Look at me, sugarin'.
After more than a quarter century and half my life in Vermont, I am, at last participating in this annual rite of spring. The best part -- no, it's not the syrup, the best part -- no it's not the easy camaraderie of the steamy sugar house, the best part is that people will now have to ask me how the sugaring season is going, rather than the other way around. Now I will be able to stroke my chin thoughtfully before answering in my highly practiced, laconic, Vermontah way:
"Ya never know."
This is a one-size fits all answer to life's eternal questions. Why does the sap sometimes flow at night, other times not? Why does it flow sometimes in the rain, sometimes not? What does the moisture in the ground have to do with the color of the syrup? Why do some seasons last a week and others a month?
"Ya never know," "ya never know," and "ya never know."
If you say it just right, people think you are the wisest man in the world.
As I set out for the first day of sugarin' season, like with so many other Vermonters, my mind is on China. The sun is bright, and the wind is gusting. I put on my Sorels, bought on sale at Lenny's, Vermont's Mecca of warmth. I remember my first pair of Sorels when I first came to Vermont, bought at the Snowsville General Store. "Made with Pride in Canada" they said. If there is anything that Canadians should be better at than anyone else in the world, it should be keeping feet warm and dry in the winter.
And these were pretty dang good boots, too, unless you let mice build homes in them over the summer, which I did. But the good thing about the Sorels of yore was the changeable lining. The bad thing is that it became impossible to find replacements. Instead I went with those injection molded foam moon boots that were absolutely terrific for the first half of the first season, but then they would rip. By the end of the year they were more duct tape than boot. For the last five years I've just worn old sneakers in the snow, like a teenager.
I forgot about Sorels until I saw them in Lenny's. These new Sorels are made in China. At $49 they cost less than my originals, and I think they are better -- lighter, warmer, with better adjustments. So I'm better off, the Chinese people are better off. I do worry, however, about the Canadians who lost their boot-making jobs. Have they found new positions as software engineers and video game designers, or are they slumped in front of the TV, watching "Days of our Lives"?
I put on my Sorels, then my Tubbs snowshoes. Here we go again -- made in China rather than Vermont. Made out of tubes and synthetic as opposed to wood and rawhide, and upsetting the balance of payments even more.
My sugarin' companion is Kent Batchelor who owns a handsome piece of property along the Third Branch of the White River in Bethel. I pepper him with questions. How did the Abenaki boil sap without metal pots? What's the impact of acid rain on the maples? Has global warming affected the sugaring season? Kent considers each question thoughtfully, then answers:
"Ya never know."
We set out with a canvas bag full of drills, hammers, spigots and sugarin' paraphernalia. Kent knows I'm a rookie, so he demonstrates everything, before letting me try it myself. First he demonstrates how to get a drill bit stuck in a tree. Next, he shows me how to tap an ash tree. Then, when I've got that down, he shows me how to tap into a maple that's been dead for ten years. It's not rocket science. I think I'm what sugarmakers call a "natural."
When I've mastered the basics, Kent shows me how to fall "ass-over-teakettle." Maples grow on hillsides. If the snow is deep enough you can manage on these steep slopes fairly well. As the snow level decreases to an icy skimcoat over the frozen ground, however, the footing becomes impossible, even with Sorels and snowshoes. Kent shows me how to send all the tools flying when his footing gives way and the appropriate swear words to use as you are sitting there on your wet butt. He's a master.
We get all the lines cleared and the buckets mounted in a few days. Then it's just a matter of listening to the sap drip -- thunk, thunk, thunk -- and boiling it up in the arch. Oh, there's some cleaning and other stuff, but I don't want to get too technical for the consuming public. One good thing about sugarin' is that you don't have to be overly concerned about being sanitary. Everything gets boiled to bejesus, which kills everything, then you run the finished syrup through a filter which removes any remaining bug bodies.
Collecting the sap is relatively easy. The only trick is that instead of letting the tools go flying when you fall ass-over-teakettle, you let the plastic gathering bucket go flying. Kent tells me that some fellows use a different set of swear words for this, but he sticks with the same ones.
When sufficient sap is gathered the boiling begins. What is critical here is not the temperature or time, but rather the topics of conversation and the food. Traditionally, cider doughnuts and dill pickles are served. When I say "traditionally" what I really mean is "any sugarhouse open to tourists." Any real Vermonter knows that the fare of choice for real sugarmakers is beer, and it don't make no difference what kind.
The conversation, however, is critical. Within the dark, steamy, womb of the sugarhouse rugged Vermonter exchange their innermost feelings. Words flow like sap -- thunk, thunk, thunk -- as we exchange thoughts on boots, the Chinese, acid rain, the Red Sox, and, most of all, the infinite mysteries of sugarin.' The thoughts boil to the surface on the open vats of our lives. And if you run out of thoughts, just shake your head slowly and say "Ya never know."
Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer from Randolph. He is the founder and publisher at The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com).
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updated 27 February 2005 : 11:38 (m) Caspar (Pacific) time
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