“An old man tryin’ to sugar.” There, that’s it, my subject, or lack thereof, that
haunted me all night long. Now all I have to do is write it. I couldn’t sleep for several reasons starting with those gol-dern Charley horses. Charley horses are the end result of an overweight 66-year-old snowshoe slogging eight hours in deep sticky snow. I just looked up “Charley horse” to see why such a light, almost humorous name ever got attached to something so painful and maddening. “(P)ainful spasms or cramps in the leg muscles, typically lasting anywhere from a few seconds to about a day.” Wikipedia also gave some interesting names from other countries: from Portugal, “paralyzer”;
Southern Italy, “donkey bite”; Norway, “thigh hen”; but the Finnish got it right, “wooden leg.”
On each of my trips to the bathroom, I walked like both of my legs were built of solid two-by-fours from my sacroiliac right down to my flat feet.
Snowshoes are the bane of my pre-sugarin’ existence in this climatologically neurotic Vermont. And speaking of neurotic, yesterday the snow changed its personality from wet and sticky to cold and crusty. I had my mouth all watered for a firmness that would make snowshoe walking easier. I was wrong. My friend Clarke from Virginia had come up for a few days to help. Clarke’s lucky enough to have never worn the cussed things before, but once we got strapped in, we found it didn’t really matter. Out in that crusty snow, we both were on our backs doing our “toppled turtle” impressions more than we were upright. And when we were upright, we felt like Sisyphus and his proverbial boulder, or that poor cartoon guy laboring through the Sahara in search of an oasis. Getting to a single tree 100 feet away was a marathon.
Fast forward a few days to inside our old sugarhouse. The steam rises making artistic patterns as it wafts through cracks between the boards. The fragrance is heavenly on this first day of boiling. Clarke must return to Virginia in hours, but at least he has a chance to inhale the end result of his torture. He smiles with approval.”This is fantastic!” he says.
I show him all the tricks my years as sugarmaker has brought — the adjustment of three float valves to maintain a perfect boiling depth; the scoop to aid in sap emergencies; the hydrometer to insure proper density. We watch the first golden batch of the year drain out.
“From here, it goes through the filter press to get out the sugar sand and then it’s ready to can,” I tell him.
I love the sugarhouse part of sugarin’ as much as I find the earlier woods part an ordeal. I’ve never yet found a way to completely escape it like my Grandpa Morse did. He was much smarter than me. Grandpa retired early from the woods part of sugarin’ and spent his waning years as chief syrup canner at Morse Farm. I remember it like it was yesterday: year after year Grandpa would come in daily and fill syrup cans out of an old enamel pitcher. He never spilled a drop and provided the final touch that literally delivered syrup from “tap to table.”
Folks still remark on Sidney Morse filling the size can they wanted with the grade they wanted and handing it to them with a smile.
Sugarin’ is at its mid-point as I write. We’ve had our share of weather and equipment woes but we’re hopeful for another sap run or two. Steam’s been rising from our sugarhouse for two weeks now, finding me well away from the woods and the “wooden legs.” I’ve just finished my second cup of coffee this early morning and am ready to head back down and begin another day of boiling. Glad to be moving closer to what Grandpa did.
Burr Morse lives and sugars in East Montpelier.MORE IN Letters
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