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March 30, 2009

Quiet Legacies

Sugarin' contemplation

My grandfather never knew a mortgage payment. He lived in the same house from the time he was nine years old until he died at age 92. His was a simple life. He worked for a modest income, but his needs were few. His garden was the source of much of his food and the measure for many around town. He rarely traveled beyond the village borders.

My grandfather was a wise man, but I didn’t understand that in my youth. What I did understand was that our society had evolved to the point where the wisdom of our elders played an ever-diminishing role. Today’s corporate culture values youthful energy and the obsessive drive to continuously learn and produce anew. Old skills have little worth and yesterday’s technology lies in the scrapheap. In my late teens, I left my home state of Vermont with the belief that opportunity lay elsewhere. I set out to make a mark in the world, but a decade later I returned and, over time, began to look at the small town culture and its inhabitants through a new lens.

Today, I find myself spending more and more time thinking about my grandfather. His legacy was one of self-reliance, family, and personal integrity. His was a value that cannot be assigned with a price tag in the marketplace. My grandfather did not have money to pass on after his death. My inheritance is the memory of a man who indelibly touched my life in ways that I am just now beginning to understand.

There was once a time when I considered my rural background and generalist skills of lesser value than those of the corporate climbers. I wanted to become an expert, too. In what, I didn’t know.

Long ago I put any grandiose “career” aspirations behind me. I now long to be more like my grandfather. Perhaps it is because I’ve come to understand the fallacies that lured our culture through the twentieth century. Basic skills that had previously been passed from generation to generation have been lost in much of the population. The relationship between the experienced elder or master craftsman and the youthful apprentice has given way to the teen teaching mom and dad how to set up email on the home computer. I often ask, what will my children inherit from me?

A couple of years ago I was talking with my older son about the importance of being able to create something with my own hands, fix something that breaks, or grow my own food. I was saddened by his response when he exclaimed, “Dad, those aren’t things we need to know. Those are things we pay people to do for us.”

As devastating as his remark seemed at the time, I know that I can’t impose my understanding of the world on him. His reality is much different than mine. Someday, perhaps, David will look back at the host of influential people in his life. He may be as surprised as I was when he discovers how and from where the lasting impressions were formed.

While tending the fire in my little front-yard sugarin’ evaporator recently, I learned that the man I’d written of in late February, the farmer with the sugarhouse next to my childhood home, had passed away on March 10th. My sister wrote to me and said, “Seems appropriate that he went during sugaring season…”

In my reply, I told Melanie that I’d boil a batch of syrup for Howard and that I’d been thinking about the lasting impressions that have come from people I never would have expected.

Melanie wrote back, “It’s most easy for me to believe that people do live on forever … in the lives of the people they impacted when they were alive and then in an everlasting cascade of the people they each impact.”

Hmm. How is it that I failed to notice that my youngest sister had become so wise?

March 11, 2009

Communities - Old and New

Building the evaporator 

Historically, the building of homes had been an endeavor that relied primarily on local input - individuals, families, and communities. Here in rural New England, the “barn raising” was a common event. Once the timbers had been shaped and assembled on site into their sectional assemblies (called bents), an invitation went out for assistance in raising the barn (or home). Many people, some traveling long distances, came together for the event, bringing food and musical instruments in addition to their brawn. After the barn’s frame went up with the aid of many dozens of helping hands, the day was capped with a barn dance to celebrate the milestone.

Participation in a barn raising was not taken lightly. Each person who came to assist knew that they, too, might need help someday.

Today the creation of a new home (or barn) looks much different. For the most part, homes are no longer built by their owners, but rather by teams of assemblers who piece together the prefabricated components on a foundation. Rafter trusses, pre-hung windows and doors, plastic siding and trim are delivered to the site by truck. Cranes offload the pieces and crews fit them together, often with the help of specialized tools.

Lighting the fire

One of the things that I like most about the growing interest in small houses is the fact that many enthusiasts are drawn by the prospect of building their own home using readily available materials and basic tools. There is something about a tiny house that seems inherently achievable even by those with little building experience. A growing number of folks have decided, “I can do that!”

For those first-time homebuilders, the role of community is still as vital as it was in days of old. The face of that community has changed, however. Today, in addition to our families, friends, and neighbors, we have expansive online communities through which we can draw on the collective experience in a way that was unimaginable to previous generations. By virtue of the internet, we have great possibilities for community participation in a new form of barn raising. Online forums, discussion groups, and blogs offer millions of do-it-yourself home builders the chance to share what they’ve learned (and proudly display their creations) while also drawing on the expertise of those who’ve preceded them. It may lack the live music of a barn dance at the end of the day, but it’s a community nonetheless.

Boiling sap

So what does all this have to do with making maple syrup on a sunny March day? Well, here’s the story behind the photos.

We finally had a good run of sap from our sugar maples and were ready to boil it down to syrup. I was preparing to assemble a makeshift evaporator setup after shoveling out a patch in the two-feet of snow that still stands on the front lawn. We’d invited an old friend to join us. Chuck braved the early season mud and walked the half mile to our land carrying bags of food and libations. We settled in for an afternoon of feeding the fire under the large kettle of sap.

An old friend

Then, at 3 p.m., a young couple, accompanied by their 3-year-old son and a local builder made their own trek up our snowy path. They’d decided to build their own portable home. Their search for ideas led them to the Gypsy Rose blog. To their delight, they found that we were located in the same state and asked if they could come for a visit and ask questions about our experience – both building and living in a small home.

“Sure!” we said.

They arrived just as Chuck was taking food off the grill – plenty to go around. In that Sunday afternoon sunshine we enjoyed the company of an old friend and answered the questions of a new acquaintance while boiling down the bountiful, sweet sap that flowed from the trees that surround the meadow.

March 01, 2009


Marion tests the sap for sweetness

Acer Saccharum. A.k.a, the Sugar Maple. During the month of March the species can be summed up in a single word. Sweet!


Vermont is the number one producer of maple syrup and maple sugar in the United States. The heavenly fluid is also the most popular sweetener (in terms of both preferred taste and volume) in our home. Being the thrifty types (combined with the fact that maple syrup prices have nearly doubled in the past year), we decided that it was time to start tapping our own trees, boiling down the sweet sap on a backyard evaporator, and putting away a year’s supply.

Setting spile

As a kid growing up in Bradford, Vermont, one of my fondest memories was the early spring scene in my neighbor’s “sugar bush” (the term for a stand of sugar maples used for “sugarin’”). Thousands of buckets hung from the trees. Howard had a team of draft horses that he’d hitch to the gathering sled. Those old mares knew the route through the sugar bush by heart, stopping at each tree while Howard stepped down from the sled. The horses turned their heads rearward and patiently watched while Howard poured the sap from each bucket into the tank. Only after the farmer had stepped back onto the rear of the sled would the team shift their gaze forward and plod off to the next tree.

Sap is flowing

I can still remember taking a bag of my grandmother’s homemade donuts to the sugarhouse and dipping them into the boiling syrup while steam rose thick from the surface of the evaporator tanks and a crackling wood fire glowed beneath. Fond memories, indeed.


On February 26th of this year the sun shone brightly, warming the trunks of the maples on the south-facing slope. I felt it was perhaps a week or so early, but I decided to set a spile (sap spout) in order to monitor the beginning of the season.

Before I had the drill bit out of the hole there was sap flowing down the shaft. Without need for waiting any longer, we set all of our buckets on that glorious afternoon. An hour later I had enough sap to boil down for an early season sample of our trees’ sweet treasure. Let it flow!