This morning, I suspect late morning as time is now being shuffled, the first fragrant hint of maple nectar wafted through the kitchen. The windows steamed over as the humidity rose. The room was becoming a sauna. The wood burning stove added a touch of radiant heat and a hint of oaken smoke. It was overly warm in the room but so what. Finishing off the amber liquid, the first run, was the magical time.
While being outside among the trees and the returning birds has its welcomed spring-driven charm, this moment, this first scent of maturing syrup is to me is the reason we embrace this task.
On the first day the sap ran, a couple of sandhill cranes flew over, and a number of geese headed to the pond for a social. I also know in there somewhere I heard a robin. Walking through the uneven snow to retrieve the sap was slightly less than pleasant because of those failing ankles, but finding an overflowing bucket took away some of the pain.
Still, the warmth of the kitchen, and warm tea, the now sweet hint of nature’s close-to-home treasurers were the real gifts. It is easy just to sit there and breathe it in, but it is almost made better by stepping outside, filling the lungs with outside air, then, after the nasal sensors have been cleansed, walk back in to be hit with that intensity.
I know it is a childhood thing going back to Sauk City when I was six. The old man took us to a sugar bush, unbeknownst to us, and there covered in steam, was an engine with fire. But in that engine was this fragrant liquid and when poured on the snow it became candy. Strange, I suppose for a kid who hardly knew what a maple tree was, much less what lay hidden in its veins. It was there that this ‘edible’ fragrance was embedded in my growing brain. Do you suppose my parents deliberately did that knowing it would stay? I now wish I had the opportunity to ask them. But, I do suspect I know.
As the syrup bubbles and the steam lifts away the water, the intensity of this batch revealed itself much like each rendering does. This one is stronger than some because in one of my distractions outside, I failed to notice a back corner of the pan had been exposed and damn if it didn’t burn. Sure, the scent was in the air, and it almost hinted of candy, but slightly burned. The minute unheated sap was added, the batch sizzled but the developing syrup was now darker. Just the trials and tribulations, I thought, and moved on, embarrassed and defiant.
In a mind-drifting moment, I heard in the other room a song playing, not the classical incantation of a morning choice, or a tragic country song, but a light, melodic, upbeat tune called Keep Your Distance. In a moment of awakening, I remembered we are now in a time of ‘social distancing’. While I commonly work my meager eight-tree sugar bush alone, it dawned on me that my yearly visitation to the Sapp Brother’s sugar shack was probably not to be. This trio of comrades, the one bound by blood to harvest the maple’s bounty in spring’s awaking, may well be off limits. There was no room for six feet of separation.
It registered that while this act of touching nature close was also a time to be humans and celebrate this time as friends.
After listening to the song about keeping my distance, meaning not going to the grocery either, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a couple of months down the line. Would I be grinding hen scratch for gruel, hunting wild spring greens, finding the beer gone! Then, there was the whisky that had arrived in a velvet cozy looking ever so regal but when examined proved to be in a plastic bottle and just reeked of dump grade.
As I reflected under the pall of keeping my distance, it occurred to me that while sitting tight and working on my memoirs for the third time was an opportunity to ‘find’ myself, but being without friends was going to be a real hardship, maybe the hardest I have ever faced. How about those long distant kids?
About the time, these desperate thoughts were rattling through my head, our son sent down a short piece written only a few days ago by a writer friend Seth Kantner, who had grown up in a sod hut close to the Beauport Sea above the Arctic Circle. Seth’s existence was the life of an Eskimo, frequently alone in a frozen land. While recently thinking of today’s plight, he wrote, “And any visitor was extremely valuable, and exciting. Animals like moose and wolves and stuff were normal, but people were extremely valuable because there weren’t very many. Down through the years I never have had much luck explaining that lack to anyone. I think some old people, lonely and alone, understand completely. Mostly I just gave up trying to explain what it’s been like for me to spend extended periods not able to or just not interacting with other humans–for one reason or another. Often it’s not been easy. Sometimes it’s been illuminating, and I have felt nature, all so busy around me. Sometimes it’s been very tough. Tough doesn’t mean bad, though. That’s a confusion nowadays. Tough means tough. Now, I’m kind of wondering how it’s going out there in America for “normal” people, most who have always had quite a lot of humans in their days”.
Seth Kantner wrote Ordinary Wolves and Shopping for Porcupines.