Normally we don’t think of subtleties and sugar season in the same breath. After all, there’s nothing subtle about preparing for a season that may last only two weeks (or in last year’s case, one week). Yup, for Vermont maple sugarin’ where “t’all happens t’once,” a better word would be “frenetic.” There are, however, some “sweet” subtleties involved, but to enjoy them, you’ve got to be old like me and thoroughly steeped in maple sugarin’. Take, for instance, the birds.
Betsy came in from her walk with the dogs this morning saying something that really struck a chord with me: “Burr,” she said, “did you know that birds sound different just before sugaring?” Suddenly I zeroed in on that like a hawk does on a field mouse. “You know, Betsy, I’ve never thought about it before, but you’re right,” I said, full of enthusiasm. In a way, I’m a student of birds, even though I don’t know a tufted titmouse from an albatross. I have always thought of birds in a spiritual sense. Call me cuckoo, but I believe birds carry messages from departed loved ones and, contrary to the term “bird brain,” they’re smarter than we are in many ways.
“What is it? Describe it to me,” I asked. Betsy puzzled, owl-like, for a moment. “I guess it’s about survival,” she said. “Just like for us, the winter has been long, and through it they say ‘We’re still here. We can do it, we can do it — somehow we’ll get through this’ and suddenly they wake up one day to a different feeling.”
She compared them to scouts on a wagon train. They have gone ahead and seen something different, something that humans are not capable of seeing, and their song changes. I was particularly impressed with her last statement: “It’s like a sudden musical segue from Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ into ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ That’s what happened this morning!” My wife, the dog walker and listener extraordinaire!
Speaking of music, I once had a musical dialogue with a bird out in our sugar woods. I had no idea what kind of bird it was (again, kinds of birds are an enigma to me), but I liked its song. “Do, mi, mi, mi. Do, mi, mi, mi,” it sang. To my ears, slightly more trained in music theory than kinds of birds, I recognized it as a “major third,” and I began whistling back an identical refrain.
We carried on a musical conversation for quite a few minutes until I suddenly had a brainstorm. To check the bird’s musical savvy, I whistled the same thing a half-step higher. No response. I then went back to the original key and changed the rhythm slightly. No response. “Guess Mr. Songbird’s kind of a one-tune sort,” I thought, just before the irony of it all hit: Birds keep it simple and live by nature; people think, ponder and “get better ideas.” I chuckled and went back to work on our plastic sap tubing.
I don’t expect to feel the “subtleties” for a while — we’re scrambling to get everything done “t’once” for our upcoming season. It’s always impossible for us humans to know certain things; when it’ll start, how good it’ll be, what grades of syrup we’ll make. Frankly, I get frustrated by all the folks stopping me on the street seeking my elusive answers. “I don’t know. Gosh, wish I could tell you,” and then out of total frustration, “Ask me in May, for God’s sake!” The answers are out there, though. Yup, the birds have done their scouting, and their songs have changed. If we would just listen a bit harder, they’d be telling us. “Do, mi, mi, mi ...”
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.
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