Family, Farming, Parenting



This past weekend featured the first truly springlike days of the year, and as much as I’m fond of portraying myself as a rugged contrarian stoic who pays little heed to the capricious vagaries of a Vermont winter, the truth is I get as excited about spring as anyone.

On Saturday morning, whilst waiting for sap to accumulate in the buckets we’d hung, and with the boys out scouting the woods for some innocent fur-bearing species or another, Penny and I split wood together (this is what passes for a date around these parts) and damned if I weren’t more than a few rounds into it before I was down to a tee shirt and feeling the first salted beads of sweat forming on my brow. Ah. We split for a bit more than an hour, then spent some time futzing with our cobbled together sugaring apparatus, and then, unable to resist, strolled down to the most prolific of our taps to assess the situation. Of course, there wasn’t nearly enough to be worth gathering, but there was plenty to be worth tipping a bucket or three to our mouths for a sample.

The way we sugar is frankly absurd. Our 60 or so taps (“just enough to be annoying,” is how one north country farmer described it to me) are spread across a broad sweep of fence line maples that extends for more than a quarter-mile down along our southern boundary. We transport sap in five-gallon buckets, either pulling them in a sled, or simply lugging them over the rotten snow, post-holing with each step, our shoulders slowly being extracted from their sockets until finally we capitulate and stop for a rest. It’s borderline ridiculous, or maybe not even borderline, given that our friends Jimmy and Sara make some damn fine syrup just up the road, which they sell at a fantastically reasonable price.

I have to admit that late on Saturday afternoon, after my second trip from the far reaches of our sugaring territory, with my arms screaming hellfire and my chin sticky from sap and sweat, and the dawning recognition that we’d so far collected enough for a single gallon of syrup at best, and still there was the straining and boiling and bottling and crikey, how many hours would we have into that single gallon, anyway? Three? Four? Yeah, I have to admit that at that precise moment, I was about ready to throw in the friggin’ towel on the whole damnable operation.

And at that precise moment, as I was standing in our yard, hoping my biceps would someday stop hating me, Rye emerged from the woods. He’d found a handful of errant sugar maples deep in our woodlot, and in his uniquely industrious way, had quietly tapped them. Both boys had assembled little fireplace rigs, and were excited to do some sugarin’ of their own.

So here I am in the yard with forty or so gallons of hard-earned sap arrayed around me in five-gallon buckets, and I’m about ready to collapse into a puddle of sorry-ass self-pity, and Rye’s carrying two sloshing buckets, which he’s hauled over hill and freakin’ dale. Speaking strictly in terms of weight and strength proportion, never mind terrain and distance (his haul exceeded mine in both regards), my eight-year-old had just out worked me by a country mile.

And the little bugger’s grinning to beat the band, holding onto his precious sap for dear life. “Look, Papa, look,” he said. “Do you think I have enough to boil?”

Suddenly, my arms didn’t hurt so much.









Farming, Money



So just a few days following my uncharitable comments regarding those who capitulate to their innate cowardice and flee the heart of Vermont winter like sad little rats slinking into the protective shadows, I found myself wanting, more than anything, to get the hell out. Just a day or two, and it didn’t even have to be somewhere warm… just somewhere different (at my lowest point, even New Hampshire would have sufficed), somewhere where an inch of rain wasn’t about to fall from the sky, bringing ruination to my daily ski and painting the whole damn place with an ugly brush. Everywhere, piles of cow shit and dog crap and all the small bits of detritus we never got around to picking up in November. There’s nothing like a hard rain in January to make our little farm feel dingy and ragged and sad, like some bassakwards, backwoods hovel where the father spends his days in a sprung recliner, intermittently snoozing off the prior evenings drunk and raving about the gubmint, while the wife stirs a pot of rendering lard on the cookstove and the children run feral through the woods, trapping and skinning small, fur-bearing animals. Wait a second…

As feared, I awoke this morning to transformation; the bulk of our pasture is now bereft of snow, and while there is a sort of crumpled, maudlin beauty to the faded browns that dominate the landscape, it felt as if I carried the weight of all that rain on my shoulders. I got the woodstove hummin’, made coffee, and shucked into my jacket for chores, the whole time wishing, pathetically, that we’d made so many different choices, choices that would have afforded us the freedom to simply close the door behind us and leave. No animals. No wood heat. More money. And all that.

Once outside, I smelled something at once familiar and strange, and for a moment I struggled to place it. And then I knew: Earth. The ground. I fed the pigs first, then the cows, and by now the sky was light enough that from the height of our land, I could see across the valley, to the patchwork of fields and forest that comprise Morgan and Jen’s farm and Lynn and Roman’s hayfield, where in five months we’ll be mowing and tedding and raking and baling and throwing bales until we literally shake from fatigue. I know it sounds strange, but for a second, I swear I could actually feel that fatigue, the memory of it stored somewhere in my synapses, and I stood there for a moment and let myself sink into it.

And that was it. That, right there, was the escape I needed. I came in from chores with the rain pattering my shoulders and smearing into the remaining patches of snow. I landed a boot in a pile of dog shit and then, on the very next step, slipped on a patch of ice and fell on my ass. Fifteen minutes prior, it would’ve made me curse my sorry life. But now, all it did was make me laugh.






Family, Farming

Baled Out

We just finished a 4-day stretch of haying and we are whupped. As always, it was satisfying beyond any logic or reason. We pulled the last few bales off the field yesterday afternoon just as the rain started falling, and it felt like someone was trying to tell us it was time to rest.

The following is excerpted from an essay I wrote last year. It will be published in an upcoming issue of Yankee magazine.

On haying days, Penny mixes thick milkshakes and we drink them on the ride home, the four of us crammed into the cab of our old Chevy. We idle down the winding gravel road from Martha’s hayfield; the loaded wagon pushes us, and I ride the brakes. Oncoming traffic gives us a wide berth, and wisely so. Everyone waves in that two-fingers-off-the-steering-wheel way rural Vermonters wave, as if afraid to commit to even this brief, passing relationship. I can smell the warm hay, the hot brakes, and the chopped up sprigs of mint Penny puts into the sweet slurry of cream, egg, and maple syrup. I can smell the sweat that has risen, flowed, and is now drying on my skin. It is not sour, or at least, not yet. My teeth hurt from the cold, and I know that my day is nowhere near over. There is this wagon to unload, and yet another to fill. There will be more tomorrow. But for the seven or eight minutes it takes to get home, I am afforded the simple luxury of the satisfaction only hard labor can provide, and I think ahead to the coming winter, when I will pull each of these bales out of our barn, one-by-one, extracts of summer in an iced-over world.

And I will remember how it happens every year that I improbably recognize a bale or two – maybe a runt from an early pass, when we were fiddling with the baler settings, or maybe one from the field’s edge, with an identifying stick woven in, shed from the old maples that line the northern fringe, overseers of more hay and toil than I can imagine.  And I’ll stand in our snow-packed barnyard for a minute, holding the bale, wrenched back to the moment I hauled it off the chute and tossed it to Penny or one of the boys as Martha guided the tractor down the long windrow, the smell of grease and diesel and drying hay riding softly on the summer air. 

It’s not a moment frozen in time, but rather just the opposite: A moment so fluid it can travel across weeks and even months to be with me at six o’clock on a January morning, to a point roughly equidistant from the haying season before and the haying season to come.

Then I walk up the short hill to the paddock, release the compressed hay from the confines of its twine, throw it over the fence, and leave the cows to their breakfast.