Category Archives: Buck Brook Farm

Buck Brook #18 – Caldron of Paradise

The entire process of gathering maple sap and boiling it to syrup was an education to me. And it was fun. But the moments that hold my soul so dearly are but a brief time in the days of reducing maple sap. They include one of students at Buck Brook, a very mellow guy named Billy Garvin.

Billy INT

I had gone to the boiling shed in the evening to see what was up. It was dark by then and Billy was there by himself. We chatted a bit and added sap and threw on logs. Then we fell silent. 

The fire was glowing under the pan, flicking yellow light around the rustic walls and filling the shed with crackles and pops and smoke that was quickly dissipated. The steam rose in thick rolling clouds and passed through the shifting yellow light on its rushed journey through the open slots in the ceiling. 

Billy expertly tossed logs into the fire, keeping the flames contentedly busy. His curly hair and glowing face added the perfect humanity to the warmth of the flicking light and the rustic shed and the heat of the fire and the cold damp of a light snow that fell on the open roof, melting on the exposed boards and dripping  around us. 

All so active with dancing light and so noisy with active fire and so stirring with damp and heat and cold. And all so absolutely at peace.

How long did I sit there in the presence of this glorious life? I’m pretty sure my body sat there a good long time. I know my soul still celebrates being there.

Buck Brook #17 – Boiling Shed

One of the places my soul rests to this day is Buck Brook’s boiling shed, where some hundred and forty gallons of maple sap was reduced to three gallons of thick, satisfying syrup. 

By the way — if you have never splurged for some real, reduced-sap maple syrup, go get some now. Use a quarter as much real maple syrup as you would pour from a bottle of corn syrup with “maple flavoring.” Your taste buds and your body will be more content than any amount of artificial syrup can provide. 

But on with my story —

The spring snows of 1970 were wet and turning to cold rains when we fired up the boiling shed, and a good lot of that snow and rain had soaked up the shed, inside as well as out. After all, the object of boiling maple sap is to get rid of water and leave the maple sugars and flavors. The process releases copious quantities of steam and the shed must let that steam out. Imagine a simple shed with every fourth board of the walls taken out. And every third board of the roof. 

Yep. It was wet and cold. But the breezes were kept at bay well enough to let the fire rage and we got real good at establishing sit-spots close enough to toss on more wood while staying far enough back so the fire on our front sides balanced the cold on the rest of us. 

The floor of the shed was dirt and the logs, fire and ashes were on top of that, creating a fire pit that I remember as being some six by four feet. Cinder blocks were stacked three high around the fire pit, with some stacked in the middle to support the pan. The stacks of cinder blocks around the edges of the the fire were spaced some two feet apart to allow tossing on more wood and allowing plenty of air to the inferno we kept raging. 

Held above the fire by the cinder blocks was a metal sheet, large enough to cover the entire large fire pit and the cinderblocks around it. The metal sheet had a sealed metal wall around it, rising only some eight inches in depth. There was a lot of surface area exposed to the fire under the boiling sap and to the air above it.

I was not there for the lighting of that fire, but I often stopped by and helped. Well. At least I chatted — it did not take any effort at all to get all the students eager to play at feeding the fire.

And the fire needed constant playing. More wood. More distributing the hot coals. The buckets of sap needed to be regularly and carefully added to the steaming caldron, letting the sap loose its water but keeping it thin enough to boil, not burn. 

Night and day for more than a week the steam rolled out of the boiling shed, until the trees had returned their stored sap into their branches. The little stream of sap filling our buckets slowed to drips and the drips slowed to occasional drops. 

We started letting the fire settle and cool, gently boiling off the last of the water, boiling more gently and stirring the thickening liquid until, at last, the liquid was just the texture we claimed to be syrup! 

Just as I missed the lighting of the fire, I missed the moment of claiming syrup. Since it would have been difficult to completely extinguish that much hot ash and burning wood I’m thinking there must have been a concerted effort to get the hot liquid scooped out of that shallow pan and funneled into the glass jugs that were waiting.

We had saved one-gallon glass vinegar jugs for the occasion. We filled three of them and ate pancakes with gusto.

Buck Brook #16 – Buckets of Sap

It was darn cold and wet when the maple trees started running sap. And run they did! I was 25. I was at Buck Brook Farm in the Catskill Mountains, a hundred miles north of New York City. 

Having been raised in the evergreen forests of Idaho, the early spring of 1970 was my first exposure to turning the sap of maple trees into tasty syrup. 

I had spent 1969 in the Northeast, enjoying the different leaves and barks and branches of trees I did not know the name of. But when the trees started rising their sap from roots to budding leaves it was easy to pick out the maples — each one had a little peg on its trunk, like a pecker taking a pee. And every peg was easy to find — it sported a galvanized bucket hanging from it. 

Bucket INT

At least they did at Buck Brook Farm. We were a school keeping kids involved. Commercial operations had miles of plastic tubes draining the sap to common collection points but we made use of the tradition of wearing kids out by carrying buckets. 

My first astonishment with gathering maple sap was how fast those trees run it out! I had enjoyed years of visions of a leisurely drip, drip, drip as the pegs lovingly extracted the sweet liquid. Now that I think about it my assumption of collecting maple sap would have filled a bucket every two days or so. 

Folks, that’s not how these mighty trees move their life-giving liquid. What was coming from the pegs was not a leisurely drip. Or a drip at all. It was a steady stream. Think turning  your faucet just past drips. A thin stream, yes. But far from occasional drops.

For two weeks we were kept busy carrying buckets of maple blood through the forest to our pickup, where larger tubs were waiting to be filled and carried to the fire.

Carried to the fire? We’ll explore that next time. For now let’s just say what was running from the pegs was not syrup, folks. It was thin as water. But oh, what delightfully sweetened water!

Buck Brook #15 – An Adventurous Nap

Buck Brook Farm was tucked away in the Catskill Mountains. The nearest town was North Branch and it was too far for a walk and, only having a church, was of no interest to our students anyway. While the students were dependent on we staff for a driver, it was not difficult to find one of us being up to an adventure like catching a movie.

The campus did have vehicles available to us, and a motley assortment of vehicles it was! Being a commune, the staff brought whatever vehicle they possessed and made it available to one and all. 

So it was I found myself grinding the gears of an vintage GMC Scout stuffed wall to wall with six festive teens of every stripe.

By wall to wall, I mean another staff member was in shotgun and the kids were facing one another, packed into the short bench seats that lined the Scout’s sides to maximize seating and cargo space. A door over the back bumper served to load riders and cargo.

My fellow staff member kept busy wiping and scrapping and doing his best to keep the inside of the windshield clear, it being a sub-zero January afternoon and the confined Scout being filled with eight pairs of lungs pumping out plenty of potential frost. 

You bet I had the hubs engaged so we were powered on all wheels. You bet I knew brakes on ice are brakes on ice and it does not matter whether power is supplied to all wheels or not. And you bet I knew downshifting means there is more traction with all wheels turning under compression than having brakes locking the wheels. Even so, I was taking it plenty slow. 

Alas, these were the Catskill Mountains and the winding little roads feature plenty of up grades and down grades. The scout was heavy with eight of us. The road was covered with snow. Rounding a corner that looked like any other, the road immediately began a steep grade down a straight-of-way some thousand yards long. At the bottom of the grade the road made a sharp turn to the left and an abrupt hillside rose smack dab in our way. The hillside was topped by a cozy cottage, not that I was spending much time considering that!

The Scout was far too ancient to have synchronized gears so I double-clutched and wobbled the big gear shift coming up from the floor and found neutral. A second clutch and it wobbled as I found second. I hung on, desperate to get to the braking power of first gear but not wanting to get there when that much compression would cause the wheels to slip. The weight of the packed Scout pushed us down the hill so, despite my efforts, we were maintaining speed. Not gaining but not slowing. Another clutch. Another Neutral. Another clutch and a wobble of the stick into First. The corner was coming up too fast but maybe — just maybe, by using every inch of the corner … 

Tapping the brakes in desperation I turned into the corner and, at perhaps ten miles an hour, that Scout slid right off the side of the road and laid itself down on the deep snow that covered the hillside.

My heart and my brain were swamped with regret at endangering the kids and letting them down on our adventure to a movie. 

And the kids? 

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Well, this was before seatbelts were standard much less required. The three students who had been on the Scout’s left bench were busy finding handholds so they could get off the students who had been on the right bench. The kids on the right bench were trying to avoid elbows and knees. And all six were scrambling to get out the back door.

Getting out the door, the kids did not hesitate to jump into a game of let’s tip this thing up and get to the movie. We all lined up on the hill and tipped that Scout back on it’s wheels. I was so proud of those can-do kids. 

I have no idea what movie we went to see that night and I doubt anyone else does. We all might remember the adventure of the Scout laying down for a little nap.

Buck Brook #14 – Purified Water

Come February a health inspector stopped by Buck Brook Farm to check on the sanitary conditions of this hippy public housing. While most of our operation was up to snuff he did have trouble with our water supply.

We were using water from a spring that we piped through a pump for pressure. The water was crystal clear, cold and delicious. But we were running a commercial kitchen and public housing and the rules are the rules and we needed a chlorinator to be safe.

We looked into chlorination systems and found a unit that fit our needs. We bought a large holding tank to store enough water to guarantee an even supply through the chlorinator, a good sized barrel to hold the liquid chlorine and a special pump that squeezes tubing so precise amounts of chemical can be measured into however much water we used. And we ordered the chlorine.

The chlorine hadn’t arrived by the time we were ready to test the system so we put water in the chlorine barrel to lubricate the tubing, fired the system up, and it worked like a charm. We put the lid on the barrel and forgot about it.

A few weeks later the inspector returned, checked our equipment and the ratings for the pump and congratulated us on an excellent system. As he was leaving he remembered something and lifted up the lid on the chlorine barrel. After a quick glance he let go of the lid, nodded his approval, and informed us, “You’d be surprised how many folks forget to put in the chlorine.”

From then on the campus enjoyed 100% natural spring water purified with 100% natural spring water.

Buck Brook #13 – Warm in January

I was raised in Boise, Idaho, which has four distinct seasons. So I was raised knowing about the frozen tundras of January. Heck, it sometimes even gets below zero for two or three nights! Sometimes. But usually the middle teens is about as cold as we have to survive.

In the mountain country of upstate New York I learned that what we consider winter in Boise is a far cry from what much of our country considers a normal winter.

In the Catskill Mountains during the January of 1970 we spent several weeks with the daytime temperature never getting warmer than 20 degrees BELOW ZERO!

I know. That’s crazy talk. But it’s true!

And we got used to it. We still took our early morning walks. We still worked outside on the buildings, even getting a foundation under the library. And those of us who smoked still went outside to do it.

We smokers did find a little nook at the front of the men’s dorm that was blocked from the wind on two sides. It faced the south, so if the sun were getting through the clouds at all there was some radiant heat. We’d bundle up and run to the nook and get some good puffs in, maybe even almost finish half a cigarette, before being driven back in to the warmth of the buildings.

By late January it was starting to warm up. One day the sun was all but shining through a light haze and the bare trees of the forest. The light and warming air found us in our t-shirts lighting up in the light of the sun. We weren’t exactly lingering between puffs but each of us did finish our entire cigarette before heading in. It was warm and we talked about it!

On the way back to the heat of the dorm I gave in to my curiosity and walked over to the barn with the fire engine, where a long metal advertising thermometer hung. I wanted to confirm my suspicion that it was about 32. Freezing! And here we had been out in undershirts smoking an entire cigarette!

Imagine my surprise to find the temperature had not gotten to 32. It was, instead, all the way up to zero.

Barn PNG .png

ZERO!

You spend a month colder that 20 degrees below zero, folks, and you’ll be surprised how much heat there is at zero!

Joining everyone in the dorm I told them I would be telling stories of being warm at zero. I assure you, dear reader, you are not the first to hear about it.

Buck Brook #12 – Early Morning Pond

Our Florida retreat wrapped up and students would soon be returning to Buck Brook. By New Years, 1970, we were back in the Catskill Mountains dealing with the cold and snow.

The entire campus began every morning with Paul, the Headmaster, ringing the fire engine bell at 6am. We pulled on whatever pants and parkas we could find, and headed out for a brisk walk.

Yes — every morning. Even when the Catskill temperatures were well below MINUS twenty degrees!

Paul photo INT.png

One of Paul’s favorite walks was up the little creek that ran between the girl’s dorm and the rest of the buildings. I don’t remember it being a terribly long walk but I do remember the winter cold and tramping down the ever increasing snow.

Our destination was a flat spot in the snow surrounded by trees. It was quite serine in a Robert Frost way, even with the noise of some fifteen students and staff shuffling about. As the seasons changed we came to enjoy this flat spot as the small mountain lake it was.

One cold January afternoon some of us actually returned to the pond voluntarily. One of the staff had an ice auger, hooks, and line and was determined to let us in on the fun of ice fishing. I have never had the patience to catch fish in a crowded barrel and I found waiting for a nibble through the ice did nothing to calm my impatience.