedar to build with in twenty years?  Not unless we plant some new ones today.  And that is exactly what we are doing on the Armstrong Preserve.

Why isn’t eastern red cedar growing in the forests of Northern Westchester County today?

Two reasons:
1) These trees require abundant light to get started, which the forest floor does not provide.  Much of Northern Westchester County is forested and the few places that are not forested are typically mowed.
2)  White tailed deer destroy the trees that have managed to find an appropriately sunny location.  In this respect, the eastern red cedar is like all the other trees in the area – the deer are keeping them from growing.  Without a change, our forests will look a lot different in the future.   

To ensure that there will be red cedar for the future we grow it in the following sunny places:
1)  Our tree nursery, a well-lit fenced area attached to our garden.
2) The Armstrong Preserve’s cliff face.  This bedrock cliff is bathed in sunlight and is out of reach from deer.
3) And coming soon, eastern red cedar will grow in our meadow.  As part of the Armstrong Meadow Management Plan, we will be establishing a zone of small trees and shrubs around the meadow’s perimeter, which is currently occupied by Japanese Barberry.    

Eastern red cedar growing on a rock cliff at the Armstrong Preserve
How does using eastern red cedar as a building material help us Live Lighter on the Land?
By using wood that is produced in our forests we don’t have to import wood from overseas.  This means we use less fuel for shipping.  Also, by being intimately involved in the production and harvest of the wood, we can better understand and appreciate the impact of our actions.  In other words, we can clearly see the ecological impact that our building projects have on our landscape.      
Can you form a partnership with the eastern red cedar?
You sure can.  Just pick a sunny spot on your property and plant a few eastern red cedars.  While they are growing you can actively harvest some dead cedars from your property and you won’t be exhausting your supply.  The goal is to always have some new trees growing for future building projects. 
Remember, you need to keep them safe from deer until they are big enough to protect themselves.  You can simply fence them in, or spray them with a deer repellent.  You can buy very cheap saplings from the state here.    

*The introductory paragraph to this post is a generalization of New England’s landscape history.  For more information on this interesting topic see here and here.  

Partnerships with a BUZZ

Hey, do you like sweets?  Of course you do, who doesn’t?  Have you ever thought about the sugars inside your yogurt, muffin or Snickers bar?  Do you know where sugar comes from? Here in the United States, sugar commonly comes from either sugar cane or corn syrup.  Less common sources of sugar include beets, maple syrup, concentrated fruit juice and honey.  The last one – honey – is the topic of this week’s blog.  Here at the Armstrong House Education Center we have entered into a partnership with a colony of honeybees; we keep them alive and well fed and in return they produce for us honey and wax.  It’s simply beautiful.

Members of my honeybee school checking on a hive in May.
How do honeybees produce honey?
Honey production is a multi-step process, which the honeybees carry out naturally.  First, certain ‘forager’ bees leave the colony to find flowers.  At a flower, they extract nectar (essentially sugar water) and bring it back to the hive.  There, they store the nectar in their comb and process it into honey.  They do this by adding enzymes to the nectar and evaporating the water out of it.  Initially, nectar is roughly 80% water.  In the end, honey is roughly 18% water – the rest was removed by evaporation.   Once the honey reaches the right concentration, the bees ‘cap’ the part of the comb that it is in.  Capped honeycomb means finished honey!

Capped (left) and uncapped (right) honey comb.  The bees cap the honey when it reaches the right sugar concentration.  It is from this capped form that we harvest the honey.  

Honey harvest at honeybee school.  The class used a hot blade to cut open the tops of the comb.  From here, the comb was centrifuged and the honey was released.  
Why would bees go to so much trouble just to make honey?
To the honeybee, honey represents food for the winter.  It’s a simple cycle – honeybees make honey during the growing season, store it in their comb and eat it during the winter.  Without this winter food the bees would starve to death. 
Does extracting honey necessarily mean the death of the colony?
Nope.  The point of beekeeping is to keep the bees alive (hence, beekeeping).  If your bees die, you are out bees, honey and your investment.  Therefore, it is important to leave enough honey in the hive to support your bees all winter long.  If done carefully and correctly, beekeeping can result in honey for our consumption and the long-term health of the colony.  It’s a win-win situation. 
Isn’t it a whole lot easier to just go to the store and buy honey?
It is certainly easier, but it is a lot less fun and rewarding.  Keeping your own colony of bees connects you with nature and provides deep insight into another creature’s life.  Plus, much of the honey for sale at your supermarket is tied to industrial agricultural.  How?  Large-scale honey producers truck their bees around the country to collect nectar from large monocultures of crops such as almonds, cranberries and blueberries.  Local honey is usually made from nectar from small, diversified farms, and the bees are able to provide pollination to the area’s wild plants throughout the growing season as well.  Lastly, making honey at home or buying it locally reduces the need to truck honey in from distant corners of the world.  Much of the world’s honey is made in China and Argentina; shipping it from across the planet is obviously unnecessary.     

A blooming almond grove in California.  Most of the world’s almonds come from this type of monoculture farming.  Hundreds of thousands of honeybees are trucked in to pollinate the trees.   
Honeybees and your vegetable garden
In the process of extracting nectar from flowers, honeybees carry pollen from one plant to the next.  This pollination is crucial to the plant, for without it, the plant can’t produce its fruit.  The best way to ensure that your garden is fully pollinated (aka, fully productive) is to recruit the help of a workaholic pollinator like the honeybee.  With their help, every flower the garden produces has the best chance of being pollinated and turning into a future piece of food – maybe a tomato or a snap pea.  

How do I get my own honeybees?
There are many options for buying honeybees and beekeeping equipment: websites, paper catalogues, local beekeeping services, etc.  The honeybees at the Armstrong House Education Center were purchased from Bedford Bee Honey Bee Service of Bedford, NY.  Its proprietor, DJ Haverkamp, has been keeping bees for over twenty years and is currently teaching beekeeping classes at John Jay Homestead in Bedford, NY and Teatown Reservation, Ossining, NY. 
Bedford Bee Honeybee Service is a company based in Bedford, NY that provides great honeybee services, including an April-October honeybee school, queens for sale and private hive maintenance. 

I want to keep bees in my backyard, but I don’t want to spend the time taking care of them.  Can I still keep bees? 
Yes, companies like the Bedford Honey Bee Service provide a honeybee care service.  Much like a pool service, Bedford Honeybee service will ‘open’ the hive in the spring, provide any maintenance or care throughout the season and ‘close’ the hive in late autumn.  

What does keeping bees have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?
The best backyard food producers are dedicated land stewards; they work to retain their property’s natural resources such as rich soil and clean, abundant water and biodiversity.  Remember, in these types of partnerships with nature, the energy you put in is rewarded.  

Also backyard food production is an ecologically responsible alternative to the large scale, industrial farming that has become common in the United States.  For an awesome primer on agricultural trends of the last 50 years, see this.  Lastly, producing food in your backyard – be it honey from bees, eggplant, basil or goat milk – cuts out the fossil fuels used in its transportation.


It seems like our world is shrinking.  Everywhere is accessible – the Internet picks up where the interstate highway system leaves off.  We have lightning-fast, global communications – with a satellite phone you can check your stock quotes from the arctic tundra.  Exotic fruit is available all year round – you can buy a star fruit in Shoprite on the winter solstice.  Of course, the planet is the same size it has always been, but it is starting to feel less enormous.  Among all of this planet shrinking, two things remain: 1) human kind, and 2) the rest of nature.  It is no longer an option to separate the two; to coexist we must forge long-lasting partnerships.

Here at the Armstrong House Educational Center, I am doing just that.  I am practicing the old saying of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ with nature.  I have entered into a partnership with some interesting critters and they have (in a way) agreed to take out my garbage.  No, I haven’t trained a troop of chimpanzees to clean my house; I am talking about red wiggler worms.  In something called vermiculture or vermicomposting, I use worms to turn my food scraps into compost.  In fact, they eat more than just household food scraps – these little suckers can take down my coffee grounds, the New York Times, shredded pizza boxes, plant trimmings, kleenex, egg cartons, orange peels and old bread.  It is through this partnership, and others like it, that we can reduce our use of resources and Live Lighter on the Land.

Did Tate say ‘worms’?
Yes, worms.  For those of us who don’t have outdoor space for compost, using worms is a great indoor alternative.  Did Tate say ‘indoors’? Yes, indoor composting.  If managed properly (and believe me, it is easy) these worms don’t produce any foul smells or attract flies.  Vermicomposting is very simple – all you need is a worm bin (see below), some organic waste and some red wriggler worms.  The worms eat the organic material and poop out ‘castings‘, which can be directly used as compost.  Simple.  

A red wiggler worm working its way through a pile of organic debris.  They consume food scraps and leave behind castings – a very nutritious growing medium for plants.   

Why not just throw our organic debris in the garbage?
If we think of our organic debris as valuable material and not just ‘waste’, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to throw it in the garbage.  Once we throw it out, it is wasted – buried in a landfill or burned in an incinerator.  This organic debris is filled with energy, nutrients and minerals that can be recycled and used again in our gardens.  Also, by recycling our used organic material we don’t have to spend money and fossil fuels to transport it.  Check out what the United States Environmental Protection Agency says about food waste.  According to them, in 2010, food waste accounted for almost 14% of the municipal solid waste stream!  Now that’s putting the waste in ‘food waste’.          

Where does Tate keep his red wrigglers?
My worms live happily in the corner of my kitchen in a simple plastic container called a ‘Wormcycler’.  The Wormcycler is a closed container comprised of a stack of square, mesh bottomed trays. The mechanics are simple – worms and organic debris are placed in the lowest tray.  The worms slowly eat the organic debris and once their food supply is exhausted, they naturally migrate upwards to a fresh tray.

My plastic ‘Wormcycler’ bin.  This product was generously donated to the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy by worm composting company Nature’s Footprint.  You can see that the Wormcycler sits neatly in the corner of my kitchen.             

Where did Tate get his Wormcycler, and can I get one?
My Wormcycler was generously donated by Nature’s Footprint, a company specializing in vermiculture and home gardening equipment.  You can get your very own Wormcycler at a discounted price through Nature’s Footprint’s Create Compost Direct Delivery Program.  Ordering is easy, just see the instructions on the poster below.

A promotional poster.  You can buy a ‘Wormcycler’ at a discounted price if you use the PRLC’s special code.  See instructions on the poster.  

Where can I get my own red wiggler worms?
There are many places you can buy red wiggler worms online.  You can even get them from Nature’s Footprint when you get your Wormcycler.  Another fun website is Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.  

How do I care for my worms?
It’s actually pretty easy to keep red wigglers alive.  The worms like a slightly moist environment (not dripping wet, but moist to the touch).  It is easy to regulate the level of moisture by adding more wet or dry material.  These are indoor critters – they like an environment between 50-80 degrees F.  If you need specific care information, check the Internet; a quick on-line search will yield dozens of vermiculture websites.  To make it even simpler, the Wormcycler comes with its very own easy-to-understand instruction manual that outlines the Do’s and Don’ts of worm husbandry.

Won’t the Wormcycler attract flies and turn stinky?
Your Wormcycler will be fly and odor-free if you follow these two key rules:

  1. Only feed the worms what they are going to eat.  Over feeding attracts unwanted critters
  2. Make sure you have the right level of moisture – not too dry, not too wet.

Really, if your worm bin is acting up, its because you haven’t paid any attention to it.  I check my worm bin roughly once every three days and spend roughly 10 minutes making sure everything is fine and dandy.  

What does the inside of a Wormcycler look like?
When you first add your organic material (50% food, 50% bedding), individual food items will be recognizable.  Over time, as the worms start to eat the material, the contents of your Wormcycler will become indistinguishable and black.  Once all the food is eaten and the worms migrate upwards to another tray, you can harvest your compost.  In these pictures, you can see how my food scraps broke down in just one month.  

Day 1 of my Wormcycler.  I added bits of food, old leaves from houseplants, shredded newspaper and coffee grounds.  
Black gold, 4 weeks old.  Most of what you see here has been produced by red wiggler worms.  The large uncomposted items are mostly pieces of eggshells.  Next time I will make sure that I dry and grind up my eggshells before adding them – this will ensure their proper breakdown.    

Wait, Tate said that this was a ‘partnership’.  What do the worms get out of it?
In addition to their world-class fame and popularity, red wiggler worms used in vermiculture are provided with an ideal living environment.  They are well fed, well cared for and safe.  It is in our best human interest to rear large populations of red wiggler worms and keep them as a tool in our waste reduction/ waste recycling.  By producing less waste we can literally Live Lighter on the Land.  

What's in a place?

Today’s post will be the last in a thread about connecting with our surroundings.  Through the previous three posts I suggested that effective and long lasting land stewardship should be built on a foundation of intimacy with our environment.  Simply stated, how can we protect what we don’t know?

The story of today’s post starts way back when I was in college.  I was a student of biology sitting in an english class in northern California.  (I was enrolled at my home school in New Jersey, where I entered an exchange program which allowed me to travel to other state schools).  About this time, I considered myself rather ‘eco-savvy’.  For example, I knew that the South American rain forests were being cut down, I knew that a diet of plants used less land and water resources than a diet of meats and I knew that wildlife all over the world was imperiled.  As it turns out, I knew nothing.

One day in English class we discussed ‘place’.  I had used the word a million times before, but when my english professor said it, it seemed novel.  He said it in such a way that I knew it meant something bigger and different than I previously thought.  That day, he administered a simple test.  This was not a traditional test; the grade was private–only to be seen by the test taker– and was a personal assessment of their connection to their place.  While I don’t have the exact test, I have reproduced a similar version below.  It is well worth your time to slow down, pour another cup of coffee and take this test.  Look at it this way, you can’t possibly score worse than I did.

1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.

2. How many days until the moon is full (plus or minus a couple of days)?

3. Describe the soil around your home.

4. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?

5. Name five edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.

6. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

7. Where does your garbage go?

8. How long is the growing season where you live?

9. On what day of the year are the shadows shortest wear you live?

10. Name five trees in your area. Any of them Native? If you can’t name them, describe them.

11. Name five resident and any migratory birds in your area.

12. What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion in the past century?

13. What primary geological event/process influenced the land forms where you live?

14. What species have become extinct in your area?

15. What are the major plant associations in your region?

16. From where you are reading this, point north.

17. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

18. What kind of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?

19. Were the stars out last night?

20. Name some beings (nonhuman) which share your place.

21. Do you celebrate the turning of the summer and winter solstice? If so, how do you celebrate?

22. How many people live next door to you? What are there names?

23. How much gasoline do you use a week, on the average?

24. What energy costs you the most money? What kind of energy is it?

25. What developed and potential energy resources are in your area?

26. What plans are there for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

27. What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?

One lunar cycle.  There was a time when I gave this very little thought.  After taking my first ‘place’ test, I began to take more notice of my surroundings, including the moon. 

I scored poorly on the test, but fell in love with the concept of ‘place’.  I was surprised by how much I didn’t know.  On what planet had I been living?  Had I not been paying any attention at all?  Suddenly, my immediate surroundings were unveiled.  I saw rays of sun, insects, the direction clouds came from.  I started tracking the phases of the moon and learning my plants.  I started noticing everything.  To me, ‘place’ was the trees planted on my college campus and the food service contracted to feed us college students.  ‘Place’ was the human demographics of the area and the selections of beer at the town bar.  ‘Place’ was everything!

After the test, I reoriented myself; my local environment became the most important.  The importance and allure of far-off places began to wane as I focused on the ecology and culture of my place.  Honestly, how could I care about the South American rain forest when I didn’t even know the trees on my college campus?

An unveiling.  After taking the test, the complex nature of my place was unveiled.   

There is one simple reason why the concept of place was (and is) so appealing to me: it assumes that everything in a location is important, human or otherwise.  In other words, it acknowledges that an environment is shaped by all of its interrelated parts; culture and nature combine to make a place what it is.  For example, by understanding the place of northern Westchester County, we can begin to understand the current density of its white tailed deer herds.  The deer density is not simply a function of food, space and deer reproduction.  It is influenced by our ecological history, town politics, personal values, forest ecology, trends in landscaping, culture, etc.  By being tuned into our place–and all of the thousands of factors that interrelated to construct it–we can begin to understand our environmental problems for what they really are.      

Now back to this month’s thread: knowing your surroundings.  To be effective land stewards, we must be aware of all the interconnected elements of our natural environment and how they interact.  What makes up your place?  How does the human environment affect the non-human environment, and vice versa?  What’s going on around you?  …where does your garbage go…?

What do you see when you look at the forest?

Over their working lives, each naturalist adopts and hones a unique way of understanding a landscape.  I’ve met naturalists that are instinctively aware of a landscape’s surface and ground water: where its flowing from, where its flowing to, the sediments its carrying and where it is likely to deposit them.  To these naturalists, ancient landforms made by water (like deltas, kames or outwash plains) are the building blocks of the landscape; the initial eye-grabbers upon which all other landscape features fit into.  

Other naturalists think in terms of edible and medicinal plants.  When they walk through the forest they first see the roots, buds, leaves, and inner bark of these useful plants which, to them, are the landscape’s building blocks, upon which all other ecological information relates to. 
I am unlike these naturalist; I don’t automatically see underground water and I can’t instinctively assess the medicinal value of a hillside.  I do, however, have my own way of understanding a landscape instinctively repeats as I go from region to region, place to place.  My way was not taught to me or deliberately developed; it just sort of came about.  Here’s my way:  I consider how a place’s 3-dimensional space is shaped and filled.  An ecologist would call this an ecosystem’s ‘structure’.  I instinctively wonder, “Is the forest dense or is it spacious?”, “Are there holes is the forest’s canopy?”,  “What is the topography like?”, “Are there lots of plants growing on the forest floor that make it difficult to navigate and maneuver through?”  As I ask myself these questions and process their answers, I construct a 3-D mental image in my head to help keep track of all the information.
A place’s ‘structure’ is how its contents are spatially arranged.  An example of an uncommon forest structure, the Ossipee Pine Barrens of New Hampsire.  Here, there is a dense mat of lowbush blueberry on the ground and a stand of even age pitch pine trees.  

Why do I focus on a place’s structure?  Why is a place’s structure tell me me?  A place’s structure tells me: 
  • what animals might live there
  • what plants might live there
  • how wind might move through it 
  • how sunlight intercepts it
  • where water might be found (which goes on to tell me lots of other things…)
  • about past land use
  • about past disturbances, etc.
Yes, all of these little details are foretold to me by a place’s structure– how it is laid out, filled up and arranged.  Instinctively focusing on structure is my way of initially understanding a place.  You can call it my ‘framework’, and you can think of it as my brain’s auto-pilot or mental scaffolding.  It’s the way that I naturally experience my world.

Although it is my framework (and therefor I am a bit biased toward it) I must admit that both the naturalist who thinks of water and the naturalist who thinks of edible plants use their frameworks to deeply understand their natural environment as well.  Really, there is nothing special about my framework, except that it is mine.  As long as a framework works, it’s as good as the next.  The best naturalists slide easily from framework to framework as they construct a comprehensive understanding of a place.   

So now I ask YOU a question.  How do YOU make sense of your surroundings?  What is your framework?  What do you see first?  What makes the most sense to you?  What are the building blocks of your backyard?  How do you arrange the pieces of your landscape?  How do you arrange your thoughts?  How do you arrange your thoughts about your landscape?  Is your framework built around sound, light, angles, bugs, birds, dirt, hills, topography, stone walls, air?  Surely, there is no right or wrong way to understand a landscape–there are only different ways.

The way you think about your environment is kind of like mental scaffolding.  Mental scaffolding holds and secures your concepts, assumptions, unknowns, fears and past experiences into an understanding.  

What if I don’t consider myself a naturalist?  Do I still use a framework to understand nature? 

Of course you do.  Everyone uses a framework to understand nature.  The gardener, the painter, the casual hiker, the admirer of sunsets and the dog walker all use a framework to understand their natural environment.  Frameworks are a natural part of thinking.

Why is it important to identify your framework?
Most of my readers are interested in being stewards of their backyards, watersheds and towns.  The first step toward stewardship is knowing your natural environment.  What organisms do you share your backyard with?  What are the animals that have to cross the street in order to breed?  Which plants are affected most by the white tail deer?  Tuning into your surroundings is key.  As you tune in, your framework is dictating which pieces of your natural environment you understand and how you understand them.  By identifying your framework (in other words, understanding how you understand nature) your study of nature will be expanded, deepened, illuminated, enlightened and simply, made better.  Your framework is working to shape your world 24/7 weather you acknowledge it or not, so you might as well identify it and use it to your advantage.

What now? 
Go step outside and, as your thoughts start to process the natural world, pay attention to them.  Write these thoughts down and organize them into a concept map.  Talk about your thoughts with different people.  Continue to pay attention to your thoughts, your framework will reveal itself.


The sit spot

My last post was a list of observations I made from my back patio while drinking my morning coffee.   It illustrated that wild nature is found everywhere–even in our backyards–and it is our job as responsible stewards to observe and understand it.  Today’s post is about a simple technique that will help you observe and understand your wild backyards a little better.  The technique is call a ‘sit spot’.  A sit spot is simply a convenient place that you return to frequently to sit.  Your sit spot can be as simple as your porch, patio or garden bench; you don’t need to seek out an adventurous or otherwise impressive sit spot like a mountaintop or deep ravine.  Once at your sit spot, you are only to observe.  Anything and everything is fair game:  calling squirrels, chirping birds, hiding moths, blowing wind, dripping water, tunneling ants, falling acorns.  There is no goal, per se, but the idea is that by sitting in a place again and again the sitter slowly gains insight into nature.

Insight from sitting?  Is Tate crazy?  Well, let’s take for example the American robin, one bird that almost everyone knows.  The American robins can be found just about everywhere you look: farms, small woodlots, cities, suburbs, college campuses.  They are present in our various stages of human development– they are the first birds identifiable by children and the last birds forgotten by aging adults.  I even found them on the Arctic tundra of Alaska!  Yet considering their commonness, can you answer the following questions about the American robin:

  • What do robins sound like?    
  • How deep are their nests?
  • How can you tell a male robin is courting a female robin?
  • How do robins clean their nest?
  • What noise does a robin make when it spots a cooper’s hawk in the forest?
  • What do robins eat in the winter?
  • What do robins eat in the summer?
  • What is typical foraging behavior for a robin?
  • From which part of a tree can a robin be expected to sing from? 
The ubiquitous American robin.  So common, yet so mysterious.   
When we start to think about the details of the robin’s life, we realize that we know almost nothing.   

When we start to realize that the robin has its own life–outside of our briefly identifying it–we can begin to understand and relate to it.  I often use the following analogy:
Think of a good friend.  Picture their face and recall their name.  Think of some notable experiences you have shared with them.  Think of how deep your relationship is.  Love.  Respect.  Openness.  Understanding.  Now think of all that would be lost if your relationship was instantly reduced to only knowing their name and being able to identity them in a crowd.  No more passion or family, history or camaraderie.  Just ‘Bob, the guy with a beer gut, glasses and a shaved head’.  Wouldn’t that be a shame?  Believe it or not, the same goes for your relationship with the robin.  It can be as deep or as superficial as you like.

Now back to your sit spot.  By visiting your sit spot over and over again, you will begin to see patterns, cycles and changes in nature.  The place around your sit spot will take on new meaning and put the rest of your life into a larger context.  You can expect to feel a connectedness and familiarity with your sit spot.  You will start to see the lives of the trees, bugs, birds, and rocks of your backyard.

You may have some questions.

How often should I visit my sit spot?
As often as possible.  Every day is great.  Once a week is better than nothing.  Less than once a week might make it difficult to build momentum.

Where should my sit spot be?
Very close to your house.  Backyard, side yard, front yard, porch, your kid’s tree house– it doesn’t matter as long as you are comfortable and outside.  Ideally, your
 sit spot should be very convenient– this way you are more likely to visit.  

A yellow Adirondack chair on a back patio.  This could be your sit spot. 

How long should I sit at my sit spot?
15 minutes per sit would be great.  You would be amazed at what you can experience in 15 minutes.  Imagine what you can experience in 30 or 40 minutes at your sit spot.  Some days will be longer than others and that’s ok.

What should I do at my sit spot?
Just observe.  No observation is too small or unimportant.  For example, the number of times the robin called before flying to the ground, the color pattern on a fly’s wing or how a tree bends in the wind– all these things have significance.  Here is what you do:

  • Allow your body to relax.  As you observe things, catalog the experience.  Write things down or sketch pictures in a special notebook (don’t worry, if you don’t consider yourself an artist no one else will see it).  If you are the diligent note taker, after just a few weeks of periodic sitting you will have a rich set of notes, pictures, diagrams and maps– keep these, they are priceless for understanding what’s around you.
  • Catalogue what’s around you.  Flowers, trees, bugs, rocks, water, wind–they are all important.  Don’t worry if you don’t know the name of a plant or animal.  Give them your own names. Instead of naming it ‘highbush blueberry’ you can call it ‘canoe-leaved berry bush’.  An organism’s name is not currently important, their lives are important.  Their names will come with time.  Keep records as organisms come and go through time (for instance, how winter birds differ from summer birds).          
  • Make a ‘sound map’ (see below).  A sound map is an illustrated ‘map’ of the sounds that you are hearing in relation to you.  Don’t worry about precision or scale, the purpose of the map is just to organize what you are hearing.       
A sound map made by a child.  A sound map like this helps you organize what you are hearing and give it a spatial context.  This is a very simple sound map.  Yours may have many more sounds on it.    

Can I tell anyone about my sit spot?
Yes, talking about the experiences at your sit spot will help you process them.            

Here is an interesting video where nature mentor Jon Young talks about the importance of keeping a sit spot.  Although his purposes are a little more sophisticated and advanced than ours, he is tapping into the fundamental power and usefulness of sitting.  This is a cute video about keeping a sit spot.

What does sitting have to do with our Living Lighter on the Land campaign?  Remember that through  Living Lighter on the Land we strive to rethink our place on the planet?  Sitting shows us what we never knew about nature.  More importantly, sitting teaches us what we didn’t know was even possible to know about nature.  With these new tools, we can start to rethink our place on the planet.

Meet the neighbors

The following is an account of this morning’s activities:
7:01 am.  Rise
7:02 am. Visit bathroom
7:03-7:25 am.  Stretch
7:32 am. Start coffee, step outside, sit on patio.  Observe:  
  • blue skies, no clouds
  • 58 degrees F.
  • humidity low
  • no noticeable scent on air
7:33 am.
7:34 am.
  • honeybee flies past (where is it feeding?)
  • high altitude jet flies overhead, heading south, leaves contrail
  • motorcycle speeds past the driveway (probably in 4th gear), heading south
  • vireo continues to sing
  • nuthatches continue to call
  • chipmunk chirps from patch of grass on hill
  • wineberry flowers are opening, no bumble bees on them yet
7:35 am.
  • light breeze twinkles the tops of mature trees next to the house
  • single leaf falls from black birch tree next to the clothes line (falling in June?)
7:36 am.  Inside kitchen, pour hot coffee, add half and half

My patio and backyard.  Weather permitting, this is where I enjoy my morning coffee and tune into the lives of my (nonhuman) neighbors.  

7:37 am.  Back outside sitting on patio.  Observe:
  • unidentified bird (dark colored, compact, slightly smaller than a robin) whistles from the pignut hickory tree, flies to a nearby sugar maple, calls, then flies back to hickory
  • nuthatch calls increase and are matched by nuthatches on opposing side of the house
  • sip coffee
  • nuthatches spread out among four trees and continue to call
  • unidentified bird (similar in size to a robin) flies over the house from the south
  • American robin calls from the cliff to the south
  • vireo continues to sing
7:38-7:39 am.
7:40 am.
  • take a big sip of coffee
  • two planes overhead, one flying south, a higher one flying southeast
7:40 am. and 30 seconds- 7:43 am.  Walk with coffee in hand to a patch of grass next to the porch.
  • the blue-eyed grass is still closed from the night (I wonder what time it opens?)
  • red admiral butterfly is startled and flies away
  • the lady’s thumb is in full bloom 
  • the white clover is in full bloom
  • gulp coffee
  • nuthatches again congregate on a single tree
  • unidentified moth (smaller than red admiral, white wings with black spots near wing tip), flies over the patch of grass and continues toward the flowering dogwood tree
7:44 am.  Back to the porch, sitting.  Observe:
7:45 am.  Inside kitchen to make breakfast…I wonder what else I’ll find today…

Since March 2012,  I have written weekly Blog posts describing specific ways that people can live lighter on the land: ecological landscaping, garden tips, energy efficient appliances, green home-building techniques.  Today’s post marks the beginning of a new thread, and one that is foundational to all the rest – knowing what you are living among.  As stewards of the earth we must first know the earth.  As stewards of your backyard you must first know your backyard.  As I have illustrated above, there are entire worlds taking place in our backyards; rich lives of plants and animals that go wholly unknown.  One of these days– when you’re ready– go out and meet the neighbors.  That’s the first step to Living Lighter on the Land.        

Insulating your hot water heater


Imagine…its a cold February morning and the dog needs to be walked.  Overnight lows were in the teens and you slept to the sound of a hard winter wind nipping at the house.  Anyone that has experienced a good, cold winter knows that getting up and out the door in the morning requires a fair bit of technical planning; there's the long underwear, thick socks, snow pants, turtle necks, wool sweaters and to top it all off, a big jacket (down parka or stylish ski jacket, perhaps).  As the dog crosses his legs, you apply the appropriate armor.


Now imagine…you're on a summer vacation at the ocean (use your imagination…Hawai'i, maybe Florida?).  The shade from your umbrella is the only thing keeping you from melting away in the blazing sun.  You dig your feet into the sand to a depth that is still moist and cool.  You grab a cold soda from the cooler and it immediately starts to sweat.  Instinctively, put it in a 'coozy' (see picture below).  That coozy – that little piece of decorated foam – is the only thing keeping your drink from turning into a hot mess.    


A Simpsons-inspired 'beer coozy'.  

What do these two scenarios have in common?  That's right – INSULATION!  When I was younger I didn't fully understand how insulation worked; I thought that there was something warm inside my turtle neck.  I thought that there was heat produced from my down jacket.  Now, after knowing a little bit more about the universe, I understand the true role of an insulator.  An insulator's job is to merely act as a barrier between an internal environment (for example, your body) and an outside environment (for example, the cold January morning).  The down jacket doesn't produce the heat (your body does), but it keeps the heat near your body.  The coozy doesn't produce the cold (the ice in the cooler makes the soda cold), but it keeps the cold near the soda.  Amazingly simple and effective technology, really.


Now on to the Armstrong House, which – like most houses- has a hot water heater.  How do we keep the heat in the hot water heater?  We put a removable 3.2 inch thick foam insulator around our tank to constantly trap its heat.  Think about it.  Your hot water tank is usually hot (or at least warm) and whenever its temperature exceeds that of the outside air (essentially all the time) it is releasing heat.  Every minute, every hour, ever day the average home owner is heating up water only to loose some of it as waste heat to a cold room.  Take a look at our water heater's insulator, essentially a giant beer coozy. 

The removable 3.2 inch foam insulator for my hot water heater.  Just one of the steps toward energy efficiency at the Armstrong House.  



Our insulator and the tank it was specifically designed to fit, were manufactured by Schuco, a German company specializing in solar power, high insulating windows and 'solar hot water' systems (the topic of a future Blog post).  You can see from the picture that the insulator fits snugly and even has windows and little detachable pieces to facilitate the tank's service.  You may be saying, "Well that's great for you, you bought your insulator and tank together so you know they fit perfectly.  But how do I insulate my standard water tank?"  There is hope.  There are companies out there that make insulators to fit your tank- whatever the style, size or model.  See this video about do-it-yourself tank insulation part 1part 2.            

What about savings?  Energy and $$$?  The amount you will save depends on many factors, including the size and current insulation value of your tank and how hot you keep it. Here is a website from the United State Department of Energy that quotes annual energy savings and payback period.  


Remember- part of Living Lighter on the Land is about reducing our use of energy.  By incorporating energy efficient appliances and technologies that – each – save a little energy, we will see a big difference over the long haul when they are integrated.  This gets me thinking…what else can we insulate?


Reusing the energy in hot water


Question: How hot is the water that comes out of your shower head?  Answer: Somewhere between 105 and 120 degrees F (depending on your preference).  Question: How hot is that water as it goes down the shower drain?  Answer: Still hot, perhaps 90 degrees F.  Question:  What happens to that energy in that water?  Answer:  Usually it is completely wasted- at the Armstrong House, the energy is reused.  Question:  How?  Answer:  I'll explain the process in a bit, but first:


Think of boiling a pot of water on your stove.  Have you ever tried to boil a pot of water that started out really really cold?  Once in Maine I had to fetch water from a spring that had frozen over the night before.  I had to break the ice to get to the liquid water and when I returned to the cabin with our cooking water it had chunks of ice floating in it.  That morning, it took more time and energy to boil the  near freezing water.  Similarly, it takes less time and energy to boil water that is already hot- like when you reboil a kettle that was recently boiled.  


Now, think of a picnic on a hot summer day.  The night before you prepared an awesome potato salad and set it in the fridge over night.  Once the picnic is underway and the food is spread, your cold potato salad starts to loose its chill.  After an hour or so, your potato salad has totally lost its chill (and its appeal) so you decide to put it back in the fridge.  What has happened to your potato salad?  More importantly, what does the potato salad and Tate's frozen spring water what have to do with saving energy at the Armstrong House?


At the Armstrong House Education Center we have installed a drain water heat recovery unit, which is a fancy way of saying 'we passively heat up the potato salad so we don't have to boil frozen spring water'!  What the heck am I talking about?


He have one of these:


The Armstrong House's drain water heat recovery unit.  


Notice the copper piping that runs vertically through the photograph- this is our drain water heat recovery unit, which takes the hot waste water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house.  The following two diagrams are of the installed unit that I took from the manufacturer's website.



The waste water heat recovery unit connected to shower and water supply.  



The waste water heat recovery unit in action.  It takes hot water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house. 


But, why is the water coming into the Armstrong House cold?  Like everyone in Pound Ridge, I get my water from a well.  The temperature of well water is governed by the temperature of the earth and rock that it collects in- which for our area is somewhere in the low 50's F.  50 degree water is cold- very cold.  50 degree water must be heated like crazy before you can even think about using it to clean dishes, wash clothes or use in a shower.  With the use of our drain water heat recovery unit, we can essentially split the difference between the hot waste water and the cold water from the ground.  For example, if it comes into the house at 50 degrees F. and the waste water is 100 degrees F. the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  If the water comes in at 60 degrees and the wasted shower water is 90 degrees, the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  By using preheated water, we have to use less energy when heating it back up to 100 degrees F (remember the pot of boiling water).  For more information and a formal energy/cost savings review of the drain water heat recovery unit click here.

This is just one of the many ways that we are reducing our energy consumption at the Armstrong House.  Stay tuned for more.

Great success - Soil amending workshop at the Armstrong House Education Center


A garden's fertility and productivity comes from its soil.  Composting has recently gained popularity among lay people, food activists and conservationists so we are seeing an explosion of creative composting methods: composting barrels, worms that eat food scraps, anaerobic bokashiindustrial sized apparatuses, whole cow composting, clean and classy indoor systemshumanure, and- the topics of today's post-  1) 'green manures' and 2) sheet mulching'.  1) Green manures are not manures at all; instead, they are plants- such as the nitrogen fixing clover- which add nutrients to the soil.  Green manures are usually planted in lieu of more desirable plants (vegetables, crops) in order to make the soil better for future growing.  2) Sheet mulching (also known as lasagna gardening) is a way to make compost in the place where it will be used.  Unlike other compost operations that are done 'off site' and brought to the garden, sheet mulching starts and ends right on your garden beds.  The 'sheets' of organic debris are laid down by the gardener in a systematic way and simply left to decompose.  See these websites for examples.


Today at the Armstrong House Education Center, Sarah Bush of Edible Revolution and myself hosted a sheet mulching workshop where participants gained first hand experience in amending soil.  In attendance were eight garden owners from Pound Ridge who all shared one thing in common: they wanted to learn more about how to build and maintain healthy soil.

A demonstration piece from the workshop.  These are the ingredients we used in our sheet mulching (in order).  The ingredients of your sheet mulching may vary depending on their availability and your needs. 



The workshop was full of enthusiastic energy:  piles of organic material (manure, wood chips, leaves, compost) laid ready to be applied to the existing soil, workshop participants stood with open eyes as Sarah spoke intimately about gardening nuances, and each participant shared their personal story of garden frustration (weeds, rocks, pests) as the others nodded with empathy.  After roughly 30 minutes, the group was driven inside by worsening weather where we continued our discussion over warm tea.  With the help of diagrams I spoke about the mechanics and importance of nitrogen fixation, the microbe- induced process of taking stable gaseous nitrogen and turning it into a usable plant nutrient.  The group continued to share stories, ask Sarah and I questions and take notes on their new discoveries.


Garden designer Sarah Bush teaches workshop participants about making healthy soil.



After my second cup of tea I realized that although the workshop was based on amending our garden soil for the future, it became much more than that.  As most participants left the Armstrong House Education Center, they recognized the community resource we had created for them.  In the classic phenomena of synergy, all of the elements of the day- me (a student of soil ecology), Sarah (an experienced food producer and garden designer), all the workshop participants (with their combined experience and enthusiasm) and the Armstrong House (a prototype for Living Lighter on the Land) – came together to create something special.  Spontaneously and sincerely, the workshop became a very real learning environment- a place where people could share what mattered to them in order to grow and solve problems.  There was a tangible energy in the air.  There were new friendships and partnerships established.  Life experience was passed between near strangers.  Perhaps there was something in the tea.


Living Lighter on the Land is about coming together to solve problems.  As social animals, it's natural to gravitate toward cooperation, partnerships, shared experiences and community, all of which are alive at the Armstrong House Education Center.


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