About a year after we moved here my oldest son and I built a tree house in one of the big maples in the front yard. It was a giant, healthy tree that has stood in that spot for a good 200 years or more and it was shaped almost perfectly for the platform; four massive leaders spreading out like a human hand held palm up, fingers bent at ninety degree a angle. It was the first maple I’d ever tapped, On a warm, late Winter day in 2009 I’d drilled a single hole in the rough gray bark, tapped in one of the antique spiles that came with the farm, and I hung an old galvanized bucket from a hook and watched as the first drops of sap fell. That night I boiled the very first few ounces of pure maple syrup on the kitchen stove and I can still remember the flavor when I tasted it, dulcet, incomparable. The kids used the tree house off and on for childish purposes, in a kind of developmental progression, from our eldest son, to our daughter, to our youngest son, and all of their friends that came along with them. It gave you a very nice view of the barnyard, the big paddock and the out buildings, the sugar house and the hog pens. When it was full Summer and the tree was loaded with green leaves in was like a breezy, living cave up in it, always cooler by ten degrees than it was anywhere else. It wasn’t fancy but it was a nice spot in a lovely tree and it offered the kids a place to go and be alone if they wanted and whenever kids who visited the farm they were drawn to it like a magnet. Once I’d finished building it I never gave it much thought, but whenever I heard the sound of children’s laughter through the foliage I was reminded of what a great investment of time I’d made in building it.
When the barn burned down in seven years ago the heat produced by the fire killed every tree that stood within fifty feet of the conflagration. Most of them we cut down and split for firewood and a couple of the much bigger ones we gave a chance to recover. The tree house maple took a hit, at least a third of it dying out the first year. I trimmed it severely, removing the dead wood so nothing would fall on its own, and for the first couple of years it seemed to make a comeback, fresh shoots emerging from where I’d cut it back. It was terribly lopsided but other than that it appeared to regain some of its vitality. Three years ago the sap barley trickled out and what little we collected in the bucket was discolored and we’d throw it out on the snow. Last year the first mushrooms began to grow on the big leaders and only half the tree leafed out by the end of May, and most of what emerged green slowly turned over the warm months until it was completely bare by early fall.
So I decided that sometime after Thanksgiving when I had a nice, windless day I would take her down, block up the limbs for firewood and see if I couldn’t saw a few big planks of spalted maple for future use in something special, to keep some memories of that massive tree for a long time to come. On the Saturday before Christmas I filed the chains and topped off the saw with fuel and a neighbor stopped by to hang out while I took the tree down. I took most of the smaller branches down with the pole saw and then dropped as many of the main limbs as I could from the ground. I had the four main leaders to drop and since I no longer work off of ladders I put a set of staging on the forks of the tractor and worked from that platform. My friend had only to lift the loader arms and keep an eye on me while I worked and in no time I had most of the big limbs on the ground and in order to finish the last big trunk I stepped onto the weathered boards of the old tree house and cut from there. The deck of the tree house gave way instantly and tilted earthward so quickly and without resistance that I had almost no time to react, but something else kicked in and handled the important decisions without me. I threw the saw out and away from me and my arms raised up to protect my head and face, my body flexing itself into a modified PLF —a parachute landing fall, something I hadn’t practiced in thirty years, but it came back in an instant. I hit the ground with the full force of being dropped ten feet and it only took a few seconds to realize what I had done.
A couple of weeks back I wrote about the fact that we’d been at this for ten years. The amount we’ve learned, the things we’ve accomplished and the myriad benefits of that life changing decision has brought us so much satisfaction and happiness that it would be impossible to consider having done anything else. Along with those freedoms and experiences come the risks, we understand them. In many ways we have been very fortunate and most of our lessons have been painless, but the decision I made to stand out on the tree house platform on Saturday morning was the kind of mistake you hope you never make.
Tomorrow morning I go in for the first surgery on my badly broken body. I will spare you the sad story of having my son drive me to the ER with my foot twisted into a knot at the end of my leg. The entire drive passed by in a howling blur, the effects of shock keeping the pain off at the periphery, and during that entire time my mind tried to work out a solution to the obvious dilemma I now faced. That I would be unable to get back up on my own two feet for months was obvious. That my contribution to our farm would be something close to zero in the coming months, or that my wife and children would now be saddled with not only their own responsibilities but have to split up mine weighed as heavily on my mind as my own injury. I looked down the line at the upcoming obligations and seasonal cycles and saw immediately that the most important aspect of our entire lifestyle as agrarians would not happen this year and so I come around to the point of this piece.
There will be no maple syrup this year. I don’t know if it’s ironic, poetic or some perverted form of natural law that the maple tree that gave me my first taste of sweetness was at the root of why I would lose the season. Stephen King could hardly have come up with a better tale, but there it is. It had given so much to us and now it took its payment in kind. And so the story began to take shape; these past ten years, the revolution of our life, the choices we make and the decisions that are made for us. The beauty and the pain, the immeasurable gifts and blessings, the incalculable price we pay for the path we walk. Even before they got me into X-ray, before they shot me up with whatever it was they put in the IV that washed away the agony of the grinding of bone on bone, even before I’d listened to what the doctor had to say, I saw how this played out. Two weeks ago I was promising my children the book they have asked me for again and again and that I have put off doing again and again and now the only missing thing — free-time — suddenly became available, for the first time in recent memory.
So there’s the good news and there’s the bad news and averaged out, it’s perfect. Well, almost. I will probably walk with a limp but in the next 90-120 days, come hell or high water I will also complete my first book. I will also have a lot of time to come up with an innovative way to keep this farm afloat without my day to day input beyond the bed and I will gladly take any suggestions you might have for a guy who is an eye patch and a parrot away from being a certifiable pirate. I am very grateful to my family for jumping right in and handling everything without missing a stride and in good spirits and I know that I can never thank them enough for their grit and determination.
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”