Saturday, March 06, 2004

Sugar Season

For weeks the trees around this campus have sported their tin buckets. The farm program directors dream of frostcrisp nights and warm days, the best conditions for sweet and prolific sugaring season, even as the nights hover sweet and light in the high thirties. But low-yield year or not, the sap must be harvested, the fires banked, the sugars burned light and reduced.

It takes sixty gallons of sap to make a single gallon of high-grade maple syrup, and our yearly yield can go over a thousand gallons in the best of times: sixty thousand gallons harvested pint by pint from trees across a thousand acres or more, and two weeks to do it in. And the timing works out, as if the school calendar had been written by the earth itself.

This week and the next, with the school closed up for holiday, a dozen or more students choose the outdoors instead of the television in trade for a term off from weekly workjob. They live the lives of maple harvesters under the teachings of the farm director, his assistant, and the alumni veterinarian who calls us now and then. They slog the woods repetitively, crashing in a long-since downsized dorm, trading faculty-made pan suppers for a promise of a gallon later, when the work's been done. Without their manpower, there'd be less syrup, and less syrup means a smaller farm budget in the year ahead. Everybody wins.

On rainy days like this one, though, the water floods the buckets, making sap-collecting both muddy and moot. Down at the barn around noon they arrive and pour out of the farm pickups in fours, dripping and hungry from a wet morning's work. One of them brings in the calf, nervous and in raindrenched coat, and we cling to each other, my daughter and I, and watch as her nose ring, the one that keeps her weaned, is removed for her comfort.

One day, I think every year, I too will learn this trade, as I learned cidering beside the students two Octobers ago; I will learn the meditative love of earth again, and take part in its bounty, for myself and my child.

For now, too young in our respective roles, Willow and her daddy huddle in the barn waiting for a break in the rain, and watch the mother-longing calf in her stall, and scratch her ears, and giggle at her plaintive tenor cry for mama cow, and offer soothing noises in the afternoon, the rain on our heads drumming at the barn roof. And as the students gather and regroup and make plans to disburse for surely thick warm soup, we brave the rain, sprinting for the car, our winter coats and caps soaking through in moments: we come home to her mother, my wife, now finally cramping and abed as her own spring cycle begins anew.

God bless the earth, and the warm air and the rain; bless the cow, and the students in their wet boots and happy work. God bless the chance to begin again, and the blood that must come before we can try. Let the cleansing begin; it's spring again.

posted by boyhowdy | 1:31 PM |

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