Sugar season can almost be a religion for Vermont maple families whose roots reach sweetly clear to the bedrock. Betsy’s humorous text message the other day, though, was almost going a little too far: “Black smoke coming from chimney of Sistine Chapel. White smoke coming from chimney of sugarhouse. No pope yet but we got syrup.”
I split a gut over that message and knew what planted the seed in her head. The steam pipe going up through the roof from our evaporator looks just like the pipe that the world news focused on ad infinitum while the new pope was being elected. Steam, of course, is always white as the driven snow.
Speaking of driven snow, I’ve always been told that there was a blizzard going on March 16, 1948, the day I was born. As the story goes, my mother and father left our farm up in Maple Corner in the wee hours and headed toward Montpelier, eight miles away. As they went past the place where we now reside, Dad almost left the road — heck, if I’d been born in the car, they probably would have named me “DeSoto” — but they did make it to Heaton Hospital, brought me into the world, and I got named “Burr.”
The blizzard theory came into question a couple of days ago, however, when my cousins, Wayne and Liz Morse, came into the sugarhouse. They said sugarin’ was going on hot and heavy when I was born. Wayne said they were gathering sap from 3,000 buckets up at the family homestead on Robinson Hill in Calais and also had trees tapped at the Chapell Farm down in East Montpelier.
“Your grandpa had bought a brand new ’48 Ford truck, and we took it with a tank on it down to Chapell’s. Me, your Uncle Bernard and a couple other guys was gathering sap at 2 in the mornin’ so the sap wouldn’t freeze up and break th’ buckets.” He said one of the guys grumbled that my parents would “have a damned kid right during sugar season!” He went on to say that my father had to hurry right back and boil the sap brought in from the freezing buckets as soon as I came into the world.
While Wayne reminisced, there were four of us in our sugarhouse, Wayne, Liz, my buddy Steffen Parker and me. We were freezing to death as I boiled the last vestiges from our most recent sap run. “Similar this year,” I said. “Had a good early run like ’48 and now we sit in limbo with a cold weather interruption — only this year there’s no ‘damned kid’ to be born!”
We all laughed, but Wayne had a puzzled look on his face. “I remember great sugarin’ that spring,” he said, “so it must’a turned out good after you were born.” At that, Steffen, computer whiz, high-footed it out of the sugarhouse. When he returned he had a weather report from 1948. Wow, how’d we ever manage before the Internet? It seems the “cold weather interruption” happened just long enough to give my dad a break from the sugarhouse to help me get born. The day after, it went back above freezing and stayed perfect sugaring weather for the next 10 days.
This year’s a totally different story. The deep freeze that has held all Vermont sugar makers in its grasp for almost two weeks won’t let go. We’re all hoping that the sap run we’re sure to get after our weather moderates will be greeted by an April compassionate to sugar makers. April often offers grass-growing temperatures instead of sap running temperatures, and April’s here. In a fashion as “neurotic” as the weather, I’ve gone from worrying to ranting and raving to an acceptance that we can’t do a thing about it except pray. Yes, I believe that this troubled world needs all the spiritual guidance it can get.
Speaking of which, white smoke eventually did emerge from the Sistine Chapel, and the world said hello to Pope Francis. Though I’m not Catholic, I do view the pope as an important spiritual guide, a greater conduit to God. I wish Pope Francis well and pray for big things like world peace and human compassion.
I’m also thinking of something very close to home: Dear God, please bring us freezing nights and thawing days, winds from the west, and willing maple trees right through April. And let lots of white billow from Vermont sugarhouses for a while yet.
Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.
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