Makenna Goodman  @  ChelseaGreen

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Horse-Drawn Sleds & Sap Tea: My First Time Sugaring in Rural Vermont

Posted on Thursday, March 26th, 2009 at 12:18 pm by Makenna Goodman

When we moved to Vermont we left a society gripped by depression and unemployment, falling prey to fascism, and on the verge of another world-wide military free-for-all; and entered a pre-industrial, rural community…Instead of the hectic rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder and observe.
–Helen and Scott Nearing, from "The Good Life"

I didn't know anything about the Nearings when I moved from New York City to Vermont. To be honest, I barely had heard of the Back to the Land movement of the 1970s, which was launched in part by Helen and Scott Nearing, and their radical move from city/sophisticated/academic life to the rural farm. I don't know much about the Nearings yet (I'm still just beginning to read about them), but I have heard that Scott was a radical professor who popularized the game Monopoly, as a kind of mockery of capitalism–now, of course, Monopoly has become commodified and branded by the very thing it once mocked–and that they were big maple syrup makers.

It's sugaring season in Vermont–the season of syrup-making. That three-week period (or one month, depending on the weather) where those who sugar emerge from their states of hibernation and start work on their land. Loggers have been plugging away throughout the winter, but the farms are pretty quiet (except for those incorporating season-extension techniques), and you can tell everyone's anxious to get out there, socialize, and work with their bodies. I'd never sugared before this weekend, and never really knew how maple syrup was made. But what better place to sugar for the first time than Bob C.'s, a local expert and former Back to the Lander who's sugared for years and years. Bob claims he's never turned on a computer, his house only got electricity a several years ago, and he and his wife built the damn thing. Homesteaders, of sorts. And wicked funny.

Bob and his wife rely on maple syrup as a significant source of their income (as many people do in Vermont), which means they have three weeks to make up to 250 gallons of syrup, and a hearty chunk of money. The sugar season is short, and if you're relying on old-time techniques for gathering sap–Bob uses a homemade, horse drawn sled instead of a diesel tractor, for example–it calls for a workforce. They rely on friends and family to come help out and pay them in quarts of syrup, hot dogs grilled under the arch, and future favors in return. Their sugarbush is beautiful: the light filters through the maples and reflects off of the snow, the breeze is chilly but you can smell spring, and the horses are happy to be out of the barn and working again.

There were six of us helping Bob on Sunday. We spread out in the woods, pouring sap from each silver bucket hanging from the trees, into five gallon plastic buckets, and transporting those into the metal vat on the sled. The snow is starting to melt, so we would fall often, sometimes waist-deep. I drove the horses for a while, and I'd slow them to a halt when we'd pull up to the dump station, located in the center of the woods. Then we'd lower the tube from the sled vat (brimming with sap) into the mouth of a long plastic pipeline, and watch the sap shoot downhill towards the sugar house, where it collects in order to be boiled down into syrup. At one point I bent down to the clear, shooting sap stream, which looks like spring water, and took a sip–it's the purest, coldest, sweetest tasting thing in the world.

Once the light faded and we had gathered from every tapped tree, we headed down to the sugarhouse. There, Bob talked about proper boiling point, the level of sap in the arch, feeding the fire with wood from the splitter, and how to filter the syrup when it's ready. It's a science, in a way, or a type of alchemy. I'm afraid of sounding overly dramatic; but it's mystical. Mythological. This is man combining his mind with the land. A friend brought me a mug he had dipped in the arch, filled with boiling sap and a tea bag (sap tea, unlike anything I've tasted.) We debated dunking hot dogs in the liquid (a classic sugaring staple), but Bob was adamant we not–his vegan customers would not be pleased.

When we got home, we watched Eddie Murphy's stand up comedy from the 80s. He wears a tight, orange leather jumpsuit! I was so tired I didn't bother to brush my teeth, and slept soundly with syrup on my tongue.

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