Thursday, April 28, 2011

Like a wheelbarrow through mud

Mud season, let’s say, is a time of transition. You get the good with the bad. And if snowdrifts give way to daffodils at the temporary expense of dry ground…well, the flowers sure are purty.

Here at D Acres, a long and epic sugaring season is just winding down while the hubbub of the growing season has us trotting from task to task. The greenhouses are finally boasting beds of baby greens, robust seedlings are demanding to be transplanted, orchards and garden edges are expanding with new tree stock, and the care of peas and potatoes is looming as I write these words.

In the midst of recovering our green thumbs, however, is a final week of soot-covered digits. That is to say, more sugaring. The taps have been pulled, but stock-piled sap is demanding a last hurrah of early mornings and smoky hours beside the evaporator. And the real frenzy is in the search for wood. Having burned through all the softwood stacked in and around the sugar shack, the next best option has proven to be bundles of slab wood piled in our lower lot.

So, predictably, last week found us cutting and hauling said wood to where we needed it most. Our relief at not having to carry armfuls over slushy snow waned slightly as our wheelbarrows stalled in muddy tracks. Impromptu drainage trenches diverting water across our path only upped the ante. Swampy suction against our boots was a constant reminder that April showers bring boosted calf muscles as well as May flowers.

I jest, and even as we worked our way through the muddy glop I had to smile. The smell of dirt was pungent and had my senses primed, crocus buds reaching out of the sodden ground to grow into what we know they will become, my memory of trilliums and sensitive ferns coloring the otherwise very brown ground.

With my grip tight around the wheelbarrow’s worn handles, it occurred to me – now granted I was a bit tired, sooty, and yes, preoccupied with the next day’s plan – that somehow this pushing of a wheelbarrow through mud could be a microcosm of so many endeavors that we pursue here at D Acres. Fostering the well-being of our community, holding on the skills & traditions of our past, trying to create a little more joy and tad more beauty…neither good intentions nor high hopes would seem to proffer instant traction any better than a mucky path. But whether it’s the health, strength, vitality, and vibrancy of our community, of our food systems, of our northern forest ecosystem, or simply of our maple syrup production, surely a bit of effort is worth putting into the mix.

So while mud season may not be the favored spell, we can agree that, yes, it’s worth it for what follows? Surely the effort of a moment is reaped exponentially as the energy multiplies into the future. And whether that takes the form of sweet syrup, or blooming daffodils, or a wheelbarrow full of just what you need, or food from a farmer whose hand you can shake, let’s make the extra effort. Push a little harder. Can we afford to lose our traction?

as published in North Country News

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Choose your holidays wisely

April is host to quite the range of federally recognized days, wouldn’t you say? I mean, in what other context do you start off the month with nationally accepted acts of mischievousness, committed in broad daylight and under the noses of co-workers, in-laws, neighbors, and pals? And then merely two weeks later the tables turn, punctuality, precision, and transparency being the order of the day so as to avoid consequences from the chief in-law of them all, Uncle Sam. By the end of the month, whole sectors of the nation are searching for painted eggs and returning to chocolate, meat, favorite TV shows, and preferred smartphone apps as their month of lent comes to a close. Phew.

Tucked into such a formidable list is the comparatively innocuous Earth Day. (Followed shortly thereafter by Arbor Day…on to what percentage of calendars does that one actually make it?) No money is owed, no threats of cotton-ball stuffed chocolates or buckets of water above your doorway color the day’s activities, no-one is dieing nor rising nor fingering ashes to your brow. No, not this day. Just a little compassion is all that is requested, if you can spare the thought and the moment, for the ground we walk on, the water we drink, the air we breathe.

That’s all.

Or is it? For just one day each year – April 22 - blue-green globes and swirling clouds are all the rage. ‘Re-duce, re-use, re-cycle’ is annually rejuvenated as the popular mantra; composting & tree-planting are temporarily accepted as buzzwords bandied about without a second thought. Yet all this gusto and emotion is just for one day? What about the other 364?

Please don’t be taken aback by my questions…I’m just wondering. Air, Water, Dirt…without these elements we would not survive, yet this basic biology is routinely overlooked. So what about trying to sustain the energy and momentum that is drummed up each April 22 and grow a year-round ethic?

The difficulty, it strikes me, is in the scale. Earth Day can quickly become a celebration fraught with global issues and overtones. I mean, how do you reasonably honor an entity with a 24,901.55mile girth without getting a bit, well, big for your britches? There is a certain glamour to international places, events, and environmental tragedies for they are potent in their overwhelming nature and scope. And yet it is difficult to live at this heightened level of global awareness. If we are to act with Earth Day in mind all year round, I think it must exhibited in our local lives. Let the global stage influence and inform us as we pick our way through daily life.

This takes ongoing commitment, yes. But the rewards are many, including the health & well-being of future generations and the survival of life as we know it. Feeling motivated?

So what can you do to let Earth Day live on? Start with your home: turn off lights when not in use, shut down all appliances and technologies at the end of the day, conserve water, turn down the heat (put on an extra sweater), buy the extra sweater at a second-hand shop, note down your patterns of consumption – then work to minimize them, consolidate errands to limit your driving needs…start a compost pile, turn the compost into a garden, keep plants on the windowsill…support local farmers through Local Foods Plymouth (, check out the 2011 Local Goods Guide (, patronize Plymouth Shop Local establishments; know what you buy, why you buy it, and where it’s coming from.

Step outside. Know the names of trees as you know the hills by sight, taste our mountain air with a deep breath, relish the seasons. Isn’t it worth preserving?

as published in North Country News

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sugar and Smoke

It’s 5:06am. By headlamp & memory I clamber down the ladders of the my silo abode and delicately balance my way atop the trail’s icy crust to the tiny shack at woods edge. I stop by the community building on my way for the following provisions: a stick of butter, a jug of water, and a hatchet.

This means sugaring season.

Once inside the rickety door, I crouch to light the sticks and newspaper awaiting within the belly of our rusty evaporator. Laid in place the night before, the kindling crackles to life quickly. I’m particular about the fire for the stove offers an imperfect system, full of inefficiencies and character. Getting off to a quick, hot start is key and I best be sure my sleepy eyes and groggy hands don’t deter the process.

I start with barely ten gallons of sap atop the stove and have it boiling within fifteen minutes. I use a four-pan system, the back two being warming trays, the front being the intermediate step, and the middle pan – ultimately – being the finishing pan. Using a ladle and a strainer, I’ll move eighty gallons of sap across the stove over the next fifteen hours.

The result will be two gallons of dark, sweet, smoky maple syrup.

Between beginning and end, nonetheless, is a rhythm of constant motion. I maintain that if there’s time to sit, then the process is not progressing sufficiently efficiently. Therefore, it is amongst sweet-smelling steam and smoke that burns the eyes, that a confined dance is choreographed. I strain, transfer, and add sap as, thankfully, these watched pots do boil. The empty buckets gradually stack up: twenty gallons, forty gallons, sixty gallons, eighty. Around this work, I split wood (hence the hatchet), feeding the fire frequently and stockpiling wood for the nightime hours.

In every spare moment, I drink water. I’ll guzzle two to three gallons each boil day (hence the jug). While that minimizes the headache, I still leave the shack desiccated and weary, not to mention the inhaled soot that leaves me sounding like a struggling asthmatic.

The stick of butter, I’d like to clarify, is not some personal endurance trick. Rather, it is the 911 call of sugaring emergencies. At some point, usually first occurring in late morning, the sugar content of the final pan will gain that critical ratio when, over intense heat, it wants to boil over. While still far from finished syrup, care must be taken to not burn this saccharine, over-zealously-bubbling sap water. At this juncture, the simplest act is also the most effective: throw in some butter and ta-da, problem solved. No need to dramatically dampen the fire, no need to cool the pan with cold sap…

Eventually, though, as evening settles around the shack and a few bright stars are visible from the smoky doorway, the end approaches. First, sap ceases to be added to the warming pans; then only two pans are left atop the evaporator; the fire is allowed to die down just a bit; and finally it is the finishing pan alone that garners my consideration. I study it, attentive and focused, waiting. At a crucial moment the bubbles will achieve a distinctive unity and coherence atop the sap-turned-syrup’s surface. They rise up, and it is suddenly quite clear that the day’s alchemy is complete.

Liquid gold, with an indescribable intensity to its fresh flavor, has once again been made.

as published in North Country News