It has been a while since I have had a chance to write anything more than an email. The sap has been running off and on for the past several weeks, we continue to tap the existing runs further and further up the side of the mountain, extending them as time allows and then collecting the buckets and pumping out the holding tanks and transferring all of it to the sugarhouse to boil. We’ve also had guests coming and going, visitors from all over the country who have read about what we have been doing and who decided to come on up and see for themselves and lend a hand for a day or two depending on their schedules and for that we are very grateful. Last week two young couples from Portland, Oregon showed up and worked alongside of us for three days and at the end, before they headed down to New York City for a couple of days of sightseeing, we bottled up some of the syrup they’d helped us make so we could ship it home to them to share with their friends back in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve also had the orders coming in from everywhere and as we’ve been able we’ve packed and shipped some of the production to these people and in every case we’ve received lovely handwritten notes and photographs and thoughtful gifts from their corner of the world praising not only the syrup but the stories I have been writing over the past few years about this thing we are doing up here, nestled up against this mountain. It would be next to impossible for me to express what that means to us to be given these personal expressions of support for something that has for so long been a solitary effort, but on those mornings when I sit in the pickup out in front of the Post Office and read these epistles I feel a deep satisfaction that tells me everything I need to know about the direction of the future. There are so many good people, so many genuine and hopeful souls scattered across the world that it makes me nothing less than glad for the opportunity to have been born into this time and to do what it is we have been doing.
For all of those people who have placed orders for syrup, many thanks. We will begin to package them up in the coming weeks as the season draws to a close and for those of you who have already received your shipment our deep thanks for helping us to continue this time honored tradition of sugaring in the foothills of New Hampshire.
The passages below were written a couple of weeks ago and never coalesced into anything more than an incident report of a very close call that could have easily put an end to all of this had it not been for the watchful eyes of my guardian angels and a nano-second of pure reason that overrode my instincts. It shows, however just how close we all stand to the eclipse of eternity but for chance, fortune, fate or destiny as it carries us, day by day to that inevitable moment of closure.
The snow began in the hour before dawn with only the light from the screen illuminating the room. You could sense it coming down rather than see it fall through the big windows. There is a silence to it that muffles the world outside; the tapping of the keys, the dogs sighing from the floor of the mudroom, turning every so often to stretch out their legs, and nothing else. They’ve already been out in the cold gloom and they know that for now they are on reprieve — no predators move in a falling snow and all the livestock is hunkered down waiting on the front to move in.
The temperatures ahead of this storm had been as frigid as any we’ve had all Winter, sub-zero, bone-chilling cold. Working in it, even in layers so thick that it couldn’t possibly penetrate, is tiresome and slow. Every movement is measured against the slow arc of the declining Sun that seems itself frozen as it slides across the grey dome of the sky. We feed the animals and they chew deliberately. There is no excitement, no joy in it, only the purpose of fueling themselves against the Arctic air. As the water fills the tub and they drink, each droplet freezes on their faces, and on the soft hairs of their ears and chins and steam rises from my hands, bare for moments before slipping the gloves back on and standing among the cows. The days have been so densely packed with activity lately that the only thoughts are the arrangement of what task follows, how best to eliminate each need in the order that marks them off one after another so that the next may be dealt with and the one after that. In the time that I have been at this I have discovered a shorthand of sorts, a way to pare each movement to its bone and maximize every calorie spent. Rarely do I move from any given point to another without carrying something along to do at the other end of that last chore, my eyes constantly scouting the area for new tasks to add to old lists and they accrue faster than I can tick them off. What is completed is in the past and only what needs to be done remains ahead of me and every step I take is measured against this invisible agenda. For the better part of the morning I moved with a purpose so that I could get to the part I looked forward to most, tapping the trees on the north side of the farm. Here we have run mainlines and feeder lines, a thousand drops each with two or three taps per tree and only half were in by the first of March.
I am clothed three layers deep, on my head instead of my baseball cap is an old leather aviator’s helmet lined with rabbit fur — my children insist that I never, ever wear this off farm for any reason and I understand their concern, but on days as cold as this it is the only thing that keeps my head completely warm. On top of it is a pair of headphones tuned in to the closest public radio station and because it is Saturday I have it tuned to Radio Lab and they are talking about something in hushed tones that make it impossible to identify if the speaker is a man or a woman and the topic is equally indecipherable, but the sounds of human voices was warming in its own right if not slightly distracting.
The paved apron in front of the garage barn is sloped gently away from the big rolling doors and it is the only place on the farm that is perpetually plowed clean no matter the snowfall. This morning the tractor and several of the caged totes are crowding the far end, waiting to be placed at the end of each mainline to stockpile the sap when it starts to flow. The snowblower is out as well, filled with fuel and ready to go to work and when I pull up in the pickup there isn’t a lot of room to negotiate. I pull in to remove the buckets from the bed of the truck and when I pull in I leave the engine running so I can back out and park it alongside the snow cat in front of the orchard.
It happened like this —
I put the truck in park and opened the driver’s side door with my left hand. As the door swung open I was already half out of the cab, the momentum impossible to stop and as my foot made contact with the ground and all of my weight shifted from the truck to the outside I heard the soft clunk of the transmission finding its way into reverse. My first instinct as the truck lurched back was to try and manhandle it as if it were an errant goat but a three quarter ton truck is not a hundred pound animal. I began to lose my footing as the truck picked up momentum and rolled backward. The open door served in the same capacity as a lineman in football and during this entire time which, in retrospect could not have been more than three of four seconds, it seemed as if a thousand thoughts went through my mind at the exact same instant. At the lower end of the pavement there is a short expanse of lawn enclosed by a split rail fence and then a precipitous drop that serves as one of the best sledding hills on the property — three hundred feet of steep hillside that ends in a gently sloping pasture, itself bounded by a wire fence. If the pickup hit the lip of that hill it wouldn’t come to a stop for a quarter of a mile. If I didn’t regain my balance the front wheels would crush me underneath as the door swept me off of my feet. If I got back into the truck it would only be in time to take the ride down the hill backwards until the inevitable rollover or crash. Something happened in that moment that was far beyond my ability to control consciously and I am still in awe of it as I write this. There was a very clear and profoundly calm voice that I heard as surely as if it had been said aloud that told me in these exact words “You can’t leave your family”. Just like that, an order, a command that took precedence over the initial panic. It said “you”, not “I” and so it was something other than my own subconscious that spoke to me and I listened. Behind this was a secondary warning, less profound but equally compelling, that instructed me not to allow myself to become seriously injured by falling under the wheels of the truck but to take a single and immediate action. And then, as if there were tumblers in a lock falling into place the entire episode came into a white hot focus that was completely devoid of emotion and fear and I knew — I didn’t reason it out, didn’t think of options or differing strategies, I simply acted. With my right hand at the bottom of the steering wheel I pushed up with everything I had so that the wheels would turn left and steer the truck into a ninety degree angle away from the slope and with my left hand still pushing against the open door I let it go and reached into the floor of the cab and depressed the brake pedal with everything I had and the truck lurched to an immediate stop, my face forced into the floorboards. It took a second to reach up and put the truck in gear and then another thirty seconds to extricate myself from the pedals and the half closed driver’s side door and when I did my first instinct was to look around and make sure that no one had seen what had just happened. I turned the key to left and killed the engine and then I jumped up in a way that is not like me, as if I’d been called into the big game or a dance at my own wedding. I literally bounded out of the truck and hopped across the snow covered blacktop, my bloodstream positively flowing with adrenaline and whatever other hormone or chemical is triggered in near death experiences, as if I had just mainlined some powerful drug that gave me the energy of ten men. The first thing that I saw with my suddenly perfect vision was my yellow and black headphones, permanently mute and crushed flat on the driveway twenty feet in front of the truck. I hadn’t even noticed them coming off my head, never missed the dulcet tones of NPR going silent during my episode in carelessness. I heard voices but they were my own. Was I hurt — I surveyed my legs, my arms, turned the various joints just to prove to myself that I hadn’t somehow injured something seriously without actually feeling it through the flood of adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. Everything moved like it was supposed to except the muscle in my chest which beat so rapidly that I could actually hear it inside thumping my temples, that fwoosh, fwoosh, fwoosh sound it makes when it ramps up to full speed. Whatever my purpose had been when I pulled the truck up onto the paved apron was gone to me now and so I capitalized on the flood of energy and went on to other tasks as a the first few flakes of snow began falling. I tended to the hogs in the farrowing shed, watered the chickens again, covered up a stack of lumber with a tarp against the snow, constant motion, replaying the episode in my head over and over and every possible outcome that could have happened if it weren’t for that single synapse of clarity that made the exact decision at the precise moment.
For the next few hours before darkness I continued to do the things that needed to be done against the darkening sky and the dropping thermometer. I fed the sows in the farrowing shed, dealt hay to the cattle, delivered the totes to their positions at the end of each sap run, stacked and washed out empty slop buckets, shoveled off the new snow from the loading dock on the sugarhouse and in front of the cottage, watered the chickens and emptied then coiled the hoses and a dozen other tasks and chores that have become second nature to me. By the time the light was dim enough so that I could no longer see beyond the edge of the barnyard I headed in to the house, glowing orange from every window on its perch at the edge of the blue-cold scene. I had decided that I would not tell my wife what happened until another time, that we would simply go about our date night as we did every week with a positive outlook and gladness. When I came through the door every voice called out a greeting to me and my heart keened with delight in it as I peeled off layer after layer of stiff, cold clothing in the mudroom. The house was warm, the smells of dinner beyond description and the intensity of my perceptions on a level I have only rarely felt in my life. I came into the kitchen in my stocking feet and when my wife turned towards me I clung to her like a drowning man and she held on to me just the same and we stood that way, in the heart of our home for a good while without saying anything at all.