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A Scotsman in New Jersey back in 1780 named William Laird established America’s first distillery. He made an aged apple brandy that was called Applejack. It is still sold (as Laird’s Applejack), and as a born and bred New Jerseyan, I feel it an obligation to always have a bottle on hand.

I grew up in a home where there wasn’t a lot of booze. We had some beer in the summer (the Pabst, Schaefer, Rheingold, Piels and Budweiser of the NJ of that time), the odd whiskey sours for an “occasion,” but there was always brandy and schnapps. Brandy is distilled from many fruits. The fancier stuff  – French Cognac, Armagnac, Peruvian Pisco – comes from grapes, but my parents liked blackberry or peach brandy.  Laird’s sells an apple brandy (100 proof), while the Applejack is 35% apple brandy and 65% neutral spirits.

Schnapps also refers to fruit brandies, herbal liqueurs, infusions, and “flavored liqueurs.”  They are made by adding fruit syrups, spices, or flavorings to neutral grain spirits. We always had some peppermint schnapps on hand for “medicinal” purposes. That was a tradition my mother’s Austrian family brought with them. I still  keep a bottle in the house, just in case. “Schnapps” comes from the German word “schnappen“, which refers to the fact that the spirit or liquor drink is usually consumed in a quick slug from a small shot glass.

I heard about Laird’s Applejack in an undergraduate history class at Rutgers and bought my first bottle soon after.

When the Lairds established America’s first commercial distillery in the tiny community of Scobeyville, NJ, they obtained License #1 for a distillery in the state. Back then, Applejack was also imbibed in an unaged form dubbed Jersey Lightning. Laird released an official unaged Jersey Lightning in 2014.

The family tradition is even older. In 1698 Alexander Laird, a County Fife Scotsman, emigrated from Scotland to America with his sons Thomas and William. William settled in Monmouth County, New Jersey. William probably was making scotch back in the old country, but here he turned his skills to using the abundant apples of the New World.

Robert Laird was a Revolutionary War soldier serving under George Washington, and the Laird family supplied the troops with Applejack. Historical records show that, prior to 1760, George Washington wrote to the Laird family requesting their recipe for producing Applejack. The family gave it to him and entries appear in Washington’s diary regarding his production of “cyder spirits.”


I didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln had a “saloon” in New Salem, Illinois. His menu of 1833 shows Apple Brandy sold at 12 cents a half-pint. A half-pint would get you pretty mellow, so a night’s lodging would cost another 12-1/2 cents, and a meal was a hefty 25 cents.

An article in New Jersey Monthly gave some modern apple brandy drinks (Born to Run, Lincoln Park Swizzle, Ol ’55), but I say they have too many fancy ingredients (Aquavit, Framboise, Falernum, Peychauds) to seem like a real Jersey drink that honors the spirit’s traditions.

I have been known to move a Manhattan across the river by using some Applejack, and my wife likes a Jumping Jack (1.5 oz. Laird’s AppleJack, 1 oz. chilled espresso and .5 oz. cinnamon syrup). But most of the time the Applejack or brandy is either straight up or on the rocks just as it comes from the bottle, or, in winter, used in the hot toddies my Aunt Millie taught me to make. After all, traditions are traditions. And, yes, since I had to take a photo of the bottle, I did have some Applejack while I was typing this.


Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog predicted another 6 weeks of winter, but on that day I saw a lone dandelion already blooming at the neighborhood park.  Maybe it was being bold, or being stupid, to bloom so early. It was covered by snow the following week. But according to estimates by the National Phenology Network, spring has already arrived in much of the Southwest and Southeast. It was about 20 days early for the Southeast. They track Extended Spring Indices which are models that scientists have developed to predict the “start of spring” at a particular location.

This weekend in Paradelle, we are enjoying temperatures in the 50s and 60s after a windy week in the 20s and 30s. Such is this time of late winter and early spring.

I have written a few times about phenology which is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

They use historical observations of the timing of first leaf and first bloom of certain plants (for example, cloned lilacs and honeysuckles) and daily observations from weather stations.

Many deciduous plants in temperate systems put on their leaves as temperatures warm in late winter and early spring. Using the Extended Spring Index models, scientists can look at how much the start of spring has varied from one year to the next at a particular location, and whether recent years are dramatically different from the past or not. The models can also be used to forecast when selected plants might bloom or put on leaves in future years.

I have been keeping my own bloom records for my home turf for about 20 years. Though my property is certainly its own “micro-climate” with variations due to shade, soil etc., I have seen earlier springs over the years for certain plants that are my own little “control” group.

The USA National Phenology Network developed Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations of phenology by researchers, students and volunteers like me.

I think their mission should be everyone’s mission, even if you don’t get as official as doing phenology: Gain a better understanding through considered observation of the plant and animals that surround you and how they relate to your environment and broader environmental change.

Spring is officially still a month away for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t already observing signs of it in your little corner of the world.



“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” ― Albert Einstein

Knowledge versus imagination. Einstein spent the latter part of his life pursuing a “single, all encompassing theory of the universe.”  He wanted to able to describe all of nature’s forces – to explain it all. He didn’t find it.

James Taylor sings in “Secret of Life

Now the thing about time
Is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view,
How does it feel for you?
Einstein said he
Could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space,
The smile upon your face,
Welcome to the human race.

That Einstein quote at the top of this article continues “…for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Imagination is often the pathway to increasing knowledge.

It is interesting that astronomy experiments now might test an idea of Einstein’s that he proposed almost exactly a century ago. It has been a longstanding question of why the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. Calculations in a new study could help to explain whether dark energy, as required by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, or a revised theory of gravity are responsible.

Einstein wasn’t a big fan of a lot of the physics that came at the end of his life, and would probably not be a fan of string theory.

Brian Greene is a professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University who is probably best-known to the public for his NOVA television specials. He is one of the best “explainers” of this deep science. He explains string theory and I can understand it – until he stops explaining it and I have to tell someone else what he meant. The idea of minuscule filaments of energy vibrating in eleven dimensions that make up the “fabric of space.. and create every particle and force in the universe” is not easy to understand or accept.

String theory fills in the gaps of Newtonian physics, especially regarding how gravity works, and Einstein’s Unification Theory depends on the existence of extra dimensions, which contain these filaments and some string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions. For all of us used to living in four dimensions, that is tough to imagine.

James Gates is known for work on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. When he was asked about Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said“For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.”


Brain Greene on string theory

The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.” *

Today is the exact halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Yes, it is Groundhog Day and I have written about that here before. But how many different ways can you explain the origin of our tradition of expecting an animal to predict the coming weather? I can always explain to people my love of the film Groundhog Day, but I’ve done that here too.

Today I’ll just write about the winter midpoint, also known as a cross-quarter day. No matter what that groundhog (or a badger, as the original German tradition had it) or any animal does when he pokes his head out from hibernation today, be optimistic. We are halfway through winter.

The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans. It can be considered to have either four or eight festivals. Some celebrate the four solstices and equinoxes, which are known as the “quarter days.” Some also celebrate the four midpoints between, such as today, which are known as the “cross quarter days.”

Festivals celebrating the cycle of the seasons was far more important to people in the past. You might also hear Wiccans refer to these festivals as sabbats, a term from the Middle Ages. It was probably taken partially from the Jewish Shabbat.

Today is Imbolc on the wheel, the first cross-quarter day. It is supposed to be a time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life.

ewe and lambs
In Ancient Rome, this was a shepherd’s holiday.

Among Celts, this day was associated with the onset of ewes’ lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs. Celtic pagans dedicated this day to the goddess Brigid.

The Winter Solstice was the shortest day of the year with the fewest sunlit hours. But after that, the Sun started its return journey back toward us in the Northern Hemisphere. You didn’t notice that move back in December, but after today you can actually see and feel this gradual reappearance of the light.


Candlemas Bells, also known as Snowdrops

Maybe you will pick up a hint of the coming of spring. Look for the first tiny buds. Some snowdrops will push their fragile blooms above the frosty soil or even through the snow.

Yes, hibernating animals are stirring in their dens and underground nests. They may even go out at night and grab a meal and then return to their winter tunnel.

If Groundhog Day seems silly, think of this as the Celtic Imbolc, or as the Chinese Li Chu’un, or the Christian Candlemas. The Latin quote at the top of this piece is a little rhyme translated as “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”  In other words, good weather today is a bad omen. Bad weather is a good sign.

So, don’t be concerned with midwinter divinatory practices. Spring is six weeks away. Some of those days to come will be wintery; some will be springlike.  It’s okay to hibernate for another six weeks and feel like the universe has decided that’s the way it should be.

* That quote at the top of this post is probably open to interpretation as far as the weather ahead.
“If the sun shines with Mary the mother of purifying,
after the feast of ice will be greater than it was before.”

Two stories I heard this past week were connected in that they both concern rethinking profits.

The first story was a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about the Oregon Public House which calls itself America’s first nonprofit pub.

ophFounder Ryan Saari says that “I was having a beer, I was drinking, sitting in the backyard with my buddy and I thought, ‘What about a pub?’ ‘Cause there’s nothing more Portland than nonprofits and breweries.”

Portland has more than 60 breweries and is America’s craft brewing capital. It also has nearly 7,000 non profits. At the pub, a new batch of charities goes on the menu every six months. Buy a beer, add some food and pick your charity. The pub covers its costs and has donated more than $100,000 to dozens of causes the past 3 years. It might be a school, an urban farms, or groups that work with homeless teens or cancer survivors.

On their website, the pub explains its of “a family-friendly pub environment where our neighbors from the surrounding area can come to enjoy community around good food and craft beer while supporting great causes. To integrate this vision of pub with benevolent outreach, we have established relationships with a number of non-profit organizations to which our pub donates all profits after operating expenses and contingency savings.”

The pub is a business model that is the first of its kind. Besides the donations,  the community learns more about these non-profit organizations and can become involved in them too. Volunteers from the selected non-profits donate time as wait staff and can talk with customers about who they are and what they do.

You probably have heard that saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” but not many of us take it to action.

The other story I heard was a podcast interview with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Patagonia, which sells high quality and high-priced clothing and gear, is not a non-profit, but its founder has different ideas about profit.

Yvon Chouinard started Patagonia in 1973 almost accidentally. He started making his own climbing gear and selling it to fellow climbers. He just wanted to make gear he couldn’t find elsewhere.

From the start, he was concerned with making the best possible products. He says he found a design principle in the writing of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French author and aviator. In Wind, Sand and Stars,  Exupéry wrote “Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent working over draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?”

Chouinard has written a number of books about his business philosophy . Patagonia, named by Fortune in 2007 as the coolest company on the planet, is known not only for quality products, but also for its environmental, business and social practices.

He also helped found 1% for the Planet, a global network of businesses, nonprofits and individuals working together for a healthy planet and more than $150 million dollars has been given back to the environment.

But another philosophy of Chouinard’s might be best summed up in the full-page ad he once took out in The New York Times that said: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” He says he has always had some guilt about making things that are “consumed.”

About his clothing, “I have a sense that it’s my responsibility to help people wear them as long as possible,” said Chouinard. “You hear ‘reuse, recycle,’ stuff like that. You also have to consider refuse. Refuse to buy something. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.”

It hurts his profits, but the Patagonia model is to get people to hang on to their clothing, repair it and when it is worn beyond repair, recycle the fabric for other uses. Patagonia even launched the Worn Wear Wagon, which is a mobile garment repair shop traveling the country and mending clothing from the brand, which already provides a lifetime guarantee.

Chouinard himself says he wears his own Patagonia clothing for years. This philosophy is also environmentally sound. They use organic cotton which costs more than non-organic cotton, but is environmentally sound. Patagonia plans to sell used gear in stores, along with new gear.

Ryan Saari, Director of the Oregon Public House, talks about his non-profit model.

Listen to Chouinard talk about all this on the How I Built This podcast.


The Lunar New Year is here. A time to gather with family and friends and celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Rooster.

The “Chinese New Year” has become a more global holiday and interest in the Lunar Calendar also seems to be growing. Google has been sharing some Lunar New Year traditions as videos and games from around the world.

This is a year of the Rooster (simplified Chinese: 鸡; traditional Chinese: 雞/鷄) which is one of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese and other zodiacal systems which are related to the Chinese calendar.

The rooster is the only bird included in the Chinese zodiac, but the Chinese term is more generic, and can apply to barnyard fowl of either sex. In the Tibetan zodiac and the Nepalese Gurung zodiac, the more generic “bird” is in place instead of the Rooster, but the image of the colorful rooster is often used to represent it.

Cleaning house to prepare for family visits is often a part of New Year’s prep, but this cleaning is also a way to cast away bad luck.

In Chinese astrology, each zodiac year is associated with an animal sign and also one of five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, or Earth. 2017 is a Fire Rooster year. Element-sign combinations recur every 60 years. It was last a Fire Rooster year in the Western calendar’s 1957.

I learned that according to Chinese astrology, the year of one’s birth sign is the most unlucky year in the 12-year cycle.

For many Americans, today might only be celebrated with some Chinese food. There are lucky dishes associated with the New Year. If the holiday motivates you to get together with family and friends, that is a plus, even if you don’t do a dragon dance, or cast a “Lo Hei” blessing by virtually shredding food.

I’m planning to go out with a childhood friend that I haven’t seen in a few years. My wife is going to do some stir fry for dinner with some longevity noodles (长寿面 Chángshòu Miàn). Their length and unsevered preparation are symbolic of the eater’s life. They are longer than normal noodles and uncut, either fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a bowl with their broth.

I wouldn’t mind launching a sky lantern tonight. We made those as kids without knowing it had anything to do with Lunar New Year.  You can also do that virtually on that Google site, which is probably safer but not as much fun.

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