An Abundance of Shoots

We have finally completed bottling the syrup we made this year and the first shipments have already gone out. For the rest of this week we will be assembling the boxes and filling the order and making the run into town to visit the Post Office so that the things we have been working on in our small corner of New Hampshire will be enjoyed by people thousands of miles away. In the past few years we worked on the honor system where you emailed or phoned in your order and we put the names on a list and sent out the syrup with a note tucked inside and waited for the return mail to come… It was like a second Christmas for us, the checks and FRN’s tucked into envelopes with addresses from all fifty states and the kind notes thanking us for the syrup and even for the writing. On occasion there would be extras tucked in with the payment; homemade preserves from Indiana, honey from Florida, Coffee from Texas, pine nuts from New Mexico, dried herbs from a garden in California, a beautiful German steel knife from the Pacific Northwest, the complete poems of Emily Dickinson from South Carolina, handmade note paper from Minnesota, arrowheads from the Ohio River valley. As I opened each one in the evening with the kids we’d read the notes and letters out loud and then save them in bundles to read again and really enjoy the exchange between people who have never met, the sincere appreciation that has gone out of most economic transactions in the modern world. I was at first embarrassed by the wood shavings I used to fill the boxes with as packing to protect the bottled syrup because we couldn’t afford the packing peanuts but then I read the comments from people who loved the fact that when they opened the box the scent of pine would rise from the package. One customer sent me pictures of his fire starters he had made from the excelsior mixed with wax and poured into egg cartons. We trusted in the people we sent our syrup to because we understand that most people are good and if they were reading the blog we had to at least assume that they knew what we put into our work and wouldn’t take advantage of that fact. We knew that there might be a few who might forget to send the payment back — our invoices being half sheets of lined paper with handwritten instructions (apologies for my scrawl for those forced to decipher it) but this happened very few times over the years and in fact enough people sent something extra as a thanks for the stories that it more than made up for the difference. I understand that this practice isn’t one that can be copied by a real business, but what we do was never meant to be an industry, but a labor of love. This year a lot of people practiced a reverse honor system mailing out checks in advance and their carefully written orders. That put an unexpected windfall into our hands early in the season that allowed us to purchase all of our bottling supplies and some new lines for the sugar bush and it gave us a strangely powerful reason to go the extra mile with the season. Most years there is no expectation of what the harvest may bring. An early Spring can catch you off guard and the season can come to end before the tapping has been completed. This happened before and we did everything we could to get an early jump on the season. This year the sap ran for much longer than it has in the past with cold nights lingering until the end of April and frequent snows that almost buried the taps and lines during the month of March. We would collect the sap every day it ran and boil until we couldn’t stand up straight, often coming inside well after dark smelling of maple sugar and wood smoke.

It was a very long Winter and late Spring besides and it brought a great deal to our table that we did our best to fit into our lives. My Uncle passed away in the middle of the sugaring and my youngest son and I left the farm under the care of my wife and our oldest son so that we could return to New Jersey for the funeral. It was a trip I didn’t want to take for a lot of reasons, but as with all difficult things in life it was filled with unexpected rewards that helped to remind me of what is important in life. I was pall bearer for my Uncle’s funeral and I understood the importance of that charge as we lifted him to his grave. It was a brisk but sunny day and there were small armies of white clouds that rolled across the landscape and vanished into the distance like our lives. He was a veteran and so a detail was on hand to fold the flag that draped his coffin and at the end a bugler played taps as perfectly as I have ever heard it. In the same instant that the last note fell away in the breeze a train entered the far end of the valley and blew its own horn, twice as it always has in my memory and the sound echoed along the flank of Sourland Mountain as if to say farewell. We buried him on the same hillside where my Mother was laid to rest and the generations of my family going back to the years before there was even a nation called the USA and after the ceremony was over I made sure to take my son around to the headstones of the ones he could recall and to the cenotaphs of the ones who never came back, from places like Kasserine Pass and Mayre’s Heights. We ate and we drank together as a family and we talked and reaffirmed our connections to one another and I walked through my hometown, haunted it seemed with memories of the past and recognizable under the veneer of development and the ubiquitous lawn signs that proclaimed “Hate Has No Home Here” in English, Spanish and Arabic. I joked that neither did anyone with an income of less than 300K, but that was sardonic and pointless and more a sign of my regret for having left than anything else. My family, in their multitude of earthly dwellings spread across the cemetery on the hillside were not there, but alive in our memories so I neither left them behind when we moved to New Hampshire, nor stopped thinking about them. As we made our long drive north and returned home I felt buoyed by the connection to the living as well as to the succor of the passed.

In September I made a prediction that this was going to be a long Winter and I was right about that. I have paid close attention to the signs that nature leaves for us in these past few years and I understood that the profusion of polynoses was an indicator of what was to come. I forgot, however, that it meant something was coming after that and in the past few days there has been an abundance of shoots coming up through the carpet of loam that lays beneath the trees. Tens, hundreds of thousands of maple seedlings emerging from every declivity and furrow, numbers that boggle the mind when you think of how few will actually make it to the stately trees that list towards the sun on the side of the mountain where we live. When I point them out to some of the other farmers around here they stop in their tracks and look down, eyes wide and pronounce, “I have never…”

I understand now that the trees — as amazing as it may sound — know what is coming and make preparations for the future in a way that even human beings miss. I have tried to learn from the things we do here to better prepare for whatever is coming and most of the best lessons come from the simple observations of day to day life. We came through this season with a great deal to be grateful for. Last month my wife and daughter escaped harm when their car was totaled by a logging truck and even the local police and rescue workers stood in awe of the luck, the almost miracle that they were able to walk away without so much as a scratch and I stood next to them on the side of the road holding them both as tightly as I could manage, our eyes squeezed shut against the morning Sun and something else, aware of the value of each moment we share and glad to be able to live another day. We pulled porcupine quills from the muzzle of the youngest dog, delivered calves and farrowed three litters of piglets. We’ve turned the gardens, made the syrup, cured the meats, tore down and rebuilt the chicken coop, pulled all the manure beds into heaping windrows along the top of the eskar and taken to our beds to sleep peacefully. In our own way we are dropping our own seeds here and there for another future that we may not even realize is coming our way.

It has been a while since I have written anything of substance because I was learning so much this past several months about things I’d never considered before, but I feel that there are stories that may come out of it. This isn’t the kind of thing I have written before but I wanted everyone to know that the shipments are going out at last — thank-you for your patience — that the payoff is emerging from the investment and that like everything else in the world there is return to something green, and sweet, and full of light. And more importantly to thank everyone who has given us encouragement, offered their prayers, written a kind word and paid for their syrup in advance that we appreciate it more than you will ever know.

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