John walks with a group of sixth-graders up the dirt road past the upper garden, past the bright green hayfield and into the woods. Along the way we pass Thyme Hill on the right, which is partly brushy and partly mowed grass. We stop and taste some rose hips.
Soon we’re into woods full of young maple and ash trees. John says, “You can read the farm like a book.” What was an open field 20 years ago can grow quickly back to a brushy thicket, and then to woods. Lone apple trees that once stood out in the open are now shaded by taller hardwoods. Pine trees planted by early Manhattan Country School students in the 1960s are now 50 feet tall. Stumps from trees that had been cut 10 or 30 years ago are still visible, covered with moss and lichen and mushrooms, slowly crumbling. We talk about how fungi can consume dead wood and break it down back to soil.
This ties in with the MCS Farm’s recent mushroom project, in which students helped to inoculate oak and hophornbeam logs with the spore of shiitake mushrooms. For almost a year the spore will slowly, silently feed off the logs, and in the spring we hope a crop of lovely edible shiitake mushrooms will pop out. Each log can repeat the process for up to seven years before it is spent and falls apart. In that project we learned that living trees generate their own anti-fungal compounds, which fade away within a week or two of cutting. The fungi are all around us all the time, but they can only grow in dead wood and leaves.
We walk along on a thick carpet of brown fallen leaves. We consider what the woods would look like if fungi didn’t break them down. Would we have a 20-foot high layer of leaves throughout the woods, in which we would need to tunnel our way? Everyone seems to like that idea.
We follow the lines of stone walls through the woods. What are all these walls doing in the middle of the woods? We talk about how 50 or 100 hundred years ago all these woods were open fields. And the walls were built through hundreds and thousands of hours of hard labor by the farmers and probably their kids, perhaps no older than the MCS kids with us today. Everyone groans in sympathy. The walls served two purposes: they removed rocks from the fields so crops could be grown and they kept cattle or sheep or horses from wandering off.
We make our way higher up the hill into the sapbush, where MCS Farm kids collect sap in February and March to make maple syrup. Many of the trees are taller here, obviously having been kept as a sapbush even decades ago when the younger woods were still open fields. We talk about cutting some of the trees to let more light in for the others. Selective cutting can lead to a healthier forest; plus the logs from the culled trees will be brought down to the Farm, split and used in the wood stoves heating the rec room and the textiles building. The fallen tops of the trees—the buds and the thin branch tips—provide food for deer in the dead of winter when there is nothing else to eat.
Among the huge maples of the sapbush grow patches of wild leeks—“ramps” that are a highly sought gourmet delicacy that grows here in springtime. One student tells us how her father likes to make ramp pesto, and we spend a few delicious moments contemplating that. A sense begins to emerge of the wealth of forest resources in our backyard.
And again we get a feeling for the time scales affecting our surroundings: decades to go from seedling to tree, decades to go from field to woods, or from stump back to soil. For 12-year-old students, it may be a bit incomprehensible, or maybe a bit awe-inspiring.
We turn and start going home downhill. The muted grumbling about the difficulty of the hike fades quickly as we begin the descent back to the farmhouse. The pace picks up and there is a fair amount of skipping, laughing and running on the way back. We stop off at the lean-to with its glorious long views of the whole farm and much of Meeker Hollow. You can read the farm like a book—and the more you know, the more interesting the book gets!