I move at earth speed behind my father in the woods, stepping over the snowy logs. My feet are cold and a headache plagues him and still we press on, moving from tree to tree, trudging through the heavy snow, putting up new sap lines. This is just part of the infrastructure needed to gather the sap and turn it into maple syrup for our tables and for the tables of others who will delight in its smoky sweetness in the months to come. We press on despite our various discomforts because we are farmers and it’s still light out and there is still work to be done. My family has been trudging through the snow in February from sugar maple to sugar maple for generations, engaging in the unique and blessed tradition given to White people by the indigenous people who came before us here in the Northeast – sugaring. For whatever reason, my family has never really used the term “sugar” – we always say “sap.” Sap house, sap bush, sap season. With the return of the warming sun and as temperatures begin to climb into the 40s, sap season begins.
Eventually we call it quits as the setting sun shines its last light on the eastern mountain ridge down the long, narrow valley my Frisbee ancestors have called home for nine generations now. There is blue sky, a treat after months of cloudy weather, and the clouds are clearing quickly in preparation for the full moon. Tonight is the Sap Moon, the name given to this full moon in February, and it will glow bright on the white snowy fields, its mass illuminated by the sun so far away, so massive that my human brain can hardly comprehend it. How is it that all life depends on this gigantic massive ball of burning gas 92 million miles away? How is it that the presence of the moon moves water in tides within the oceans and within myself? How is it that I’m held, rooted, infinitely supported by this Earth I get to walk on? These days, I shake my head and laugh out loud whenever I really think about the universe.
We drive down the road, donning our masks to protect each other from potentially deadly virus particles, my dad in the backseat because he is too tired to empty my front passenger seat of the supplies I’ve gathered for my day on the farm and in the woods – bag of snacks and water, untouched but important to have, purse, compost bucket to take to the farm backyard compost bin later.
At the farm, we see my older brother, Gideon, and his son, Wyatt, coming in from doing chores. It’s time to tap the line of old maples that line the roadway. Hundreds of years old, the old trees still run with sap, still hold our buckets and take our drill bits, still uphold the tradition of buckets that indicate there is syrup being made here. I tapped these trees as a child, putting my mouth directly under the spile and drinking in the subtle sweetness of slight sugar water. My father did the same, and his father. And now it’s time for the next generation, for my nephews to do the same.
These buckets are put up for nostalgia. It’s how my ancestors collected sap, using horses and sleighs and their own feet and hands to dump each bucket into a larger container that would then be taken back to the sap house. These days, plastic tubing does most of that work for us, but we still put up a few buckets along the road so that Wyatt and his younger brother, Porter, can help collect the buckets. And so that we remember. The amount of sap collected in these ten buckets will be negligible but certainly the most celebrated by members of the family, young and old, who stop by the assess the plink, plunk, plunk of the droplets of sap falling into the container.
Wyatt’s small hands tap, tap, tap the spile softly, carefully into the hole he just helped his dad drill, the two of them arguing over who can hold the drill and how much to push it in. I can see Wyatt trying hard to emulate how his father’s steady hands guide the hammer to tap in the metal spile that gives the sap a way to get from the tree into the bucket. Thank you, tree, I say silently, trying to remember to do this each time. The honorable harvest is important. Reciprocity is important. Gratitude is important. Wyatt puts his mouth immediately on the spile to suck in the sweet sap, COVID-be-damned. Porter loses interest immediately and is playing tag with Grandma, then calls me over to look at the big puddle that has formed on the west end of the driveway before the large birch that leads to The Great Snowpile. He splash, splash, splashes through the puddle in circles, zig zags, his three-year-old joy at a simple puddle bringing me out of my adult brain into my own childlike joy.
The family tapping outing turns into a family game of freeze tag as Wyatt tags and zips, the rest of us shuffling in our rubber boots and damp pants, cold after hours of tromping in the snow but not quite ready to leave the source of so much interaction in these pandemic times. As the light wanes, I head to the compost bin, Wyatt finds his snowboard at the bottom of the hill and pleads with his dad for a few runs down the icy, steep slope, and Gideon agrees to Porter’s request for a ride on the plastic sled, pulling him in a circle around the lawn. I head inside and take off my orange hat, my Carhartt overalls, my work jacket and sit down
tired in all the right places warm on my cheeks from so much fresh air warm in my heart from so much love.
It was a day beyond schedules. A day of being and doing outside. A day of family tradition. A day of rain and snow. A day of light, so much light. A day of gratitude. A day of hope.
May every day be so blessed, and so rich.