It snowed all day yesterday and when I woke up this morning there was still a steady, downward fall of flakes the size of moths. There was close to a foot or better rising straight up from the surface of whatever remained out when it began. The branches of the white pines down along the wetlands bowed so low under the weight of it it gives the impression that the trees are trying to lay themselves down at the end of a very long Winter. Around here the common lore tells you that it’s best to wait until the middle of May before you plant anything in the ground. One of my neighbor’s delights in telling me the story of the Mother’s day blizzard of 1977 so I have tried very hard to mimic his activities and routines as he goes about the business of farming his place year after year. When he hangs his first sap buckets I go home and start putting mine out, and when I see him prune his apple trees in the neat little orchard that runs alongside of the Old Sutton Road I go back to the pole barn and get out the gray oak Stoke’s ladder and get to work on my own. Thus far I have been able to keep up with a great deal of the seasonal aspects of this calling absent a lifetime of experience. Imitation is indeed the truest form of flattery and whenever I see his wife out hanging clothes from the clothesline, or catch him riding his tractor down the half mile of road that divides his farmstead in two I always make a point to stop and roll down my window for a chat and tell them just how lovely the place looks and catch up on the health of his new calves or the quality of her homespun wool that they sell from the wooden stand in their driveway. If we have ever had a cross word I can’t recall it and they have always been helpful to us since the day we moved here, if somewhat puzzled by our decision to take on what we did with so little by way of experience.
In the Spring of my ninth year I was in the fourth grade, like our youngest son today. I have been thinking back on that a lot lately because he is having the same problems with the same math that I did those many years ago. It may have been the first time in my life that I experienced what adults think of as anxiety and I can still recall the dread I felt when Mrs. Beytas passed out the times table quizzes every Monday morning. She was one of the last of a dying breed of teacher that has long since passed on — she was just as comfortable spanking a student as she was giving out a little praise and because of that I always felt a certain level of righteous fear when I wasn’t up to her standards and expectations. On the flip side of the coin was the way that we all felt when she took the time to do something special for us because we had been good students. I recall vividly the memory of her reading aloud to us in the Spring of that year one of my favorite books of all time, Charlotte’s Web. She’d let us out of our assigned desks and we’d sit on the floor by her feet while she settled herself in front of us with the book spread on her ample lap, her sturdy old ladies shoes rooted, soles down, on the floor in front of us like the roots of a tree. I will forever remember the opening scene of the novel, Fern sitting in the early morning kitchen with her mother asking the question, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” That simple inquiry set my mind off into a world that I had never inhabited before, but that farm and the subsequent unfolding of events chapter after chapter became very real to me for the two or three weeks that it took for her to complete the tale in a room that smelled like sour milk and sneakers. I could see in my mind’s eye her Father striding across the barnyard towards the hoghouse with a purpose, ax held firmly in hand and I understood long before her mother spelled it out for her what his object was and it both frightened and intrigued me at the same time. I only dimly understood the world of adults at that age, their work and their conversations being something that didn’t involve me all that much, but it meant a great deal in the bigger picture of the world. They had responsibilities and they had duties and they seemed to go about them with a kind of grim determination that was somewhere off in the future for me and it was something that like Mrs. Beytas, I both feared and admired. I don’t think I caught the significance of Fern’s surname and the subtle genius it took for E.B.White to conjure it up until I was reading that book to my own children and flirting with the idea of becoming a farmer myself almost forty years later.
Arable. suitable for growing.
In the mornings during Spring, after I have finished up chores there is the task of collecting sap. There are six hundred and fifteen two gallon buckets and a dozen three hundred and twenty five gallon totes at the end of each mainline. Depending on how much runs on any given day it can take as long as four and half hours to gather it all up and get it back to the collection tanks on the hillside behind the sugarhouse. It is one of those jobs that takes time to do well, to transfer the clear sap from the bucket to the collection cube mounted on the forks of the tractor. It requires a preliminary filtering through a sieve into a second tub. First you have to unhook the bucket and walk your way back from wherever the tree is rooted — some at the end of rocky defiles others just over the fence line from the lowest end of the property to the top. As you transfer the sap into the bucket it forms a clear sheet with a glass —like quality and every flaw on the edge of the bucket magnifies the imperceptible imperfections so that it appears to have a diamond patterned liquid silver finish to it as you pour. Each drop is precious so extra care is taken with every pour so that as much of the tree’s lifeblood is conserved from the spile to bottle. As the empty buckets are rehung on their hooks and the drops commence to fall once more into the pails with a resonant tap, tap, tap like a drum the multitude of them as you retrace your way back from the end of the lane sounds like a recital echoing across the brook. Some days the temperatures drop enough overnight that a good potion of the water freezes in the pails and so the sugar concentrates and becomes thick. You reach in and discard the ice blocks and over time the Sun softens their edges rounding them off and they lay about the bottom of each tree, moonstone cabochons in the melting snow.
We have had quite a few guests in the past several weeks, families from as far away as North Carolina and Oregon. A few of them have been tagging along with family, others readers of the blog that simply wanted to see what we were up to at this time of the year and it has been a treat to host them and to have them pitch in with the multitude of tasks we’ve had to accomplish; stacking firewood for the arch, tapping the furthest runs, firing up the evaporator and making syrup for our customers. There have been the emails and the letters, many from the people we shipped to last year and even more who have stumbled across us since then eager to help us out by trying some of our harvest. I have had more conversations with people in the past month than in the previous five combined and it has given us an opportunity to see this place through another’s eyes, the magic of the ice cold sap and the sweet flavor of a life that has been stripped of pretense. When we first arrived here ourselves I think we were trying to impose our old life on something new, to turn it into another business or to simply be the people we were in a new environment, but since then we have been the ones who have been changed by this place, its rhythms and cadences. We have put down our own roots, like the maples, into rocky soil and because of it our lives have produced something equally sweet. Last week we had two litters of piglets and in six weeks all but a few will depart for other farms. There were of course a couple of runts, there always are, and like Mr. Arable I had the unenviable task of doing what was necessary so I found myself walking across the barnyard in the early morning hours as if I had been lifted from the pages of that book some fifty years ago and transported into that character. I can recall vividly what it meant to me back then and measure it against the man I am today. While I do not shrink from the task or the responsibility it weighs on me in a way that I could never have imagined when I was sitting on the floor in front of Mrs. Beytas, listening to her describe Fern’s indignation at the thought of her Father “doing away with it” and I sometimes wish that I could go back to that time, if only for a moment.
In the hour it has taken me to write this the Sun has come up in a gray sky and the snow has continued to fall without missing a beat, a good three inches more. The bottom rails of the fence are buried and the cows are knotted up on their feet by the feeder waiting on me to shovel my way out to them for a visit. The robins that I watched a few days ago are nowhere to be seen and all the bright tendrils of green grass that were poking through the crusted snow from last week are buried again until this one melts off for good. Then, of course, we’ll move on to the next thing and then the thing after that, the endless and cycling progression of the seasons and the changes that they bring with them. In a way, by going back in time, we have somehow guaranteed ourselves a place in the future. Maybe that was some of what I sensed in hearing Charlotte’s Web the first time and have pulled from it every time I have read it to our children as they listened as raptly as I had. Arable. Suitable for growing. We are small and then we are grown, we take our responsibilities as they come and we shoulder them, one bucketful at a time knowing that in the end there is a dulcet and mellifluous reward in having made the journey at all.
How sweet is that?