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Essence of Beaver – The Buck-Toothed Guru

Down near the headwaters of Lake James the other day I saw lots of beaver sign. I love seeing their trails up and down the mud banks. The webbed hind feet are sometimes six inches from toe to heel. There were a number of scent mounds the beavers made by piling up small heaps of mud, twigs and grass and anointing them with an odiferous scent secretion called castoreum. I smelled one of these mounds. A pleasant, warm, musky, dark brown, leathery, mammalian aroma filled my senses. WOW! Essence of beaver! Quite a perfume.
The best way to see a beaver is to quietly wait near a lodge in the evening just before dark. A beaver’s first task upon leaving its lodge for an evening’s activities is a slow patrol around the pond to inspect the shoreline for intruders – perhaps a potential predator such as a bear, wolf, or other carnivore large enough to risk a beaver’s sharp incisors – or perhaps it could be a bumbling human like myself arriving late for the first feature of the evening beaver show. On a number of such occasions I have been the object of a beaver’s scrutiny. The first time it happened, I’ll never forget. The sun had just set behind a distant mountain and I was sneaking through the bushes hoping to slip behind the upturned roots of a fallen tree near the edge of the pond. I had my binoculars ready and I was hoping to get settled before the beavers emerged. As I crossed a clearing about fifteen feet from the water’s edge, a slowly swimming beaver materialized from behind the stump of a drowned tree. It was CLOSE, and it was swimming closer! I froze in mid-stride, trying my best to resemble a gnarled tree stump (with binoculars). With just its head and some of its back above the surface, the beaver was moving along parallel to the shore. When it came even with me, it paused. Then, like a toy ferry boat, it turned to face me. It swam closer and paused again, staring right at me. It lifted its nose and tried to scent the air. I stared back intensely. I held my breath and did not move. My legs muscles started to cramp. I gritted my teeth and held my position, determined not to even blink. As I stood there like a strained statue, looking deeply into those beady little beaver eyes, I realized that my psychic presence, that is, my stressed-out ego – that part of me that sees myself as separate from, rather than a part of, the environment – was probably much more disruptive to the peacefulness at the beaver pond than my mere physical presence. I knew I could fit in so much better if I could somehow soften the glare of this huge throbbing ego of mine. But how? I released my breath. I relaxed my eyes and softened my gaze. This felt better. I tried to release my thoughts and quiet the excited internal narrative rattling on in my busy little brain. I relaxed my leg muscles and allowed my body to float, ever so slowly, into a more comfortable position. The beaver just kept staring. It seemed like it was playing, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Something here just didn’t quite look right. Then KAPOW!! The tail came crashing down on the surface of the water, sounding like a combination rifle shot and belly flop. I about jumped out of my skin. Water splashed everywhere, and the beaver disappeared in the splash. I was so startled, that I completely lost my balance, and fell over into some brambles. The beaver surfaced a few seconds later. It was out a little further in the pond and it calmly surveyed the shore to see if the scene had changed. Beavers are known for their ability to alter their environment with their dam building and tree-cutting. Here was another way. This beaver had actually altered my psychic environment and my consciousness as well. Not only had it induced me into the beginnings of a meditative experience, but with the help of this furry, buck-toothed psycho-drama coach, I had just acted out a personal existential metaphor — that of a startled being, falling out of control into the unknown. Life seems like that sometimes. This little flat-tailed guru transformed me from a poor imitation of a gnarled tree trunk into an embodiment of my true self, falling into a briar patch. With the help of this beaver, for a few short seconds, I had experienced eternity. I had been living purely in the moment. This living in the moment, or “being here now”, for practitioners of yoga, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines is the goal of years of devotion. This beaver brought me to that place with a mere tail slap. Not bad for a second’s work.

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Cut It Out!

Thoughts on Pruning
I’ve been pruning our vines and fruit trees, trying to encourage them to put their growth energy in the best directions to bear quality fruit.  When I prune a tree I cut out dead and diseased limbs, as well as branches that point in, point down and those that crowd other branches. This opens up the interior of the tree to allow light to shine in and air to flow through. Branches that shoot vigorously up are trimmed to stimulate side branching. The aim is to balance, concentrate, and focus growth, resulting in larger, healthier fruit.
Careful pruning enhances growth. Isn’t that what we strive to do with our kids?  When we see them going in an undesirable direction or getting out of balance, we try to “nip it in the bud.” I often feel the benefits of pruning myself–like when I display some disagreeable behavior and someone calls me on it. “Cut it out!” they might say.  That’s what we are doing with our fruit trees, grape vines and berry bushes…and one another. Snip, snip snip…

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Shake Them ‘Simmons Down!

How to Harvest and Prepare Wild Persimmons
The persimmon is one of our finest wild fruits. Late fall and early winter is the best time to gather them. The key to fine persimmon cuisine is gathering them when they are ripe. When a persimmon is a rich orange color, round, plump and firm it is NOT ripe. A buxom young fruit like this will pucker you up but quick! If you taste a persimmon at this stage, its astringent flesh will make your mouth feel like it is filled with cotton. Like a lot of us humans, it takes age and maturity to sweeten this fruit. When the skin gets wrinkled and it begins to look a little saggy, it is then that the persimmon is in its prime and will melt in your mouth like a spoonful of smooth, sweet apple butter.
Some folks say that persimmons don’t ripen till after a hard frost but this is not necessarily so. Individual persimmon trees seem to keep their own schedules. I know some trees with persimmons that are ripe in September, weeks before a frost, and others with fruit that is not ready till Christmas. There is a tree right out our window whose persimmons hold tight till February and March and becomes a bird feeder attracting cardinals, sapsuckers and other birds who feed on the fruit.
The easiest way to pick persimmons is to gently shake the tree and the ripe fruits will fall. Gather them in a flat bottomed container trying not to pile them more than two layers deep so they won’t mash each other. (This mushiness is why you never see our native persimmon in the market. ) They can be kept in the refrigerator and eaten out of hand or they can be made into a number of tasty dishes.
Remove the seeds from the pulp by running the fruits through a Foley food mill or a colander. The pulp can be used in many ways. It can be stored under refrigeration for a week or two and used as a spread for bread or a topping for ice cream. It can be swirled in a parfait glass with whipped cream to make an elegant dessert. It can be used instead of bananas in your favorite banana-nut bread recipe to make persimmon nut bread. (If you can use wild hickory or black walnuts, all the better.) To make persimmon leather, spread the pulp on a greased cookie sheet and place it in a food dehydrator or a warm oven or other heat source until completely dry. They can be dried whole by opening them up and spreading them on the drying rack.

Can you see the knife, fork, and spoon in the three opened seeds? Looks like we’ll have a mixture of cold, warm, and snowy weather this winter!

Don’t throw away all those persimmon seeds either. Wash the remaining pulp off and roast them in a medium oven until they are very dark brown. Grind them in a blender and you have persimmon seed coffee. Prepare it as you would regular coffee. It has a rich coffee-like flavor but no caffeine. If persimmon java is not your style you can also use a persimmon seed to predict the upcoming winter’s weather. All you need to do is carefully slice one of the seeds in half with a sharp knife and look inside. You will see either a knife, a fork, or a spoon. The knife indicates the cold will be so intense it will cut you. The spoon tells you that there will be enough snow that you will have to shovel it, and the fork indicates the weather will be warm enough to make hay all winter.

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Hoppy Toad Love

Male American ToadWe’ve been hearing a beautiful soft trilling sound drifting out of the wetlands these days. When I first heard this sound years ago, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. It seemed to come more from inside my head than out. This is the mating call of the American toad (Bufo americanus). Thoreau called them the “dreaming toads” because their call is so dreamlike. I remember the first time I heard it coming from our pools in the back yard. When we followed the sound out to the pools we were astounded to find more than thirty toads in the area, some with their throats inflated like bubble gum, calling, swimming and hopping about. Of this large assembly of toads only five of them were female. Normally it is difficult to determine the gender/sex of a toad, but at this season, under these circumstances we could easily identify the five females because each female had a male clamped onto her back. During this “nuptial embrace”, known as amplexis, a male toad (or frog) usually holds the female from behind, with his front legs under her “armpits” administering sort of a reverse Heimlich maneuver. This stimulates her to release her eggs. As she squeezes out the eggs, he fertilizes them externally.
The rest of the “bachelor” males were swimming madly about, searching for a female to mate with. We soon learned that male toads cannot recognize the females of their species. They are quick to mount anything that remotely resembles a female toad — including other male toads. When a male amorously pounces on another male, the male being mounted will produce a vibration in the area of his chest where he is being clasped and emit a chirp of protest (known as a release call) and the offending male will immediately let go and continue on his search. (I swear you can almost hear him say, “Oops, excuse me.”)
Toad Hugging HandNot only are male toads unable to differentiate female toads from other males, they also have trouble differentiating the female toads from almost anything else that is about the same size. Excited males will even grab onto your hand, assuming that anything that doesn’t protest must be a female. He will grab your hand with his two front legs and if he finds your fingers attractive enough (and you don’t chirp in protest) he will hold on tight enough that you can even lift him out of the water. If you wiggle your fingers slightly he will kick his hind legs in seeming delight. One evening when my son Todd was about five years old and his wrists were just about the size of a toad’s body, we were investigating our pool full of courting toads. He ended up with a male toad clamped onto each wrist. He was quite a sight as he went running into the house delightedly squealing, “Look Mama!” with two enthusiastic, but misdirected toads humping away on his wrists. Ah yes the joys of Spring! Dream on Mr. Toad!