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Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:55

Versed in Country Things - the Test of Winter, Part II

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Versed in Country Things - the Test of Winter, Part II

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

On the morning of January twenty-first, during a blizzard that had begun the day before, the water froze. We had had trouble with it as early as November, when the plastic pipe coming up from the cellar had frozen, so we had learned to leave the water running in one side of the double sink. A guest was doing the dishes, and he turned off the water for fifteen or twenty minutes, with the result that it froze in the cellar and farther back underground. It must have been partially frozen for some time. We immediately snowshoed across the Big Meadow to the woods on the other side, where we were able to open the water pipe at a joint where it crossed a stream. The water was running freely there, so we decided to dig a trench through the snow from there to the house (about two-hundred and fifty yards), line it with hay, and bury in it another line of hose. Struggling in the storm, we managed to do it, but the hose froze. We kept the water running in the first hundred feet of hose, and the rest we took up and brought to the house, a tangle under our feet in the room, to thaw. For the time being, we melted snow, hardly sufficient for us and wholly inadequate for the cow. It takes a lot of snow to make a little water.

After the guests left we had a day's respite from the stormy weather, and I went at it again, working desperately to get the hoses connected and buried. I did not know that a still clear day at that season would be intensely cold, with an even colder night to follow. By the time the system was all hooked up, darkness had fallen and the lamps were lit. Standing at the sink, watching a feeble trickle of water drip from the faucet, I held the lamp up to the window to read the thermometer outside. I stared: thirty-seven below, as cold as I ever saw it in nine years in Vermont. Then the water stopped running.

I went to the shop in the barn next morning to build a sled with a box on it to hold a twenty gallon galvanized garbage can, and as amateur carpenters will often do, I made it heavier than it had to be, but I could pull it - just. At least it would be empty going uphill. Dragging the sled to the end of the hose where the water was still running, I filled the can. Turning back I inched across the Big Meadow on my snowshoes, leaning forward into the tow rope, staring down at the track in front of me, stopping every few minutes to hang limply over the sled, trying to get some strength and breath back. Finally I passed the pasture fence corner, then I was on the downhill behind the barn, then I passed the barn, and at last I reached the porch where I collapsed, panting and trembling. When I could stand up, I carried the water in buckets into the house where I poured them into the garbage can beside the kitchen counter. We stood around it, looking at the clear cold water, a cheering sight. I took a long rest before I went back and did it again, this time filling a tub in the stable.

The job was so taxing that I didn't know if I could keep it up, but I was tougher than I thought. I went through that routine every second day, sometimes making three trips, and it was the best thing I did that winter, physically, because it built up my muscles for the tasks to come, mentally, because it forced me to fight actively against winter's forces. I hauled water for two months, and within a couple of weeks it was no longer a hardship. By the end of February, as the sun climbed perceptibly higher, I would sit on my snowshoes on the south side of the sled, sheltered from the wind, and soak up the sun, feeling its warmth as I waited for the can to fill.

Back in November, the first time the water froze in the cellar, Jo Ann had declared that she could endure every deprivation but she couldn't get along without water. The January freeze was like a fated blow held back for two months, hoarded by the gods of Simple Living to break her spirit. The gods mistook their woman. Jo Ann melted snow and hoped for the best. Even if all my efforts had failed, she would have found a way. Just as she performed extraordinary feats of skill and ingenuity in the kitchen every day, feeding us well from a larder that was always low. As I mentioned earlier, the cellar wasn't insulated in any way against the cold, something I failed to discover until too late, when what looked like a wall was revealed to be nothing more substantial than some old feed bags hung across a gaping hole. Our home-canned vegetables were in the pantry, but carrots, beets, cabbages, and potatoes were stored down cellar in barrels and nail kegs, and by December everything was frozen. Jo Ann salvaged nearly all of it, finding fresh ways to serve what by Spring was desperate stuff to work with. She baked wonderful bread and cake and cookies, and we always had eggs and just enough milk and butter. My mother used to say that it was easy to be a good cook with the best ingredients; that winter I learned that to do well with next to nothing is to be a master.

Towards the end of March in northern Vermont, when the snow still lies deep on the land, when the earliest daffodils cannot even be imagined, when the only prospect is a month more of winter, then the northward-creeping sun gives us those bright days, just above freezing, that combine with cold nights to pull the sap up the trunks of sugar maples. Then is the time to shake off the staleness of winter lethargy, to step out purposefully into the wind and weather, to go forth into the sugar bush with brace and bit and a pailful of taps, to make snowshoe tracks from tree to tree, to watch the first drops of clear sap drip from the taps. Then pity those who must wear winter out to its drudging end without the solace of a sugar bush, where sugaring time is a spring before spring, its sweetest boon!

My first sugaring experience came about the year before in Tweedyville, just by chance. In the hardware store one day with a local friend, I noticed a tray of shining metal things on the counter and asked him what they were. Maple sugar taps, he said, going on to tell me how his father had sugared during the war years, making syrup for the family. You know me well enough by now to guess how that caught my attention, so when he ended by saying that his father still had the equipment in his barn, you know the deed was practically done. We went at once to see his father, just up the road from our house, and he kindly gave me twenty-five wooden buckets the pie filling for bakeries used to come in, a bunch of taps, and a twenty-gallon galvanized tub for boiling. Then he guided me to a maple grove in the nearby woods, showed me how to tap out, and gave me a few simple instructions. That very day I hung the buckets and tasted the first drops of the faintly sweet watery sap.

Students were interested, and we'd go up every afternoon when the sap was running, collect it in a garbage can, and haul it in a student's station wagon to our house, where we'd boil it down over an open fire in the backyard, roasting hot dogs, making a party of it. There was one flaw. My friend's father did not teach me the crucial point in the process, how to tell when the syrup was done, probably because, like every backyard sugar maker I've ever met, he didn't know it. We simply boiled the sap until it seemed like syrup, thus producing a thin pre-syrup with a mildly maple flavor, the sort of wretched stuff most amateurs make. Of course we thought it was terrific and we proudly gave it to all our friends, who probably poured it down the sink, remarking that it was another of my harebrained follies. Well, no harm was done, not then; that would come a year later.

As with the slaughter of the pig, I prepared for sugaring by studying a government pamphlet, but with this difference: about the pig I knew nothing and knew it, so I submitted myself to the instructions unquestioningly. In this case I thought I knew all about it - hadn't I acquitted myself superbly a year ago? I did not deliberately ignore all the directions, because I was trying to adapt them to my rough circumstances. The operations described in the pamphlet took place in a modern sugarhouse using the relatively sophisticated technology of the day, so it was not easy to recognize which information was relevant and translatable into my primitive situation. My previous experience made me complacent in a way I never was in regard to the pig.

Willie came over to help me tap out, and between us we hung ninety-eight buckets, a motley collection of wooden buckets, rusty sap buckets, and number ten cans from the Tweedy Student Union kitchen. There was much snow that year - more than twelve feet had fallen and there was four feet on the level then - which eased our labor because all obstructions and inequalities in the ground were buried beneath our gliding snowshoes. In the stillness we could hear the steady tap-tap as the first drops fell into the empty buckets. Chickadees were singing "Spring soon, spring soon," the sun sparkled on the snow, and by the end of the morning our faces were flushed with the first sunburn of the season. Willie lent me a yoke, a simple device of thin ash strips and leather straps that moved the weight of laden buckets from the arms to the shoulders and back. It was so useful that I made one for myself which I still use, and later made them for the children, too, for use in later sugaring operations.

Jo Ann made a special lunch in appreciation for Willie's help, a meal that featured Clay's cured and smoked shoulder ham. As we sat down, Willie had the gall to ask Jo Ann why she didn't "help out in the woods" His sister always helped Bob tap out.

"She has much more important things to do in the house," I quickly answered, "like this lunch."

I was surprised when she thanked me later; she had shown no sign, but she was annoyed by Willie's remark; as she pointed out, Ann could work in the woods because she had a hired girl. It was another demonstration of his insensitivity to material differences and their consequences, and also of the gulf between us. In later years, when the children were grown up and gone, then Jo Ann would assume, in addition to household tasks, such as the baking and preparing meals from scratch and all the preserving work in the barn, in the fields, and in the woods, far beyond what Ann Woodwright had ever done in her Simple Living life.

Next morning I made the fireplace, clearing an area in the middle of the woods eight feet on a side right down to the ground. I cut six hardwood poles three inches in diameter and ten feet long that I formed into tripods tied together at the top with baling twine. Then I laid a slightly stouter pole, eight feet long, across their tops. For boiling, I had two oblong twenty-gallon galvanized tubs with handles at their end, and these I suspended from the horizontal pole with logging chains, adjusting them until they were level about thirty inches from the ground. By enclosing the space under the tubs on three sides with scraps of metal roofing shored up with stones and a few cinder blocks, I had a fireplace. Two garbage cans were my storage tanks.

Sap runs in fits and starts, depending on weather and temperature. We had a short run right away, accumulating forty gallons of sap, but it was stopped by a cold north wind for several days, so I cut wood while I waited. When the next run began, I filled the tubs, lit the fire, and went my sap-gathering round, a much more difficult task than I had expected because the woods were not maintained for sugaring: there were no paths to the trees, nor were spaces cleared around each tree. It had been a sugar bush once, probably as late as the 1930s, as I could tell from old tap holes in some big dying maples I felled for firewood, and there was the ruin of an old sugarhouse just below the road. Now, wearing snowshoes and with a wide yoke on my shoulders, carrying two five-gallon buckets, it was a hard struggle to get around. Think of me, snagged in brush, caught by a limb, trying to turn in a narrow space, falling down, spilling the buckets, getting soaked. As the warming weather began to melt the snow; not only did obstacles appear, but I sank more deeply, the snowshoes would catch on something, and down I would go. Collecting all the sap could take as much as two exhausting hours, and if it hadn't been for the toughening exercise of hauling water, I don't think I could have done it.

I boiled constantly for five days during that run, and well into the night. After the children had been put to bed I would set off, on snowshoes if necessary, but if the day had been warmish and the night were cold enough, the surface would freeze so hard that I could step briskly along the rough icy snow in moccasins, following my nose uphill toward the mingled smells of wood smoke and boiling sap. Pulling aside the fire door to uncover a glowing bed of coals, I would pile on the wood until the fire was roaring and the sap was boiling. From time to time I would skim the foam with a skimmer I made from screening stretched over a forked branch. I sat on an upturned bucket and smoked my pipe, staring into the flames or watching the play of light and shadow on the surrounding trees. I could look across the gorge towards Otis's empty house or down towards the valley, and all I saw was darkness. And from there, how would my fire show up? What would a benighted traveler see? A wavering spark in the woods? But there were no such travelers, and I was alone in all that darkness, a silent watcher by my fire. I might stay an hour, and then I would load the fire and close the doors, fill the pans with sap and turn homewards, following the path, looking up at the stars in the strip of sky above the woods road.

Every day I gathered sap, much or little, adding it to the storage cans, eventually to the boiling tubs, gradually concentrating it into syrup. At the start of the season, when the sap is most sugary, the ratio of sap to sugar can be as high as twenty-five to one, falling later to forty to one or higher. When I had boiled down two-hundred gallons, therefore, I might have as much as six or seven gallons of syrup. A cold snap brought the run to an end when I had put that much sap into the pans, so I directed all my efforts to reducing the last forty gallons. The year before, you will recall, I had unknowingly failed to boil it down to real syrup. Now, thanks to the pamphlet, I knew there was a specific point of concentration I had to reach, and there were ways to know when that point was reached. An experienced sugar maker knows by the look of the syrup as it is poured from a ladle, but for the rest of us the surest way is to use a hydrometer to measure its specific gravity. That I didn't have, but a thermometer can be used: when the temperature is seven degrees above boiling point, adjusted for altitude above sea level, the syrup is made. So I boiled and boiled, and when the magic moment came, Jo Ann and I poured off the syrup, not so easy as it sounds. The fire had to be kept high right to the end, then the hot, cumbersome tubs had to be lifted quickly, one at a time from the blazing fire and held firmly as the contents were carefully poured off. I carried the buckets down to the house at once in order to strain it while it was still hot. The strainer, a long cone of sheeting, was already set up in the mud room, and when I poured in the syrup there was revealed, with no possibility of evasion, the full consequences of my lighthearted ignorance: the stuff was so thick with dirt it would not strain. Of course, there was bound to be some dirt from the open fire, but because my past "success" had led me to ignore the pamphlet's insistence on thorough cleanliness, lots of avoidable debris had gotten into the syrup, and all I had to show for my hard labor was some nasty black gunk! If I had really boiled the syrup down last year, I would have had the same result.

I studied the pamphlet again, and the next day I went back to the fireplace, rehung the tubs, packed them with snow, started the fire, and melted snow until I had two tubs of scalding water. In the meantime, I slogged around the woods retrieving all the buckets. Everything - buckets, tubs, utensils - was remorselessly scrubbed and the buckets were replaced on the trees. I had a few covers, necessary for keeping out twigs, bark, snow, rain, and now I made more from anything I could find. Finally, I tightened up the fireplace to reduce the sparks and ash flying up into the tubs.

During the next sap run I went through he same routine as before, taking care to exclude all visible dirt, and when we poured it off we strained it right there in the woods, warily and anxiously. In a moment, golden brown syrup poured in a thick stream from the strainer, and we knew we had finally done the job right. It was, to be sure, Grade B, but making a better grade over an open fire is probably impossible. Ignoramuses often claim that Grade B is tastier, but they are confusing crude strength with the delicate essence of maple flavor that only the fancy grade has. In all the years we sugared in Vermont I made a few small improvements in technique and equipment, and eventually we hung three-hundred buckets, but the operation remained essentially as I have described it.

We never had an adequate wood supply that winter, and I regularly went to the woods to cut more. The woodshed was never absolutely bare, but it was always a reproach to me. Once in late winter Willie and his sister kindly brought us some blocks cut from a dead elm stub beside the road, at a time when our supply was especially low, and we were very grateful. Ann wanted to see Aster (she had been Ann's first cow), and when I took her to the stable, I could tell from her dismayed expression, although she said nothing, that something was wrong. Cows, when they lie down in a stable, will sometimes get manure on their hip, where it dries and cakes. With my usual ignorance and carelessness I had thought nothing of it, but I guessed that this was what distressed Ann. From then on, Aster (and all our succeeding cows) was always kept curried and clean.

One morning on my way up to the woods, passing a south-facing bank in an open place fully exposed to the sun, I saw earth again, not the frozen surface I had uncovered when I shoveled away the snow for the fireplace, but damp brown soil, gray pebbles, tan roots, beige leaves, brownish-gray twigs, and yellowing stems, a collection brought to light gradually, steadily, irresistibly by the force of the sun alone. Kneeling, I peered closely at the assemblage, tentatively touching the cold, rough, smooth, damp surfaces, pressing my face close, smelling its earthiness.

I snowshoed across the Big Meadow a few days later, paying out lengths of hose behind me, heading for the place where I filled the garbage can. When I made the connection, we had water to the house. Not in the house, but running night and day into a tub by the side of the porch. On a couple of cold nights after that it froze, but the sun, warming the dark hose where it lay atop the snow, thawed it without my bothering.

By the end of April, sugaring was over, and early one morning Nell and I were up at the top of the woods, collecting buckets and pulling taps, when we heard raucous cries. Looking down through the woods, down into the wide gorge, we saw below us a flock in the V formation of thirty or so Snow Geese, white with black primaries, flying up the gorge. I had never looked down on a flock of geese before. Onward they flew, rising, the dark spruce woods of the gorge their background, coming level with us, then soaring over the hill beyond our sight. Spring was coming. *

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