With the reliance on GPS technology and the mapping capabilities of our smart phones, many people have lost the ability to figure out how to get from point A to point B on their own. Folk tales are abundant with tips for finding one’s way. “Moss always grows on the north side of a tree” is one of the more popular legends. In fact, moss grows best in the shade and will grow completely around trees in a thick forest. “Follow a stream downhill to civilization” is another. However, what if that stream leads you in the opposite direction you hoped to go?
Manhattan Country School’s 9-10s students went back to the basics of navigation using a compass and map during this week’s nature class at the MCS Farm. The kids learned that the Earth is in fact a giant magnet and reacts with other magnets. They also learned that the compass was invented and used in China during the Song Dynasty and has been used on land and at sea for centuries. They discussed the science of why a magnetized piece of metal, spinning freely, is drawn to our Polar North.
Annie, the Farm’s nature teacher, set up an orienteering course on Thyme Hill. Marked with survey flags, the course required students, working in pairs, to follow mapped instructions. Before setting out, the group examined a map of the Farm to orient themselves visually. Then, with their first set of directions they set off for 20 paces at 35 degrees south. At each subsequent flag they read the next orientation and continued on.
While many of us will continue to rely on modern technology when traveling, a lesson in this ancient technology is invaluable. Being able to orient yourself in the outdoors, whether rural or urban, is a life skill worth honing.
Science is a cornerstone of the Manhattan Country School Farm educational program. On their autumn trip, MCS sixth-graders delved into a range of topics including soil science, food science, forest ecology and the ever important social sciences. The class had the opportunity to spend one morning observing and learning from a Cornell University soil technician. Soil health—using organic, restorative practices—is vital to the MCS Farm and the animals that rely on crops grown as a food source. The students learned that the technician gathered at least 15 samples from various places in each field, in order to have a balanced representation. Those samples were then mixed together and boxed for analysis at the Cornell lab. In total, 10 fields on both MCS’ New Kingston Mountain and Meeker Hollow farms were sampled. The MCS Farm will use the results to help balance the nutritional needs of our fields and pastures. The class used this experience to prepare our vegetable beds for layers of nutrient-rich compost we’ve created throughout the year.
Science in the Kitchen
MCS students learn to work with yeast from an early age, but sixth grade is the time when they examine the science of how yeast reacts with water and flour. Cooking Teacher Donna McDaniel walks kids through the process of gathering ingredients, setting up their workstations and making sure their water is the correct temperature. Employing the Goldilocks method—not too hot, not too cold, but just right— the students prepare their dough to the right consistency to be leavened by the yeast. They verify this method of temperature by touch and also by using a thermometer. After the appropriate time to rise is reached, into the oven go their bread or rolls. This lesson has a very real impact on the meals that will be served and eaten. The loaves of bread will be used for Thursday morning French toast or sandwiches for the bus ride home. The rolls will hold grilled burgers for dinner.
Science in the Forest
Examining the Northeast forest through the lenses of environment, economics and equity is a yearlong research project for the sixth grade. Investigating historical natural or human-made changes to the landscape is their start. Walking through an area that has been cleared, re-forested and cleared again they see many signs. Small stands of Hemlock trees are an indication of their dominance prior to being over-harvested for the tanning industry. A lone apple tree in the middle of a dense forest illustrates that this was once open land. Our practice of harvesting select trees helps maintain the health of our forest. Students marked Northern White Ash trees with spray paint to indicate which trees will be cut this winter. The class chose which trees to harvest based on opening of the canopy, releasing other trees from competition and the ease of extraction. The harvested hardwood trees will be used to heat the textiles studio and rec room next year.
The Science of Living Interdependently
Living together as an interdependent community for a week provides countless opportunities to learn about ourselves and others. The intentional, community-based experience MCS founders Gus and Marty Trowbridge envisioned as a social experiment thrives at the school. The Farm provides a structure and system that requires all involved to be invested in each other and the greater whole. Meal preparation, time spent with roommates, free time and mealtimes place people in non-stop social balancing acts. Kids are asked—and ask of themselves—to provide for others, make appropriate choices, be kind, etc. These sometimes stressful demands can come at a frantic pace. This being said, the Farm is also a community rich with empathy, patience and tolerance. Mistakes are a welcome and vital piece of the learning process. Kids support friends through physical tasks and emotional struggles. They turn to adults for guidance, often finding they already possess the roadmap to the answer.
There is no better way to learn the routines of the Manhattan Country School Farm than through the eyes of a child. The 8-9s, on only their second trip to the Farm, had the rare opportunity to orient their teacher, Cosi. Taking a page out of MCS progressive pedagogy, the kids taught by doing. Upon arrival, the students showed how they carry any luggage, rather than waiting for their own. They explained that if everyone pitches in, all bags will make it to the front porch. During the move-in meeting, they demonstrated how they turn in electronics that were used on the bus ride, and will be returned for the ride home. The kids reasoning was, “We don’t need electronics at the Farm; there are just so many things to do.”
Leftover food from lunch is added to the pig pail to be fed during barn chores. After receiving their room assignments, the kids showed how they safely carry their bags, one at a time up the stairs to their bedrooms. Once all roommates were present, the kids engaged in a group discussion to decide sleeping arrangements. “We need to listen to each other’s thoughts and concerns about top bunk or bottom bunk. Sometimes we switch bunks during the week, so everyone has a turn on the bunk they want.”
A tour of the Farm is vital in helping teachers begin to understand things they’ve only heard or read about. The first stop on the student-led tour was the stable area of the barn. Taking the opportunity to connect with the animals, which provide food for the Farm community is invaluable. The tour guides explained, matter of factly, that the steers are named after meat dishes or cuts of meat to make clear the reason we raise them. Beef Stroganoff and Carpaccio are not cruel jokes, but a reminder that the MCS Farm believes if we’re going to serve animal protein, we want to know everything about the animals—where and how they were raised and what they put in their bodies—before we put the products they provide in our bodies. The dairy cattle are appropriately named after dairy products. Yogurt, Chobani and Milky Way are just a few of the cows that have or will provide us with milk. One dairy cow produces enough liquid milk for drinking or for recipes, one gallon of yogurt, a little whipped cream and maybe a bit for cheese or butter.
Standing surrounded by chickens in the coop can be out of some people’s comfort zone. The kids artfully showed how they quietly and gently pick up a hen and cradle her in their arms. The students explained that these hens provide all the eggs the Farm needs. “We feed and take care of them and they take care of us.”
At the hay jump it was explained, “We jump one at a time, make sure the coast is clear before we jump and no pushing. And don’t forget, a teacher needs to be at the hay jump when we’re in here.”
During barn chores, one student quickly stepped up to show Cosi how to milk a cow. They each washed their hands in an iodine solution to prevent the passage of germs from human to cow. Carefully sitting on the tippy, three-legged stool, child and adult reached under the udder and squeezed milk from the four teats. The stream of collaborative milking rang out as it hit the metal pail. That evening’s milk was combined with the mornings and pasteurized to be served later.
The trip took on a steady rhythm of student-prepared meals, classes, jobs and free time. The lines of student and teacher, work and play became blurred, as we all worked and played together. Meals, as always, were a celebration of the combined work of farming class, cooking class and barn chores. Students and teachers passed platters and bowls around, filled their plates and talked about life.
The Manhattan Country School Farm is deep into harvest season. The Catskills have experienced several frosts, which puts the Farm on a tight deadline with Mother Nature. The farm community needs to stay focused and industrious in getting things out of the ground.
This week fifth grade students have been incredibly busy harvesting our root vegetables. Bushels of carrots, potatoes and beets are pulled or dug, brushed off and stored for winter. Some vegetables are snacked on during class, while some goes straight to cooking class to be prepared in that day’s meal. Our abundant tomato crop continues to yield huge numbers of paste tomatoes. The class harvested full buckets, bagged and froze them. All visiting classes will enjoy the fruits of their labor as they enjoy pasta sauce and salsa throughout the year. Apples were plucked from the Farm’s orchards and pressed into apple cider. A couple of gallons were served immediately, while several gallons were frozen to be served this winter.
A year-round harvest that we sometimes ignore is the harvest of the sun’s energy to create electricity. The fifth grade had the responsibility of tilting the MCS Farm’s solar array to its winter setting. The 24.5 kilowatt, 140-panel array sat at near horizontal during the summer months. This is the most efficient angle to gather energy from the sun, high overhead. As we move into fall and winter, we tilt the panels to near vertical. This orientation captures energy from the sun as it arcs low over the horizon. This position also allows snow to slide off.
The Farm will have plenty to be harvested in the coming weeks. The 8-9s, sixth grade and the third grade classes from Little Red Schoolhouse, which rents our farm program, can look forward to delicious meals and dirt under their fingernails when it’s their turn to run the Farm.
The Catskill Mountains are a world-class destination for outdoor pursuits. Manhattan Country School students and teachers are surrounded by and reminded of this beauty each time they visit the Farm.
The explosion of autumn colors greeted the Seventh and Eighth Grade Sur homeroom upon arriving at the Farm last week. Several students, along with teachers Annie and Garth, took the opportunity to venture off the Farm to hike to Giant Ledge. The large rock outcroppings perched on the side of Panther Mountain are located deep in what is known as the Burroughs Range. There are 35 mountain peaks in the Catskills that are over 3,500 feet high, with Panther standing at 3,702 feet. Roxbury, N.Y. native and nature essayist John Burroughs spent many days exploring this high-peaks region.
The group set off from the Farm and traveled to the trailhead in the Oliverea Valley. The hike took the group up and over boulder fields, along sandy pathways and finally to the Balsam-covered summit. Giant Ledge provides 180-degree views of Woodland Valley below and Slide Mountain, the Catskills' tallest peak at more than 4,000 feet. After taking in the views and enjoying the lunch they packed, the group returned to the trailhead having completed the four-mile hike.
Manhattan Country School Farm-raised crops are celebrated in the Farm’s garden, greenhouse, kitchen and dining room each and every day. We eat student-prepared meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Freshly harvested peppers, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers line the taco bar. Yogurt, created with milk from our own cow, is topped with blueberries and strawberries picked by MCS students and MCS Farm-raised broccoli, onions and shiitake mushrooms are used to make risotto.
Ironically, one of our most vital and visible crops, hay, is often taken for granted. MCS students handle bales of hay on a daily basis during farm trips. They drop it from the mow and stack it, move it by tractor and cart from the dairy barn to the steer pen and, of course, feed it directly to cattle and sheep. However, the hay mow is almost always full with nearly 3,000 bales by the time farm trips begin in September.
This year, due to steady summer rains, farmers in the northeast have been delayed in harvesting their hay crop. Hay, once mowed, can take several days to dry prior to baling. As Spanish novelist Miguel De Cervantes said, “Let us make hay while the sun shines.” This week, seventh and eighth grade Norte homeroom had the rare experience of both watching the mechanized work of the hay harvest and throwing and stacking bales in the hay mow. Hay in the Catskills contains various grasses and legumes, such as red and white clover.
The hay was mowed on Monday, tedded on Tuesday, then raked and baled on Wednesday by a neighboring farmer who provides this service. Mowing lays the hay out in flat rows; tedding swirls and flips the hay over to dry all sides. The hay is then raked into long windrows and then scooped, compacted, tied with twine and launched into the wagon by the baler. The kids and adults were then responsible for unloading wagons containing about one hundred bales each. Some people tossed bales from the wagon to the mow below, while others stacked them tightly. We unloaded six full wagons, which yielded approximately 550 bales. The group, all sweaty and tired after this type of work, then settled in for a delicious dinner of chicken and vegetable stir fry, prepared by two classmates.
A Manhattan Country School Farm trip would never be complete without a good-bye meeting. After the luggage is loaded on the bus, students and teachers take a few minutes to share their experiences of the trip with each other.
This week, the MCS 7-8s experienced their very first Farm trip. Each child and adult took the opportunity to talk about some of the things that were memorable. The comments usually began with, “I liked…,” “I loved…” or “My favorite thing was…..”
These statements continued with the following:
- my textiles class
- jumping in the hay with my eyes closed
- cooking with Donna
- feeding Chippy his bottle of milk
- the food
- making mint tea
- the cool breeze on the porch
- swinging on the swing
- the bonfire
- meal time together
- all of the food we planted in the garden
- playing in the creek
- our walks in nature
- spending time with my friends
The sixth-graders at the Manhattan Country School Farm last week enjoyed a mushroom hunt with our guest expert, John Michelotti—“The Fungi Guy.” John is a walking encyclopedia of everything having to do with mushrooms and fungi. He is eloquent and entertaining as he reels off one fascinating bit of mushroom lore after another.
First he gave a brief talk on fungi, mentioning that fungi usually is decomposing dead leaves and trees. But “just because there’s death that doesn't mean it’s not supporting new life.” The fungi help create new soil, which allows plants to thrive. Fungi can also exist endophytically, within plant tissues. Or they can be mycorhyzal, living among a plant’s roots. They can exist in symbiotic relationships with plants, where the plants provide sugars for the fungi, and the fungi free nitrogen and phosphorous for the plants.
John discussed how the actual living body of the fungus is called mycelium—tiny threads that work their way into wood or leaves or soil. In a single cubic inch of soil in the northeast forest, there is one mile of mycelium. Mushrooms, though much more visible, are merely the fruit of the mycelium, the way an apple tree grows an apple—which then spreads its seeds, or in the case of fungi, its spores.
The students then followed John up a trail into the Farm’s woods, and he encouraged them to look for mushrooms in a way different from how we look at plants. He said, “Look down, look under. Look in the dark spots, the moist spots.” He also advised the students to take note of how the mushrooms grow: singly or in clusters? On what species of wood or what kind of substrate? Are its spores held by gills or tubes or teeth?
Once the students started looking, it was astonishing how many mushrooms and fungi we found in just a few hundred yards. The big spotted shelf mushroom, “Pheasant Back.” The smooth white “Artist’s Conk,” on which any scratch or pressure leaves a permanent mark. Many LBMs (little brown mushrooms) of various species. “Violet-Toothed Polypore,” which has a purplish tinge to its edges. “Jelly fungus” and “crust fungus” and “slime molds.” The eerie “Dead Man’s Fingers.” Even one species that John couldn’t immediately identify, which was temporarily named “Alien Brain.” And endless clusters of visible white mycelium anytime we peeled back the leaf litter on the forest floor.
John mentioned that there are between 1.2 million and 5 million species of fungi in the world—more than all the plant and animal species combined!
And most importantly, John told the students to always double-check and triple-check any mushroom they ever pick to find out if it is toxic.
The students (and teachers) finished the walk fairly amazed at the hidden treasure—the richness and variety of life—right at our feet, amid the woods we walk in all the time.
For more information on John Michelotti, visit https://www.catskillfungi.com.
The MCS Farm’s Belted Galloway cow, Oreo, gave birth to a bull calf on Sunday, May 7. A Belted Galloway is considered a heritage breed of cattle, as it has stayed true to its genetics, has been raised in the United States since before 1925 and is or has been endangered, according to The Livestock Conservancy. Belted Galloways, with their distinct broad white belt that encircles the body, originated in southwest Scotland and are known to be efficient foragers, producers of high quality beef and exhibitors of strong maternal instincts. Oreo has been quite protective of her son, Carpaccio, who the 9-10s had the honor of naming during their spring farm trip this week.
Mom Oreo spends her day out in the green pasture while Carpaccio, during his early weeks of life, will stay in the barn to be showered with affection from our kids, who are helping him acclimate to humans. He’ll soon join mom and the other cows in the pasture to forage.
The final farm trip for Manhattan Country School eighth-graders provides a time for reflection, reconnections, visits to cherished places and new experiences. A couple of birthdays were celebrated with singing and cake, baked by classmates. The class worked throughout the week on their mural, which had the theme from the movie “Up.”
In nature studies they continued their investigation and discussion of the yearlong topic of honey bee hive collapse. Their action plan, to support the Farm’s own honey bee colony, was to plant a pollinator garden. They planted a variety of self-seeding wildflowers, perennial flowers and herbs in the lower garden.
On Tuesday, our long-time sheep shearer Nancy was here to shear the flock. Everyone watched the process that supplies fiber for our textiles program and a few even tried their hands at shearing. In a woodworking class with Garth, the class built several benches that can be installed on the hay wagon for seating during rides.
Thursday was a day full of events that serve as a rite of passage for a final Farm trip. The entire class walked the three miles to the Village of Roxbury for lunch at a local café and a stroll around the historic town. They returned from their walk to watch a slide show of their time spent at the Farm since, for many, the 7-8s. Thursday evening after dinner the kids circled around the bonfire to say their good-byes. The crackling fire under the stars provided the ideal backdrop for some emotional and poignant thoughts to be shared among friends.