To appreciate the back side of the arch
You have to first draw syrup from the other side
Where the filter press grinds away
Where doors open and close
Where there’s often a draft.
You have to then switch the flow and move your pail around to the back
Where a high bench runs along the wall
Where the way is narrow
Where the steam hides you from the bustle.
You have to keep at it into the wee hours
Allowing the bench to hold you up
Allowing someone else to stoke
Allowing the warmth of the arch to keep you cozy.
When your husband comes to spell you
You have to slide down the bench to sit by the back pan
Aware of the sap roaring
Aware of the jerks and clanks of the arch door
Aware of the pleasing harmonies of The Mamas and The Papas.
You may have to lie down.
You have to be silent even as others chatter
Allowing your weight to settle into the bench
Allowing your breath to breathe itself
Allowing your fatigue to render you immortal.
Death Of Back In The Day
Imagine if, for the next three winter days, northern Vermont was a Land of the Midnight Sun, then for the next three days the sun never rose. Or that it was dark at noon on Monday and Tuesday, but dark at 9 pm on Wednesday and Thursday, dark at 3 pm Friday, 7 pm Saturday, and midnight on Sunday. We would be reminiscing about our childhoods, recalling the winters when at Christmas we could count on it getting dark by 4 pm, how blue the sky was in February, how the sun always woke us up on March mornings.
This winter I hear, “Didn’t we used to wax our skis with green and blue [cold powder snow waxes] December through February? –”Am I remembering my childhood correctly, that winter came at Thanksgiving and stayed through until Town Meeting Day?” –”Boy, I miss the pond skating I did as a kid.”
This has been the Winter of the Yo-Yo. In January, the temps soared into the fifties at least three times, then plummeted to below zero. The wind whipped, the rain pelted. The snow accrued, though not much of it, the snow washed away in the rain, the snow slowly accrued again. Blessedly, a more reasonable February has calmed our nerves some.
So, when to tap? Rumor has it a guy up in Eden made 32 barrels of syrup during that first thaw in January….
Sugarmakers in Vermont feel a bit tender about the weather this winter, what with memories of the heat wave in March last year that choked off the sap runs. In response, we decided to start tapping earlier than ever, on February 6th, but when the day came it was too cold – typical of this winter – so the crew waited until February 11th. This date is two days earlier than last year, five days earlier than 2010, and roughly two weeks earlier than “back in the day.” On February 6th Lew said, “Let’s think of this as February 20th.” What is two weeks? It sounds insignificant, but it feels akin to moving Christmas Day up to December 11th.
I keep imagining the weather will snap its fingers and right itself, the way my body snapped its fingers the other day and I felt like my old self again – even better than my old self – after a head cold. This winter I feel a shift in my outlook, and a need for new verbs, new images to ride into “The New Weather.”
All farmers are at the mercy of the weather. Now it’s sugar season and it’s our turn. We have no idea what the season will bring, and it is good to remember that, rather than to float around in the past. Certainly it will not be identical to last season; no two years ever are.
To quote from my first blog preface:
Sugar season is an exercise in giving up control, starting with the weather.
Above all, sugaring is a privilege.
Early May Morning in the Sugarhouse
Slosh of water in the plastic pail,
Backs bent, arms like pistons, scrubbing.
Glugg of grimy water down the drain,
Black as molasses with wood ash and burnt sugar.
Grunts of smudgy-cheeked ladies shuffling
Across cement with cumbersome syrup pan,
Fleecy blue socks poking out of black Tevas.
Pete Seeger belting from boom box, If I Had a Hammer.
On the bank beyond, jaunty daffodils,
The twitter of sparrows in the apple tree,
Maples in blossom, pale blossoms dangling
Like earrings, shimmering in the mist.
The greening of grass, yes, and the warm thin rain,
And Arlo Guthrie, yes, booming out Amazing Grace.
May 5, 2006
Skiing uphill, the
Snow caresses cheeks, nose, eyes.
Skiing downhill the
Snow stings, feels sharp, is against.
Pointillism on the move.
Woods mute with new snow -
The auk of a raven – the
brook – otherwise still, like
the purposeful pause between
An inhale and an exhale.
Hand grips cordless drill
Hand pulls stubby off its nub
Hand retrieves new spout
Hand, with hammer, taps in spout,
Taps in stubby, takes up drill.
First stoke of the fire
First broken hydrometer
First whiff of maple
First cleaning up to Graceland
First visit of the neighbors
Stream cuts across trail,
Pitched higher than the north wind
Pressing through the notch.
One pauses, the other can’t,
Together they silence me.
Sugarhouse Chimes, in More or Less Descending Order of Pitch
Hydrometer on hydrometer cup: Ting!
Hydrometer cup on side of syrup pan: Tweng!
Wooden defoamer stick on side of syrup pan: Taakk!
Handle of syrup pail on rim of syrup pail: Dwiink!
Long metal spoon on syrup pail: Kwaank!
Long metal spoon on draw-off box: Kwonk!
Firebox door opening: Krrrreeeeeekkkkkk!
Big scoop on rim of syrup trough: Kwung!
Big scoop on bottom of syrup trough: Kwuuunk!
Wooden paddle on side of filter tub: Pwaaaaatt!
Bung wrench on drum cap: Kkkkkjjjjjjjjjjjkkkk!
Drum on concrete floor: Hhhhhhuuuuuuunnnnnnggggggg!
The sun shall rise earlier each day,
And warm the as yet uncanopied forest floor,
And trout lilies shall send forth their mottled leaves,
And the spring beauties their twirly-girl blossoms.
Likewise the freshets shall gurgle out
Of Beatrix Potter illustrations and chase
Down the hillside for a little while
Until all the snow is gone.
There shall be no stopping the ephemerals.
What is it to be ready?
Is the wood violet beneath this maple ready to bloom?
Will it ever be ready to fade?
To drink from the torrent of spring in Vermont
One shall polish a tiny silver cup,
Stand by the waterfall
And balance the cup at the very edge
To catch a few drops.
Heather first pointed out the truckers, a fraternity of maple trees looming above a land bench in my family’s sugarbush we call the Podium. Heather and I had worked our way over the ridge, assessing each tree for health and cutting in taps where appropriate in the new maple tubing. From the Podium you look out into an amphitheater of grand old maples and ash, about four or five shouting distances up the mountain from the sugarhouse. The truckers’ feet gave them away. From the bulky base of these trees, thick root cords extend, droop and disappear into the mountain. These truckers aren’t going anywhere; they are anchored here as a testament to good soils and gravity.
But truckers do go anywhere – anywhere there are roads, and in particular, super highways. And gravity rules; gotta shift into first on the uphills, but let her rip down the backsides. Gravity keeps the feet planted on those pedals. Foot on the pedal, a trucker commands respect. After all, when I in my Subaru see and feel the nose of a semi bearing down on me on I-89, I think, this guy could cream me. Of course, it’s the truck that could cream me, not the trucker. He’s just trying to stay on schedule. Needs to make Montreal by noon and might be tied up at the border. But I never see the trucker. Dwarfed by his rig and cocooned in his lofty cab, he’s as invisible as the trees are silent.
In the ebbing light of this September afternoon, the truckers appear nearly black at eye level where I measure each circumference with a carpenter’s tape - 28 inches merits one tap, 42 inches, two – and feel the furrows in the bark, admire the muscular heft of the base. The crowns are still in the sun. It the truckers touch – and they must – it happens up there where they face the open sky, bending with the weather.
I notice a trucker with only one tap where I had intended two. Heather trucks on down to add the second. “His ego would be hurt,” she says. Yup, I think, he’d want to carry his full weight.