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A breezy summer day

One of my most enduring happy memories is actually not just one distinct moment, it is the aggregated beautiful summer days of my central Pennsylvania farm country youth.

As far as I can recall, Happy Valley did not get much sunshine throughout the year. Our glum, overcast days stretched from Fall through Spring. Instead, we saved up every drop of sun for June, July and August. These summers were sunny, usually gently breezy days, with mostly blue skies and flitting clouds, occasional sun showers, temperatures in the 70s and maybe 80s.

A trip to Whipple Dam State Park or a local swimming hole would cure the worst of the heat.

Perhaps youthful memories are clouded by adult cynicism, or more likely, by adult rose-tinted glasses. We prefer in our old age to recall only the good times and bury the rest. That is possible here when it comes to recalling the perfect summer weather of my youth.

However, it is also a scientific fact that Planet Earth is getting really close to having its polarities flip. Very close. As those polarities get close to switching (magnetically speaking, the North Pole becomes the South Pole and vice versa), Planet Earth’s magnetic shield gets weak. So weak that a lot of ultraviolet rays get through to the surface, and our skin, thereby heating things up.

It is one of the reasons for sun burns worse than usual and for really hot, windy weather over the past twenty-five years. It is a fact that some plant and animal species have been moving northward, too, as northern climes warm up, even ever so slightly.

Earth’s magnetic field acts as a filter for harmful UV and other cosmic rays. Our magnetic field is one of the reasons Planet Earth has life on it. When it gets weak, our own experience outside changes.

After a very wet and rainy Spring, we are now experiencing some easy-sleeping cool evenings, and breezy, gently sunny days. The kind we have not seen in decades.

What a wonderful feeling.

If I go in the back yard and work in the garden, and close my eyes, I am transported back to the wondrous summer days of my childhood. They were colored by the ultra-green environment that surrounded me, too, I admit that.

It is doubtful these perfect days in the 70s, with a refreshingly gentle breeze, will last much longer. After all, the poles have not yet fully flipped and returned Earth to where its magnetic shield was much earlier in my life. But I am reminded of how it used to be, and how pleasant it was.

Aaaahhh…summer time, central PA style.

Has anyone considered unplugging Spring and plugging it back in to see if it will work right?

Not my creative headline, unfortunately, but a good one nonetheless, and well put in terms of how odd this Spring has been.

Except that this Spring has not been odd, if my memory serves me right. Not in the context of Spring happening over millennia and even over decades. Spring used to be a lot like the on-again-off-again odd weather we have experienced the past month.

When I was a kid, lo these many decades ago, Spring was a process. It was not a moment in time.

Spring took time to become Spring. It was the spaced-out staging of leaves and buds emerging, green poking up through the soil a bit at a time.

“April showers bring May flowers” went the old adage. Meaning that as a precursor to the warm weather with flowers was a sustained period of rain and cool or cold weather. That was Spring, spanning cold, rain, cold rain, and the gradual emergence of green things and then the crowning sign – flowers!

Showers, heck, I recall a snow blizzard in early April as I was casting a small dry fly on the lower reaches of Big Fishing Creek in Clinton County, near the Lamar trout hatchery. In my early twenties, in fact I might have been just twenty years old, I was stubbornly casting to “rising” trout despite a white-out snow storm blanketing the air and the stream’s surface with big white snowflakes. That a trout could tell the difference between a huge plump snowflake and a measly morsel of a vague-looking aquatic insect landing briefly on the surface was a leap of faith I was fully committed to taking, and making with every cast.

My youth’s crowning moment arrived when a much older man, probably someone my age now, stopped to watch me casting the dry fly amidst the snow storm.

“Pretty ambitious, dontcha think?,” he humorously called out from up above.

And right then a big fish whacked my drifting fly, and I hauled in one of the most colorful symbols of Spring, an iridescent rainbow trout. The guy looked at me slack-jawed, eyes wide in amazement, like I was some kind of fishing genius, and I looked up at the snowing heavens and mouthed a “Thank You.” One of the more memorable fish and fishing moments in a lifetime of fishing.

That day the air temperature was still spring-like, but the obvious above-ground temperatures were cold enough to generate snow. It was a  classic symbol of the kind of gradual and slowly shifting, two steps forward one step back warming change that Spring used to be.

But that was thirty, forty years ago. A different world, a different climate.

Apparently the earth’s switching magnetic polarity is now playing a big role in the Winter-to-Summer “Spring” times we have experienced for a long time now. This switch happens naturally every 200,000 to 300,000 years.

Because the earth’s polarity is switching, which means the North Pole becoming the South Pole and vice-versa (but what we arbitrarily call North and South remain the same) the earth’s magnetic field-cum-shield is at its weakest. Earth’s magnetic shield is at its weakest because the poles are swapping positions and the magnetic field strung up between the two poles is stretched to its thinnest. The earth’s magnetic field-cum-shield is one of the reasons our planet has so much life on it; a great deal of harmful cosmic rays and powerful solar ultraviolet (UV) light are caught in the magnetic “net” and they are blocked from reaching the earth’s surface.

Therefore, a lot more solar radiation has penetrated to the earth’s surface over the past few decades, with the kinds of unusual heat, warming, and strong winds that we have witnessed. As well as a lot more quick sunburns under what appear to be pretty normal sunny conditions. The sun is not necessarily stronger, but a lot more of its energy is reaching us. For now.

And that takes me back to that unplugging Spring. For about 35 years Spring has been kind of unplugged, in a way, and it will remain so for about another decade, until the polar switch is complete. And then these gradual Springtimes, like the one we just had, will become normal again.

I can’t wait for that to happen, because I enjoy a real Spring so very much, the change from one season to the next. Normally temperate climes like Pennsylvania appeal to me for that very reason.

Everything hinges on the nickel-iron core inside the earth. And we won’t be unplugging THAT any time soon.

Maple Syrup 101

Maple syrup is really neat, a big treat, and a royal pain in the butt to make.

It is expensive to buy, running from $45 to $60 a gallon.

Modern machinery and technology have combined to turn most sugarbushes (stands of large maple trees utilized by the big maple producers) into a maze of blue tubing and pumps, efficiently moving sap from tree to tank to evaporator. No hauling sloshing buckets hooked on spiles in these forests!

The thing is, today’s evaporators are increasingly using reverse osmosis. This is fantastic for efficiency and keeping energy costs low in what is always an energy-intensive process.

However, having tasted a lot of the newer maple syrup production, one thing is missing: Intense maple flavor. Oh, it is maple syrup, for sure. But it seems that the thing that makes the process so costly is also the thing that is so necessary, and that is heat.

We have been making our own maple syrup for the past five years, something I did as a kid each winter out at Penn State’s recreation area, Stone Valley. Each year we have experimented with different fuels, different evaporators, different amounts of sap. And we have finally arrived at  a simple set-up that works well for us.

We use a 28×44 stainless evaporator pan, made well by a young guy in Iowa.

Under it we have two large propane burners.

We gather about five to twenty gallons of sap a day, and when we hit 20 gallons, we start boiling. It  takes about six to eight hours to carefully boil that 20 gallons down to a one-gallon “liquor” that we spirit into the house and carefully simmer on the stove top until it reaches its finished stage.

Final quality is determined by taste-testing by all in the house, though Mom usually has the last say.

Old whisky bottles with cork stoppers are used to store the syrup, usually in a fridge or freezer.

The real lesson we have learned is that heat is one of the factors in giving that old fashioned “Grade B Dark” full flavor. And this is why we make our own maple syrup. It is nigh impossible to find the old dark Grade B syrup any longer, and the darkest now produced, that we can find, is a shadow of a maple syrup’s true glory, a result of death-by-technology.

Heat is necessary to make that rich flavor. And a lot of careful hovering to make sure that heat doesn’t burn that sap.

My antidote to the heat

Several years ago my family bought me a Hamilton Beach smoothie maker (model 56222) for Father’s Day, and it long past earned its price. It has a pour spout which makes smoothies a lot cleaner to make, pour, and drink.

Fruit smoothies are a summertime daily staple of our family, and they can be made lots of different ways, with all kinds of natural ingredients (fresh and frozen blueberries, strawberries, citrus fruits, etc), for far less money than you might pay at a Rita’s or other ice cream venue.

Here is my antidote to the heat:

1) One 20-ounce can of Dole pineapple slices in heavy syrup or in natural pineapple juice.

2) One cup of Cabot Greek-style lowfat yogurt, vanilla bean flavor.

3) A quarter cup of water

4) 2-4 tablespoons of granulated sugar (more or less to taste)

5) lots of ice cubes or crushed ice

…….Pour the pineapple into the blender, juice and all.  Spoon in the yogurt.  Pour in the sugar, to taste.  Pour the water over the sugar to help it dissolve.  Fill the blender to the top with ice cubes or crushed ice, and put the top on.  Pulse or use the smoothie function for 30-60 seconds.

The sliced pineapple blends better than the crushed pineapple, oddly, at least in our machine.

Plenty of times we skip the yogurt and just use water and a splash of lemon juice, along with frozen berries.  Other times an old, mushy banana with pineapple, or some coconut milk with pineapple, and suddenly you are into daquiri land… Depends on what you are in the mood for.  They are all refreshing.  The world is your smoothie!

And not to take away anything from Rita’s: When our clan is in the mood for a cold, icy snack, places like Rita’s have far more flavors than we can come up with at home.