August 10, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I didn’t find the old sugarhouse foundation until the third or fourth summer we lived on our land. Unlike so many things I don’t do, or don’t do until much later than one might expect, this was not due to laziness; after all, we were building a house at the time. For a while there, strolling in the woods was not particularly high on the priority list.
The foundation is tucked into a stand of mature balsam fir, a handful of which have grown up inside of it, towering high above a roofline that is visible only in the mind’s eye. The sugaring rig is still there, rusted and listing, slowly returning to the rich soil like the bones of some great beast. There is no evidence of the wooden structure that once stood atop the stacked fieldstone, but I can imagine its rough form, the beams and boards hewn by the stroke of the broadaxe and stained by the sweat of the task.
It was for the syrup – or the money the syrup would bring – that someone gathered and arranged those hundreds of stones. It was for this that someone felled the trees and shaped the wood, hung and gathered the buckets, cut and piled the sugaring wood, stoked the fire in the big rig, sat up late as steam rose high into the night sky. What might they have been thinking? Of the morning chores that would come all too soon? Of what they’d buy with the syrup money? Surely they wondered over the weather, hoping for another sap run or two before the maples budded out and the season ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Our house is built now, or close enough to it, and so on occasion I walk down to the foundation and perch myself on one of those stones. It is a luxury, I know, to take this time. But I do not sit for long: Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Just enough to sense that depth of history, to be comforted by the knowledge that someone worked this land before me. Enough to be reminded that all the things I experience – the quiet satisfactions, the dispiriting setbacks, the occasional whooping joys – are nothing new to this place. It has seen them all, time and again, and the record of mine will merely be added to the records of those that have come before me: A tumbledown fieldstone foundation, almost lost to the forest. A farm implement, broken into pieces and half buried at the edge of a field. A rusted metal chair perched at the height of a wooded knoll: Who put that there, and for what?
I want to live my life honestly. Not only in my relationships to other humans, but also in my relationships to the animals and land around me. For as much as other people, they are what sustain me, and they deserve nothing less. Indeed, I deserve nothing less. This seems if nothing else an obvious truth, a clear and necessary path, and yet it is too often lost in the hurried, day-to-day rushing from chore to chore.
So every so often I walk down to the old sugarhouse foundation and sit. And I feel the unshakable integrity of those stones, stacked by hand, pulled by the hoof of some loyal beast. I imagine I can see the structure that has long since fallen away and been consumed by the forest, and I consider the work of it all: The saw blade back-and-forth, back-and-forth, the bit of the axe rising and falling, again and again and again. The buckets of sap heavy and sloshing, 30 or more gallons to make just one of syrup, most of it to be boiled away, rising into the air as if it were nothing at all.
And at the end of the night, with the fire gone cold and the March sky a cold blanket of stars, all that will remain is the sweet distillation of these efforts. The honest return on an honest investment.