Adventures in the Sugar Bush

It seems like everyone’s covid time is strange but in different ways.  Take for instance, my daily life compared to that of my husband’s.

 Jim teaches middle school students. From 8 to 3 he herds all the young people in his charge into some semblance of socially distanced order. His students wear masks and sit at desks set in straight lines and separated by the requisite six feet. Whereas in year’s past he stayed in his classroom and students travelled from one room to the next, this year all his students stay in their homeroom seats while he moves from classroom to classroom.

He has a big cart he hauls around the building, but some things are impossible to move.  Right now his classes are learning about the Lewis and Clark expedition. This means he had to make an enormous map of the expedition route for each of the classrooms he travels to instead of just one for his classroom.

Jim thinks it is harder for his kids to stay in place than for him to be moving.  This enforced sitting around is driving his charges bananas, and he is very sympathetic with their plight. You can’t teach middle school students for thirty years without noticing they like to move, jostle each other, talk nonstop and never sit in orderly rows.

Recess would seem to suggest a break in the routine but not so much. We have so much snow that even recess is a challenge. The kids wade through snowdrifts to get to designated areas where they are still not supposed to jostle each other.  None of these constraints come naturally to any of us and most especially not to middle school students. For Jim, policing all this separation while wearing a mask has required a well evolved sense of humor and a constantly strained voice.

Meanwhile, I see few people. I do not spend much time in the office when the staff is there. Everyone in the office is masked and socially distancing and the addition of me crowds the space. Instead I do my jobs in off hours when the room is empty. Outside, I am also on my own.  

Take for example this week. As maple sugaring season begins, life finds me in the sugar bush with just my hand drill, sap buckets, taps, hammer, boots with crampons and of course, Sheba.

Here’s how my solo tapping went yesterday. Right off the bat I tried to navigate a deep snowdrift of icy, crusty packed snow. Immediately one foot sunk in snow up to the top of my leg while the other stayed level with the top of the drift. This was a surprisingly hard position from which to fight my way free.

As I considered my situation, I recalled my grandfather’s favorite expression, “When you fall through the ice with your snowshoes, your troubles she just begun.” I mused on this quote for a while wondering if my grandfather had ever actually worn a pair of snowshoes. After all, he grew up in Montclair, NJ. I also considered rather belatedly that the sensible choice of snowshoes would have improved my situation and perhaps prevented the predicament I was in, because I actually had snowshoes and knew how to use them. Fat lot of good this was doing me with them on the front porch and me alone in a sugarbush.

Well, not entirely alone. There was Sheba, somewhere or other. Like a bullet train, she glanced at one legged me then took off at top speed towards the deep woods. Squirrel sightings do that to her. At the time I consoled myself that she wouldn’t have been much help anyways being about the size of a loaf of bread. But misery does love company, and I was feeling a bit miserable as I discovered muscles in my leg above ground that I never knew I had.

So how challenging was my predicament?  Let’s just say that when I eventually got home to share my story with Elizabeth, she told me a tale of someone being buried alive in an avalanche, and I felt I could better understood how this could happen than when I awoke that morning. 

Slowly, slowly I worked my leg up and out, but it was a struggle. Did I mention the Anglo Saxon swear words I used? Another thing I pondered: If you swear in the woods and nobody is there, do you make any noise? This is something we may never know. 

Anyways, once free I had a very happy morning. First I stomped down paths from maple tree to maple tree to make later sap collection easier. Then I visited with each maple tree friend. Before I drilled a hole, I asked each tree’s permission to tap and also asked the tree to help me choose where I should tap. I had arranged to have the whole morning to tap the trees, and I found myself taking my ease with each hole I drilled and each tree I tapped. Yes, there was some tree hugging.

After this bizarre year, I found myself particularly grateful for the company of these trees. I have been tapping them for 25 years, but never before did I do it as the solo person. Usually we tap trees in a clutch of family. Jim does most of the hole drilling, and someone else, usually me, hands him a tap to hammer in and bucket to hang. We go from tree to tree with him the “muscles from Brussels”.  Other accompanying family members suffer to drill a tree for the photo op but then tend to do things like sunbathe in the snow or climb a tree or two.  It’s all very festive and noisy. 

This year was very quiet.  Well except for the seven minutes of cursing in the snowdrift.  I felt the presence of the trees more acutely, and this was good. In the maples’ palpable company, I thought a lot about how covid had slowed me down so that I noticed things like this more.  I also appreciated that I felt relaxed at the very slow pace of my tapping.  The snow stomping to weave a trail from tree to tree took a long time and the drilling even longer. With the hand drill I have to lean my whole body weight into the drill to get it to work and even then it goes at a snail’s pace.  Office goddess Vicki noted that her family uses an electric drill for their maple sugar operation. This moves the job along much faster and probably means fewer sore muscles too, but this year it was okay that it took what an impatient me would have described as “forever.”

 At least for yesterday morning, a more patient me prevailed.  I suspect the constraint of covid helped me find this patience. Will I have it any other day? Well, who knows…. Let’s recall that my last blog was titled “Stir Crazy,” and my mood on that day was one of wanting to get in a car and drive anywhere to do anything. But yesterday was a bit of maple magic moment …. the kind of magic moment that was a heck of a lot easier for me to experience alone in a sugarbush than for Jim in a sea of squirming, blurting, mask wearing preteens.

All in all, I returned to the farm with both legs and a grateful heart.

Tools of the trade: Hand drill, Sheba and Jim’s favorite hammer ( don’t tell him I borrowed it)
Tree climbing in full swing during a previous sugaring season
How we usually employ Jim (note that during this sugaring season there is virtually no snow)
One of my favorite maple sugaring photos because of the rings formed by a falling drop
A few years back with the “muscles from Brussels” and Sheba. She’s the constant.