Category Archives: Buck Brook Farm

Buck Brook #22 – Spilt Milk

I am ashamed of two times during my year at Buck Brook Farm. 

One was when I was driving the pickup on the back roads of the Catsill Mountains. There were three students in the bed of the truck and they were insisting on standing up, looking over the cab of the truck with the wind on their faces. Were they enjoying their inner motorcycle Wild Ones? Their inner tail-wagging, tongue-flapping happy Black Labs? 

I had said they need to sit down and I got pissed. I stomped on the brakes (not at a speed that could toss them out, just make them feel how dangerous it is) and I came storming out of the cab in a hissy fit worthy of the Church Lady catching her teens playing doctor. It was just stupid. The kids did sit down but I still see the look of “what a jackass you are on” their faces.

The second ridiculous fit was one afternoon when it was my turn to do the cooking. 

Students were generally banned from the kitchen unless they were doing chores and none of us were to eat from the kitchen other than at meals. How else could we know the kitchen would have supplies when it came time to feed everyone? 

While I was pulling large pans of chicken and sauces and rice around our commercial range one of the older students came in and headed to the walk-in cooler after having grabbed a drinking glass. As he opened the door I asked what he was up to and he said he wanted some milk. I told him he could wait until dinner. He rather shrugged that off, opened the door and started pulling the lid off the big metal can that held our cow’s milk. 

milk can INT

As he reached for the ladle that hung next to the milk can I looked at a fellow staff member and commented that since he wants milk we should make sure he gets plenty. The other staff member got a twinkle in his eye and we picked up the milk can and poured the entire contents over the student’s head. And told him to clean it up.

Ya think we had one unhappy teenager on our hands?

He ran to the barn and started pulling on the cord that rang the fire engine’s brass bell, loud and clear for all to hear. That was the only time during my year at Buck Brook that a Community Meeting was called. Everyone came running to the library to settle a mutual crisis.

The student gave his case of my overreacting and I should clean up the mess. I stood my ground on being in charge of the kitchen. Students and staff voted and the student was not happy about walking back to the kitchen to clean up spilt milk.

When he finished and was walking back to the library I headed to the kitchen to finish dinner. We exchanged a smile in the hallway. I liked that guy and hoped my smile did not come off as a triumphant smirk. I also thought I could have just let him have a freaking glass of milk.

Several days later some of us were chatting and he said he had amazed himself as we passed in the hall that day. “All my life I’ve felt consumed with hate and anger when things like that don’t go my way. But I wasn’t upset with you at all. Not one bit. I think that’s cool.”

I have always been too impatient to be a good educator. But I guess my impatient jackassery did some good that day.

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Buck Brook #21 – Rusted

This story from my time at Buck Brook Farm in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York is for the amusement of my friends of the Western states. You folk from the east and midwest will fine it an excuse to ask, “What? Doesn’t everyone use their floormat to keep their feet off the highway?”

Actually, the answer is no. No, we do not.

I was twenty-two before I landed on winter roads in New York State. My driving skills had been honed in the traffic and on the mountain roads of Idaho. And in Idaho we used sand to give traction on our winter roads. Not salt.

Sure, sometimes a rock got through the sand sifters and rock chips were a part of windshields and paint jobs. But the undercarriage of our car lasted longer than the engine. 

Imagine my discomfort when I got in one of the small sedans of a Buck Brook staff member and felt lumps under the rubber-and-carpet floor mat beneith my feet.

It turns out the lumps were the frame of the car. Between the beams of the frame there was nothing but the highway zipping by at fifty miles an hour and only inches from my precious tootsies!

The car’s owner laughed it off with a shrug, sped up, and replied, “Oh, sure. This car is over seven years old and I never bothered washing off the salt.”

What? One has to wash the bottom of a car?!

They are funny folks, those Easterners.

Buck Brook #20 — A Manhattan Pothole

The school at Buck Brook Farm had one large van for when special events were attended by multiple students and staff. In case I was ever the only staff member willing or able to venture on such events I was sent to the county DMV office to get a chauffeur’s license. Even without proper cap and livery, this lanky twenty-five year old from the hippie school managed to pass.

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The only time I remember actually chauffeuring anyone in that extended van was to some event a hundred miles to the south — in the center of Manhattan Island. !

I had observed drivers in Manhattan, both as a passenger and a pedestrian. Zero to fifty between lights was the expected response to a green signal. And drivers were immediately responsive to your signal to change lanes but you better jump into that space they gave you or it was assumed you’d never mover over and the space was closed. The space was, after all, a good foot longer than your car!

By 1970 I had driven in Los Angeles and Portland and Seattle and San Francisco. What could be so different with driving a small bus filled with teenagers into Manhattan? I wasn’t even on a surface street when I found out. 

The divided highways toward town turned into the West Side Elevated Highway — a crowded freeway squeezed between the Hudson River and the towering apartment buildings of the upper east side. Like everyone else I was keeping some eight feet behind the vehicle in front of me. Like everyone else I was going some fifteen miles over the speed limit, maybe 70 but it felt like 100. 

And then the pavement just wasn’t there.

The car in front of the big van was still there. The car behind the big van was still there. But there was no pavement there. Just squares of rebar.

And between the squares of rebar were deep potholes of beat up concrete.

Without hesitation the van dropped some two inches off the surface of the road and began rattling out a very fancy rendition of Riverdance across steel squares and deep potholes.

This went on for some eighty feet before our tires hit the sharp two-inch edge that returned us to smooth concrete roadway, slamming the suspension hard into the van’s undercarriage.

It was Manhattan Island, folks. Shutting down the West Side Highway to fix a Manhattan-sized pothole sure would have messed up the commute. 

As to me? I came away with an entirely new respect for the technology that goes into building four tires to survive city driving.

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PS: Wikipedia tells me the West Side Elevated Highway was built between 1929 and 1951. In 1973, three years after our Manhattan adventure, the highway was shut down “due to neglect and lack of maintenance…” It was dismantled in 1989. Its replacement was completed in 2001.

Buck Brook #19 – Chicken Shit Truck

We staff members at Buck Brook Farm were kept busy driving the little crooked roads of the Catskill Mountains. 

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Whether we were on a shopping trip or carting students to functions, there was always a mixture of groans and laughter when we rounded a corner and saw we were coming up on a particular type of truck. 

These trucks were always slow and never more so than when loaded down with cargo and grinding up the abundant steep grades of this mountainous terrain. And the mountainous terrain made for endless curves so passing was never an option.

From behind these trucks were large metal boxes, the size of a semi-trailer. At the base of the back wall of the truck was a little sliding door some two feet by two feet. These trucks were aways older and the little doors were always oozing a milky fluid. 

These trucks were chicken shit trucks. 

The concept of being behind a chicken shit truck grinding its way through the mountains was squeamish. The patience of waiting for a place to pass was challenging. But the smell? Well. Pour a bottle of ammonia over yourself. You get the picture. 

When we first saw these trucks we’d stop and wait where we were. If another driver came up behind us they’d understand and wait as well. Once the truck was out of sight we’d go up the hill, go around the next corner, and see if there was a chance to speed past. 

And we’d have a story that was instantly recognized by all who heard it.

NOTE: NEVER POUR A BOTTLE OF AMMONIA OVER YOURSELF! I don’t even recommend getting your nose very close once the cap is off.

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!