The Benefits of Being Home Grown

Parenting off the beaten path and unschooling to keep kids connected with nature.

| Spring 2015

  • My children have enormous freedom to do as they please. This is by design; we have engineered it into our lives, the way most people make room for a career, or strategize their retirement. Most morn­ings after chores and breakfast, the boys set out on some adventure or another, into the woods or down the field.
    Photo by Flickr/Tom Woodward

In middle March I walk the upper pasture, stumbling under the weight of a pair of five-gallon buckets sloshing sap. The ground is nearly bare; the winter past was a feeble, fleeting thing, almost dreamlike in its rapid passing. Did it really happen? Was I really there? Why, I got the plow truck stuck only once, and two full rows of firewood remain in the shed. I’ll be glad for them come fall.

A gallon of sap weighs eight pounds, and I carry 10 gallons (or maybe nine; I’ve lost some over the bucket rims). Seventy, 80 pounds. Not so much, but the far taps are a quarter mile down the field, hung from the old maples that define the border between our land and our neighbor Melvin’s dairy farm. They are big and graceful trees, overseers of decades and generations, and I cannot help thinking of all the cows that have loafed in their shade. I cannot stop myself thinking of all the storms they’ve survived, all the haying seasons they’ve known. The horse-drawn mowers, then the old Fords and Masseys, and now Melvin’s big New Holland that can lay down the entire field in an afternoon. And every year, they give their sap. Am I honoring or exploiting them by accepting this gift? Strange how it can sometimes seem as if there’s not much difference between the two.

Still, it humbles me to consider all they have seen and all they have given, as if these somehow juxtapose each other in a way that makes me unworthy of their gift. I am glad for the toil: the trudging through the late-February snowpack to drill and tap and hang, and now the daily shoulder-burning haul up the field to the small evaporator, fed with lengths of slabwood pulled off the sawmill as we boil down to the sweet essence of it all.

Halfway home. I stop at another tree, but of course the buckets are too full. I’ll have to come back. Down in the valley, I hear the distant whine of a two-stroke engine, either an end-of-season snowmobile run along some shaded ribbon of snow or an early-season dirt bike. The noise fades into the distance and I can hear the high-pitched bleating of the lambs in the barn and I know they are running to and fro, energized by the warmth and sun and perhaps some instinctual knowledge that soon they will be turned out to the season’s first tender shoots.

I set the buckets on the ground and for a minute, maybe two, I allow my mind to return to the previous morning. It was a cold one, barely a dozen degrees above zero and not yet full light when Rye slipped outside. The boy has caught the “fever,” which is the preferred colloquialism for the affliction that strikes a certain subset of the population that will spend the latter half of March blood­letting the sugar maple trees. The fever is common as mud around here; we have neighbors whose livelihood is utterly dependent on the annual sap run, who for three or four weeks every year don’t sleep more than a few hours per night, having spent the previous 11 months preparing for these hazy, exhausted days. We see them in town, at the post office or the hardware store, and the circles under their eyes tell us everything we need to know about what sort of season it’s been. The bigger the circles, the better the sap’s running, because of course no sugar maker worth his salt will rest when there’s syrup to be made.

For the past month, Rye has been amassing his own pile of slabwood scraps, and yesterday he arranged a small stone fire pit, over which he’ll boil away the 39 parts of water necessary to glean one part of syrup. Concerned that Fin might beat him to the more productive trees before he got a chance to have at them, Rye marked his territory with strands of red yarn days ago.

Facebook Instagram Twitter