Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

December 15, 2015

Harvesting Currier & Ives

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 5:16 pm

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The anemic sun, unimpeded by even a single cloud, illuminated a white world beyond my frosted window. Snow still covered our hills, muffling everything to the hush of a church. We kids were growing weary of struggling into layers of thick clothes, just to venture out. Anyway, it was too cold to do anything outdoors. But stuck indoors was even more boring.

The phone rang.

“Hey, Jimmy from up the road is asking if we want to go with him to help harvest maple syrup.”

A trip to the grocery store? I wondered

Jimmy’s dad dropped us from his pickup truck into snow so cold it squeaked when our boots hit it. Even at this temperature, the smell of cow manure wafted from the pickup’s bed.

“I’ll pick you boys up in a couple of hours,” the kid’s dad said. Then he was gone in a cloud of snow.

I looked around. Just the typical wood-sided farmhouse, much bigger barn, and multiple tractor implements dormant in the yard beneath mounds of snow. My every exhalation was a puff of steam; every inhalation a sting to my lungs.

Except for us three kids, the place was deserted.

Something jingled in the barn. We stood there, exhaling clouds. Two horses came out the open door. They were harnessed side by side. Their hair was long and thick. Winter coats. They walked over the packed snow, pulling something. A large sled glided from the doors.

A sleigh! I envisioned.

“Whoa!” some deep, well-used voice graveled.

An old man walked out of the barn, then slid the door closed as his horses waited, blowing steam into the crystalline air.

“Come along, boys,” he said, not even looking our way.

I started for the sled, anticipating a ride, but the neighbor kid stopped me. I followed him, walking alongside the rig.

In silence, except for our squeaking boots, we walked toward the leafless forest behind the farmhouse. The horses and sled, guided mostly by the farmer’s voice, occasionally by tugs on the leather harness, led us among the silent trees.

The trees protruded from the white ground, black, stiff, in varying trunk thicknesses. All their branches stood naked, yet did not make me feel death. Nor did I sense that they were awake – they were too stiff.

One tree – and only one – still had a leaf on it. A single leaf. With three thick points, and colors of yellow, rust, and decaying brown. I peered closely at it, but didn’t touch it. When I saw that the steam of my breaths jostled it, I backed away, not wanting to be the cause of its demise.

At the base of another tree, I saw the characteristic pattern of rabbit’s tracks. Two paw prints side by side in front, and two in a line in back. My eyes followed their chaotic path from the tree trunk into the forest.

“Whoa!”

I watched the farmer go up to a dormant tree, and remove a bucket hanging on a hook in the bark. He poured the liquid from the bucket into a tank on the sled.

“Come on!” the neighbor kid prompted us. I found a bucket hanging from another tree. Above the handle, a hollow steel tube protruded from the tree at a downward angle. Clear liquid dripped from it, into the bucket. The bucket was half full of clear liquid.

I took the bucket off its hook and moved it to watch the sap inside. I expected to see a slow, barely perceptible movement. The maple syrup I knew from the breakfast table was frustratingly slow. But it sloshed in the bucket like water.

I stuck my nose down to the opening of the bucket and took a deep breath. There was no odor of any kind, let alone the smell of maple syrup I expected.

“Whatcha’ doin’?” the neighbor kid asked.

“Nothin’.”

I carried it over to the sled. In the flat bed above the runners was a steel tank. It had a thin layer of liquid over its bottom. I added my pail-full, returned the bucket to its hook, and took off in search of another.

We all scampered among the trees, carrying the freezing buckets in our mittened hands, getting warmer from the work. The horses moved slowly within the forest to lead us to other trees not yet harvested.

After 45 minutes, the tank was ¾ full.

“That’s enough,” the farmer declared. He turned his team and we followed the sled in another direction.

We squeaked through the universe of snow at the slow horses’ pace, weaving among the forest of black maples. Then, a whiff of maple syrup awoke me from the trance of black and white.

I saw a shed – nothing more than a roof on stilts, beyond a dozen more trees. Under the shed, thick clouds of steam slowly billowed into the frigid air.

The pungent sweetness increased in our noses the closer we got. I approached this Sorcerer’s laboratory slowly, bursting with curiosity, trembling with fear. The farmer stopped his sleigh alongside the shed. When I reached the edge of the roof, I could hear bubbling. Thick bubbles, like some Pleistocene mud pit.

Beneath the roof, a large sheet metal rectangle, mounted off the ground by about two feet, occupied almost all the space, like some Pagan altar. Split hardwood was stacked on the frozen ground near the steaming, bubbling trough. Beneath it, a fire crackled red and yellow, munching thru a dozen or so logs, atop many days’ worth of ashes.

I approached it, led by my drooling nose. Up on my toes, I peered in. The cloud of sugared steam enwrapped my head and fogged my glasses. I took them off.

Molten gold bubbled there. What had been clear sap in our buckets was slowly concentrating down to this. It mesmerized me: bronze-colored bubbles bursting on the surface; gossamer veils of steam rising, tantalizing; crackling hardwood near my feet; the coating of snow over the world beyond this cook shed.

“Give a hand,” the farmer’s voice graveled.

I broke from my trance and saw him scooping bucketfuls from the tank on the sled.

“Pour careful,” he fixed my eyes. “That there’s hot if’n it splashes.”

We added to the trough’s volume, until everything we’d collected was in there. I watched the amber syrup grow pale and its bubbling decrease.

“How long do you cook it?” I asked the farmer.

“ ‘Til it’s done,” he elucidated. “Then you stop.”

I stood there, attached to the sweet odor in the air like a bull tied by a golden chain to the ring in his nose.

“Here,” the farmer finally thought of something else to do. He scooped out a small ladleful of syrup. “Make a snowball.” Then he drizzled some syrup onto my snow sphere.

I took a crunchy, gooey bite. As it oozed over my tongue, releasing its perfume into my nose, one word came from I-don’t-know-where:

Ambrosia.

 

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