Coös NetWorks is a way of building community via laptop computer (or desktop, or hand-held) across a vast region where the road from here to there often leads around a mountain. It is a member forum for exchanging ideas and information, deepening relationships among people who do different kinds of work and live far apart, and, ultimately, for building vitality in the Coös region. It is supported by the Foundation’s Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund.
Peter Benson of Jackson is a Foundation senior program officer and a Coös NetWorks member. He recently wrote an essay for Coös NetWorks about another tried-and-true way of building community in northern places: maple sugaring.
After a February that saw 40-plus inches of snow for the first twelve days, followed by record warmth for the rest of the month where we lost thirty inches of snow, it is mid-March. Currently it is minus twelve degrees with a strong Northwest wind, and a very firm base of snow, and although there is no warmth in sight, we are “tapped out” – 102 taps on 90 or so sugar maple trees.
There is no group of enthusiasts that I am associated with that follows the weather as closely as those involved with making maple syrup. Mother Nature calls the tune and we dance to it, and although we hope for a nice long, even season, we take what we can get and boil when we have to sometimes. Hence the making of syrup on a very cold day recently before 200 gallons or so froze in the tank.
Sugar season is always a mixed blessing at our house, signaling the beginning of the end of ski season (sometimes!) and the real beginning of spring. In our 20-plus years of making syrup at our homestead, we have tapped our trees and hung buckets in as much as 4 ½ feet of snow or as little as three inches of ice (last year), and learned not to prognosticate too much on what the sugaring season will be – it will be what it will be, and we will take what we get. Nature still rules this work, and it can’t be rushed or forced.
We are still old-school here – all buckets and hauling, no tubing, gravity, lines, pumps or other technology for us. By far the most labor-intensive part of this wonderful season is the gathering and hauling of sap to the sugar house. What often begins as a cold and wintry activity ends in a spring-like saunter in t-shirts. We see the change in seasons in the sugar bush in fits and starts, and in subtle differences. What begins as a quiet activity gives ways to bird calls as the true harbinger of spring – first chickadees and doves calling, then usually a flock of busy waxwings, followed by the noisy “conkaree” of red-winged black birds and finally the robins.
The human metamorphosis begins to happen at this time of year as well. Friends and neighbors who we have only seen on ski trails, in town, indoors or through car windows begin to stop by, to catch up on news, linger in the sugar house, breathe the maple steam, and to help gather sap. Those who know us, and even some who don’t, know that when the buckets are hung, the covers are off the sugar house dormer and especially when steam is rising from the vents, that it is time to gather. Baseball hats replace winter coverings, bare skin is exposed, and we relax in the warmth of the sun and the steam. Coming together to collect sap, haul firewood, boil down, have a drink and a pickle (the staple sugarhouse snack) is a rite of spring, and a way to share our collective winter survival stories. This socialization has often been described as a “rite of spring,” with romantic, nostalgic and bucolic undertones of simpler days gone by. Gathering to participate in an activity that is pretty much unchanged from 150 years ago is rare, rivaled only by Town Meeting, as we are trying to stay connected to each other and to recapture a simpler, slower time.
Making syrup here is not the most efficient process, often taking the whole day for about five gallons of syrup, but the beauty of the maple syrup gathering and creation is in its time-consuming nature. If it happened quickly, we would not have time to re-connect, and the fun part of boiling down is never knowing who is going to show up. And as the season winds down, spring activities take over and we are left with another season of memories, and shelves (hopefully!) full of syrup for ourselves, friends and family.
Now if we can only figure out how to extend this wonderful community spirit into washing all those buckets and tanks!
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