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Frost Heaves and Pussy Willows

March 19-21,1999

Signs warning of frost heaves
are posted on trees every spring

We saw the unmistakable signs of spring on the trip to the Farm this time - the annual posting of signs on roadside trees warning us of frost heaves, and others posting load limits. The frost heaves in the country roads are a bumpy reminder that winter has not quite let go its grasp on the earth. Spring is coming, but is not yet here. It is as if some mad traffic-control engineer had decided to install speed bumps randomly across the countryside, except that only the squirrels and deer benefit from the traffic calming. When the frost finally works its way out of the ground, all the speed bumps will disappear. This is something we've learned to live with in New England, a kind of seasonal rite of passage.

Heavy loads are barred from
back roads during mud time

There is another season between winter and spring that we have here in New England - mud time. As the frost leaves the ground and the snow banks melt, we have a period of several weeks where dirt roads become impassable and tar roads are unstable. The soft earth beneath the tarmac doesn't support heavy loads, and big trucks on many of the roads would break up the road surface.

A sure sign of spring are the load limit signs, closing the back dirt and tar roads to all but light traffic. The main roads are usually OK, but a good part of our back roads will be posted until mud time is over and the ground dries out.

With all the mud time travel hassles, however, come more pleasing harbingers of spring. We saw three women walking on the side of the road with a big bunch of pussy willows that they had gathered from some roadside swale. The fuzzy gray catkins of the willow (Salix caprea or S. discolor) swell and are a wonderful reminder that spring is coming again. Although the catkins can be "forced" to swell by cutting stems and placing them in water indoors, the real sign of spring is when the wetland willows start swelling on their own.

The fuzzy gray "pussy willows"
are a sure sign of spring!

I remember as a young boy growing up in New Hampshire being sent out by my mother to gather a bunch of pussy willows to put in a vase in the living room. There was always a bunch in our school classroom on permanent display, along with the big paper wasp nest the size of a person's head.

We were able to share a cup of coffee with our new neighbor's grandmother, Leona, on Saturday. She told us tales about the early families that had lived in our house, including George Jr. His mother Lunetta (or "Net") was the local school marm many years ago, and George was one of her pupils. One spring he had surprised her with a big bunch of pussy willows for the schoolhouse. Later in the day, however, he misbehaved and got into some sort of trouble in class. In those days, if you acted up, you often got a licking from the teacher. Apparently she was so vexed that she used the pussy willows that George had picked as a switch, and whipped him in front of the class until all the catkins came off. She then made him pick them up all up from where they were strewn over the classroom floor.

Sap buckets are hung
on the sugar maples

The sap has also started to flow in the sugar maples, and sap buckets have been hung on the trees in the area. In addition to these more traditional methods, some of the sugar bushes have the trees connected by plastic tubing that flows by gravity (and/or under a slight vacuum) to the sugar house.

The sap flows best when temperatures fluctuate between 40o+ F in the daytime and below freezing at night. It is too early to tell if this is going to be a good year, but during an average sugar season, each tap may produce 10 to 15 gallons of sap. At 2% sugar, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Our cousin, David, has a sugar bush over in Standish (the Standish Sugar Works), and our next door neighbor's family has a sugar bush just down the road from the Farm. The Maine Maple Weekend is scheduled for next weekend, but we won't be able to make it over. There will be tours of the local sugar house, a pancake breakfast, and related goings-on.

The Sebago Hardware is now open for business, and I had a chance to meet the owner in his new store. Jason carries a general line of most hardware items, and his store will be a welcome addition to the community. It is only 3 miles from the Farm, and on the way to the dump - what more could a person ask for? He is having his Grand Opening during the Maine Maple Weekend - we wish him every success!

A snow storm had left about 14 inches of new snow at the Farm the weekend before, but the warm weather and sunny days had melted most of it away. There is still a fair amount on the ground from earlier storms, but snow banks have slumped, and bare ground is showing through in spots. When I took the dogs for our snowshoe walk on Saturday, there was about a foot of snow left in the woods, but it was soft and granular. All through the woods water was running in the low spots and in seasonal brooks from the snow melt. I wonder what kind of Mayflowers we have down back (Round-leaved Hepatica, Trailing Arbutus, and related early spring flowers)? The kids selling bunches of Mayflowers along the roadside were always a sure sign that spring was here - but that was a few years ago, when I was a kid myself.

This new door replaces the
open entry that used to be
in the carriage house.

Paul has made good progress on the carriage house restoration. The insulation is pretty much in, and the new windows are installed in the office area. The new entry door is in, and the outside deck has been roughed in. He'll be installing the stairs and ramp to the deck on his next trip.

Looking toward the barn -
the new entry door and office windows.

Penny and I spent our time carefully taking the kitchen cabinets out so that the entry to the pantry and mud rooms can be made. Since we will reinstall the kitchen cabinets in the pantry, we took care to take them apart without damaging them and labeled all the pieces for easy reassembly.

Our next trip will be devoted to blocking off the places where the bats enter the attic and carriage house, and building some bat houses so they'll have a place to roost. Actually, we're going to leave the entry holes to the barn loft open, so they'll be able to roost there. We want the bats to stay - they're good insect catchers - we just don't want to share our attic and carriage house with them. They'll start coming back when the insects start coming out - probably in mid-April. That's another joy of New England spring - the return of the black flies and mosquitoes - but they and the bats are another story, for another journal.

Allen and Penny Crabtree

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Last updated April 13, 1999