Friday, October 30, 2009

Soil testing in New York

[See update below]

Die binnevet van die boud.

...Is the Afrikaans onomatopoeiac rendition of The Benefit of the Doubt. Except that it means, literally, the inner fat of the butt. Or rear. Or bottom. It is, in fact, a much nicer concept. The kind of thing I had for lunch today at Momofuku.

That is what I would I would like to give the Brooklyn College Environmental Sciences Analytical Center, about the no-show of our soil sample result. But at this point I consider the bridge burned. I recommended them on this and another blog several weeks ago as local soil testers.

I must take it back...

When I first sent them my soil sample, carefully dug from 10 pockets, 8"-10" deep, from the East Houston park-to-be, and a check for $67, I was told to expect the results within two weeks. I emailed at two weeks to ask how it was coming along. I heard nothing for another week. At three weeks I received an email saying that the results would be ready that Friday (last Friday), a few days away. They were not.

Yesterday I called the person in charge, who said that yes, my name sounded familiar and that his "students" had misplaced the soil sample, and that I would have the results by today. At the latest.

This is today. No results. Visions of police labs and OJ.

And no in charge person when I called. So I asked in a voicemail for a refund, and asked him please not to test any soil that might be ours as I have lost confidence, at this point, in the whole business.

I am genuinely disappointed. A trusty source recommended these guys, and I was happy to find a local soil testing facility. And I really want to know what the results are. I'm planting edibles and woodlands things, and must know if that is good idea at all.

What flummoxes me, is the lack of communication. So you lost it. Call! Email! Explain. There's this magic word that smoothes over all sorts of awkward situations: Sorry.

So I will dig more pockets, and send the sample to Cornell.

11/4/2009: Update and news! Leda, a Helpful Person, emailed me to apologize for the soil sample delay, and Dr Cheng then let me know results were available if I still wanted them. So they were emailed yesterday. So, at last. I'm now busy digesting and interpreting lead and arsenic level. Arsenic, good grief. The a troubling pH of 7.0. Why troubling? I don't's just smack in the middle.

Graffiti in the woods

Can you see it? It's on a supporting wall for the road on the other side of the stream that runs through Woodstock. I have met my match: found graffiti I do not like, even though this made a strenuous attempt to be art. It may have been shroom-fuelled, I don't know. Lots of mosaic blocks of images and colour.

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on the graffiti question, artists, garden designers and home owners alike. I found them thoughtful and thought-provoking.


Help, please. I know I should know...but what is this shrub? It was growing beside the stream in Woodstock, beside the covered bridge. Uncharacteristically, I did not taste its berries.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


I've been waiting for a soil analysis for the small park-to-be on East Houston, from a place that shall remain nameless until the end of the week which is...tomorrow. The excuse they gave me today was basically that the dog ate the homework, or in their words, that "the students misplaced it."

So how do I know it will be our park's soil that gets analysed? And why ignore the last two emails from me, at weekly intervals? The work was supposed to take two weeks, and it's been a month.

Not impressed.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Trapps Road

In the downpouring of Saturday we drove out of the Old Stone House at Hurley and headed down to New Paltz, to look for leaves in the rain. It was wet. About ten seconds before taking the picture above, near Esopus, I tripped, and slipped down an embankment and went sliding on my face in the mud. Let's just say that my white corduroys are no more.

Below, we drove down the small and winding Trapps Road, in the Shawangunk Mountains in the Minnewaska State Park, looking for a covered bridge that we never found. In the mist the woods were saturated with colour.

Near a ramshackle house we passed two goats and two wet sheep on leashes, browsing on the forest floor.

We returned the next day, in high blue sky and sunlight, to find the effect of the mist to have been entirely more beautiful.

Balthazar's onion soup

Goes down mighty well with a glass of bubbly.

In days gone by, when I was feeling sorry for myself, and in need of connection and belonging, I would take myself to lunch at Balthazar and have the onion soup and a glass of wine, or the duck and foie gras mousse...both are appetizers and reasonably priced, and affordable to one Starting Over, or for anyone concerned with how much money anything costs.

Given that you still enjoy the massive room, the comings and goings, the expensively suited maitre d's or Agnes B.-dressed waitresses, the flowers, the lighting, the foxed mirrors, the theatre of the plateaux of shellfish going by, the smiles at the table for which they are destined when they appear, I think that these small lunches can be a bargain.

Because it was a birthday we had champagne, so goodbye budget, and my mom unearthed a beautiful package for me, which I opened at the table. It's the kind of thing people do there, and it feels fine. Vince paid the barman $5 for the date on the retro calendar over the bar, and he promised to mail it. I've done this before for a friend's birthday, asked of a then-French waiter and now French maitre d', and it never arrived, so we'll see. I tend to trust barmen.

I had the onion soup AND the duck liver and foie gras mousse, and Vince helped with the cheese on the former, as you can see. Then we went home, and began to cook for dinner.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Breakfast of Champions

On this rainy New York morning I woke to find a table of flowers, Mimosas (Buck's Fizz to you lot over the pond) and a bag of Doritos. From a man who knows me. Hm hm hm. We are ready for our trailer park now. Or maybe we are just practising for our Airstream Dream (driving across the country in...).

My dad called in a public voice from Bloemfontein Airport, en route to Cape Town, and reminded me that it is the city of my birth; and we will see my mom in a couple of hours for a small lunch at Balthazar. I am cooking for dinner. I like cooking. I have wanted to make Deborah Madison's Braised Root Vegetables with Lentils and Red Wine Sauce* forever, and we brought an armload of Hudson Valley turnips, beets, carrots, fingerling potatoes and parsnips back from our trails. And grass fed beef short ribs from Fleisher's, in Kingston, a butcher and beautiful uptown area worth a detour.

* Local Flavors, Deborah Madison, Random House, New York, 2002.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Yes, it's a place, and nary a moose in sight.

We had been heading that way anyway, but after stopping (screeching to a halt, actually) for Dixie Fried Chicken at The Good Stuff Cafe and meeting Paula Rhodes, the bubbling Southern proprietress, we headed up a road with Dixie in our hearts and warm chicken steaming up the windows.

Do not eat the doll's eyes berries. You will not have time to be sorry. They say.

But I'd like to return in late April to see the sweetly lemon-scented, fluffy white flowers. The plants were right beside the road, spotted when we pulled off on a rare and miserly verge to see these falls.

We seemed to be a bit late for mushrooms in general, and this particular day was bitterly cold, but I found these pretty fungi on a fallen tree branch.

We walked as far as we seemed to be allowed, about fifteen feet from the road.

Beside this lake was a single house, well-groomed, on the opposite side, separated from the road by the stream: ideal. Winter must be a little scary, though, and cold. The valley is deeply narrow. I think the manymany signs belonged to them.

At last we got out in the glittery, clear air and unpacked the chicken that had been tantalizing us for thirty minutes. It looks a bit lonely there on those plates. Also from Paula, potato salad, biscuits and corn bread.

Today's apple? Mutsu.

We were so cold that Vince got his watch out to measure the temperature. It said 8'C (46'F). It lied. No way. The picnic table had been adorned by unadventurous beer drinkers. If only we'd had screwcap wine.

After lunch, during which Vince swaddled me and tried to provide a human wind break (he came down with a bad cold the next day), we headed down the broad leaf-strewn path beside the picture book stream.


My mother, coming through the rye, I mean trees.

I'd have to say that this is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. As a South African, from the Free State and Western Cape, this kind of landscape belongs to stories, not experience. Perhaps in the Hogsback region of the Eastern Cape one might find scenery a little similar, but not where I come from.

Early this year I stood on some of the oldest sand dunes on earth, in the Namib, at dawn, and while this in no way compares visually, it does, somehow, in the effect it had on me.

So. A few hundred yards from the table we used, we found this solitary one beside the water and in the leaves. I suppose this place may be mobbed in summer, when the water is swimmable, but it was deserted when we were there.

A contemplative husband hoping for trout.

And a last look at the saturated yellow of the slender trees crowding down the slope.

We'll be back. With boots on.

Witch hazel

Witch hazel lovers will know to expect witch hazels' strange and beautiful blooms in late winter, even if there is snow. I was very surprised to find trees in bloom in the Catskills this last weekend. October? But this is common witch hazel, the native Hamamelis virginiana. Now apparently the Greek hamamelis means 'at the same time as the apple', and certainly we were falling over apples at all the orchards on the way.

Most witch hazel cultivars sold by nurseries bloom in February and later...

Anyway, a felicitous discovery, which coincided with the swarming of ladybirds.

Devil's Kitchen

[I have abandoned the new blog editor (for your Blogger blogs, see Settings, all the way at the bottom of Basic). The large pictures just don't fit my template.]

For us it was just an anonymous part of Road 16.

Remember the un-named pass? Vince googled around and found a name! It was not marked as such on our maps. In fact, finding route numbers, road numbers and signposts in situ, in general, was sometimes an impossible task. I felt like a Nazi landing in England to find all the names and road signs turned back to front or missing altogether. Small children stoically pointing one in the wrong direction. Invaders not wanted. No roads lead to the capital. Ve vill not vin zis vawr.

But we, happy invaders, were not there to fight, but to drink in, and we did.

It is the Devil's Kitchen. There are no barriers between car and edge of cliffs, and the road is not maintained in winter. In places it is vertiginous, and one thinks of being snowed in and having to eat one's leather gloves before turning to the chilled person in the passenger seat, with a hungry look.

There is one real stopping point and the view is stunning, back towards the meeting of two mountains, pictured in a previous post.

We feel very lucky to have found it, and we found more besides. Including Dixie Fried Chicken and the most beautiful picnic spot not discovered quite in time. But that will be another story...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pictures for a Sunday

In bright cold sunlight we head back today for New York, the city, leaving New York, the wilds. Above, the little town of Phoenicia, caught in the cross hairs of wires, set beside a wide stream rushing over round stones.

We found a beautiful pass, un-named on a map.

Finally, how to catch a deer.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Woodstock woods

On Day 2 in the Catskills we stopped about three quarters of an hour west of Woodstock after scouting the roadside for likely picnic places. We'd found many good spots but all of them had big orange signs saying Posted. Keep out. There's a lot of that around here: either for over-eager, land-crushing, livestock-scaring leaf peepers, or hunters, or? Is that normal for The Countryside?After three days of it I find it a bit anti social.

But here was an officially designated piece of state land, well hidden from the road by tall trees and beside a quiet and barely moving, leaf-covered brook.

An aging hippie was running laps nearby. In Woodstock a man actually wished us good morning accompanied by a peace sign. I appreciated it more than I would have thought.

This picnic was rounded up in pieces at Maria's in town: a hunk of parmesan, a sausage of liverwurst (twice in two days is more than I've eaten in two years!), some local ham, two cherry tarts and a baguette from Bread Alone. And some South African chenin blanc in its ice sleeve. This was Honey Crisp day, too. What a lovely apple.

The tarts were delicious, made with sour cherries.

We drove on, all the roads' numbers now scrambled in my head. Passing a lake whose reflection cast the trees back at themselves, we screeched to a halt. Posted. Keep out. No Trespassing. Vince trod a careful path to the water and started shooting without bullets. Soon another car stopped and its occupants gingerly stepped in his footprints to the perfect viewpoint.

I stayed rooted to the spot, however:

This is a witch hazel. Hamamelis. But blooming now? There were three beside each other, all in bloom, and one still with its leaves. Hamamelis virginiana. I was as excited as if I'd seen a leopard in South Africa.

Right at the road bees were tucking into flowers I at first took for chicory, but the sky blue of chicory was farther along on the verge. So what is this? Looks almost like a corn flower.

'Shroom, and maybe the magic kind.

At last I made it down that forbidden, small path and to the lake's edge. It was stunning, and the rare day of sun made the colours blaze.

As we drove away we passed the sign-posted, private entrance to the lake and its environs...Jehovah's Witnesses.

Since we're not going to heaven, it would be nice if they could share a little bit of it with us down here on earth.