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I Understood Her

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I feel behind on posting this winter, and my photo back log reflects that. Enjoy a couple of random holiday snaps, as well as a photo of pantry stocking by canning beans, and a sugaring photo from the archives. 


Early morning beside the woodstove, hot coffee, Scout beside me tucked under a blanket. He plays a dramatic hand when Adam leaves this early, he knows what it means. Several days until they reunite. He turns on all the sulky behavior so that Adam may feel extra disappointed to be leaving. As for me staying behind, I’m a good friend for him, but can’t hold a candle to the fun Adam provides. It’s not easy playing second fiddle, but I understand. 

We are modestly expanding our maple sugaring efforts this year, one hundred taps vs our standard sixty. It’s still small potatoes, but we prefer it that way. I guess you could say that we fall into the camp of sugarmakers who believe a sustainable sugaring culture is one that includes more folks sugaring on a small scale, rather than fewer farms operating large scale sugar bushes with miles of disposable plastic tubing winding through native land, and vacuum systems pulling more than trees would naturally give. It’s not that simple of course, with considerations being made for the difficulty in earning a living rurally, and how sugaring higher yields provides much needed income for folks. But it is also true that there are massive beyond comprehension operations, set up with investor money from far away lands, that indeed demonstrate rapacious practices with not enough regard for the trees and the land on which they dwell. 

For our purposes, we are content with an operation that produces enough syrup for our supply, gift giving, trade, and a small amount for sale. Given our scale and approach, we are not considered part of the sugaring industry, but we are part of the sugaring culture. Like a lot of small-timers, we worry about the direction commercial sugaring has taken, how the trees will respond to vacuuming over time. We worry about the volume of plastic tubing that is now used. Plastic that has to be replaced too often because squirrels love to chew it up. 

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Here is something I read a few years back, written by another small-scale sugarmaker:

“Andy’s in The Chronicle talking about how staying small has helped us 1) preserve the quality of our maple and 2) remain viable in a time when Sweet Tree are expanding to one million taps and pricing many small sugarmakers out of the market.  The article starts with this fact: In 2015, Vermont produced 1.3 million gallons of syrup - double what we produced in 2008. What it doesn’t say is that Vermont made over 5 million gallons of syrup in the early 1900’s - before chainsaws, tractors, pipelines, and reverse osmosis systems. Back then, everyone boiled sap - everyone was small-scale, and everyone participated in the culture. Maybe the answer to meeting the growing demand for syrup isn’t thousands of new taps, it’s thousands of new sugarmakers. Small farms will feed the world.”

I’ve probably shared the above excerpt before, but it is worth sharing again as a reminder to not always view something such as maple syrup as an automatically warm and fuzzy venture. Like most things humans lay their hands on, it gets complicated. Know the story of your syrup, and how it has traveled from tree to bottle.  

Given all that, it feels kind of heartwarming to add forty taps this year. Hardly an expansion by industry standards, but we’re not part of the industry. Forty new taps will mean a little more surplus in case next year offers low yields, extra for gifting and trade, and a some to sell.


I found our new to us buckets and lids on eBay, from the same seller I’ve bought all of our buckets from over the years. She is located a few towns north of us on the Canadian border. Given that we are now only thirty minutes away and not four hours, I asked if we could pick up our purchase in person to save on shipping. She thought that was fine. I’ve long held a vision in mind of this woman: in my imagination she is an eighth generation northern Vermont farmer and sugarmaker; a former bucket-user who’d finally found a way to make something in her life easier, and switched to plastic line systems. Even though she’d used draft horses to haul sap out of the woods, the labor of emptying sap buckets from tree to horse drawn sled added up. Her shoulders and back could finally enjoy a little relief, a short-lived measure of physical preservation that would soon enough be expended during haying season. Ever industrious, she began selling off her inventory of old supplies. She sold the buckets in lots of twenty, and in time would earn a nice penny given the growing popularity of backyard sugaring. 

A bit of correspondence back and forth regarding pickup soon had me imagining a different sort of woman. I can’t describe it exactly, but she no longer fit the Carhartt-wearing-cow-milking-wood-splitting persona I’d conjured up. The woman I was messaging with seemed incredibly detailed oriented, and overly concerned about weather inhibiting our travel. One message asked if we were okay driving in snow, and another asked if driving in the cold would be too much for us. And yet another message inquired about confirmation of pickup, even though I’d already paid  for the buckets and confirmed pickup twice in weather related messages (this all took place within 24 hours). A new vision was forming, one of a person who liked to know exactly what was happening and when. A person who left no stone unturned and was probably used to dealing with folks less conscientious about schedules and such. 

On the morning of pick up, we pulled into the driveway of a home located downtown on a lot appearing not much bigger than the house itself. No sugarbush in sight. Heck, no land or farm of any kind in sight. The driveway ran parallel to the road, and provided the only buffer between traffic and the house itself. Very tight quarters. As we parked, I noticed how clean the windows were in her home, and the gold painted knick-knacks lining their interior. They, too, sparkled. Colorful, gilded tchotchkes, perhaps tacky in the eyes of some, but not a speck of dust or fingerprint to be found. They glistened in the morning light. Then I saw the license plate on her truck: Quebec. Things were beginning to make sense. Now I had a sense of who this woman was. 

We parked, stepped outside, and she promptly emerged from the front door. Her hair freshly curled, outfit stylish and tidy, jewelry well appointed, and she had a bit of makeup on. Then she spoke, and I could hear the voice of every Eagle Lake aunt, cousin, and grandmother come through her. The image I’d created of a Vermont farmer was a distant memory. 

It turns out she divides her time between Quebec and this in-town location on the Vermont side of the border, though I cannot guess why her residency is arranged like this, and her swift interaction indicated no interest in getting to know one another. No, no, our appointment was at 10:30 and there was no reason for it to linger past 10:35. I understood her to a T. I come from people just like her. If your dinner invitation says to arrive at 5:00, you best do that because dinner will be on the table no later than 5:15, the meal enjoyed and conversation shared, then everything cleaned up with dishes washed, dried, and put away no later than 6:00 (my sister will text me after reading this and tell me I’m being generous with those time estimates). 

This woman did share that she is a buyer/seller of used sugaring supplies, with her inventory coming from Canada, but it is "getting harder and harder to find goods to resell." 


We loaded our supplies into the back of the truck, and drove off by 10:35. But the pick-up hockey game on the pond across the street pulled us in for viewing. My husband is one of those guys who will play any sport, but will only sit down to watch one. He’d already played twice that week, yet pausing to take in the game we stumbled upon was an obvious choice. 

The calendar tells us we’re still about six weeks away from sugaring, but steps are being taken now to prepare. Gear is in place, sugarhouse moved to it’s new spot, and camp roads cleared of snow so that we may access the woods with greater ease (more specifically, so that I may access with greater ease on the days I am here alone). I think this relatively mild winter has us chomping at the bit a little early, add to that the steady return of light in the sky, and one can’t help but feel winter loosening her grip. We are not quite there, of course, but there is something in the air.  

You're Sitting on a Gold Mine


It has been snowing since Saturday afternoon; soft, fluttery flakes gently accumulating in the most patient way. There seems to be no rush, no urgency with this band of moisture.  A comforting kind of snow that invites exploration, not overwhelm.

One recent evening, we’d just finished a hearty dinner of Shepherd’s Pie, made with turkey I’d squirreled away in the freezer after Thanksgiving. This humble casserole is one of my favorite meals to make, as it showcases so colorfully the abundance of stored homegrown vegetables, homemade bone broth turned into gravy, and local, wild, or homegrown meat. A tasty, colorful, frugal meal, and, it is total comfort food. Simple fare with tremendous attributes.

After washing up the dishes, Emily settled in with her book, I with my knitting, and Adam mentioned taking a walk with Scout. He asked if I’d like to go, and having just put my feet up for the first time that day, staying put was the more appealing option. He took off and I knit a few rounds. Soon after, a text, which surprised me as he does not usually keep his phone on or near him when he’s home. “I’m up at Birdy watching shooting stars. It’s amazing out here, you should come up.” Not one to resist an invitation like that, back to the basket my knitting went; I could put my feet up another time. The stars were calling.

He was right. The sky darker and clearer than seemed possible, stars shining warmer and brighter than any of the hundreds of twinkle lights I string all over the house, attempting to mimick the same. Magnificent is not enough of a word. Leaning back in the Adirondack chair, head tilted skyward, every little thing in the world made some kind of sense. Maybe not agreeable sense, but for a moment, I understood. The ease, the imbalance, the beauty and the pain. We stayed there for a while, not saying much, just looking up.

Eventually we made our way back down the camp road, and for no particular reason, at one point I looked over my shoulder, upward at the sprawling night sky we’d found such comfort in a moment ago. And there it was: beyond the leafless trees, beyond the stratosphere and beyond all atmospheric layers, traveling across the dark glittering sky, a shooting star for my very own eyes. Not the rarest of sightings, but soul soothing every time, whether you are seven or forty-seven. We continued on, not a human sound to be heard other than that of our own presence. Such vast darkness, land, sky, quiet. One of us mentioned, you can’t get this in Connecticut. And the other agreed. No. No you can’t.

We don’t spend a lot of time comparing this life to our former one, but things are generally new here still, and with Adam continuing to work several days a week down there, our arrangement is unconventional and with that, comes frequent assessment and discussion. We need these reminders as to why we are here. It’s not that it’s difficult to remember, it’s just that it’s easy to forget. This life we have set up is not simple nor is it common; we’ve described it as an experiment from day one, and I’d still say that’s pretty accurate. 2019 was the year my husband and I slept apart more than together. This is by choice, but only a temporary choice. A necessary, difficult step in fulfilling this crazy dream. A separateness that we would not have chosen in our family raising years, but felt it was okay to give it a shot now.  At times we've felt discouraged by the challenges of making a house in need of work feel like a home when our all-hands-on-deck time is so limited, but we must remember that we aren’t here for the house; we are here for the vast darkness, for the land, for the sky, and for the quiet. And we have all of that in spades. We feel fortunate to enjoy a certain peace of mind, that in our experience, can only be found on the land.

Our slow walk continued, until this warm dwelling of ours came into sight: candles in the windows and gentle wisps of smoke rising from the chimney to welcome us.

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A few days later we rung in the new year in the mellowest of ways. I am entering this new Gregorian year with vision and ambition that I have not experienced in several. The details are private, but I can share that I am grateful to feel so much clarity right now. Finally. The last several years have felt like survival followed by heartbreak followed by grief followed by remarkable change followed by loneliness followed by slow and steady healing. There hasn’t been room for much else, until now. I am ready and armed with plans, goals, and energy that has been absent for too long. My enthusiasm is wisely tempered by realism, as these first few days of 2020 have reminded me: all those best laid plans are subject to change without notice. Life has a way of getting impossibly hard real quick, emergencies and tragedy are always unplanned. I won’t delude myself into believing the best-year-yet hype. But I will take this feeling of drive and creativity into the months ahead, as best as I can, both for myself and for those around me.

I wish you the very best in your own pursuits this year, I hope you know good health, and you feel deeply that if you’ve got love, then you're sitting on a gold mine.