Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 2

The first sap runs of the year came right on schedule last week, though because I’m still trying to get tapped and achieve good vacuum levels, I didn’t capture the sap. On a normal year Dad and I would have divided the labor; he’d have collected and boiled, I’d have stayed working in the woods. But he’s nursing a leg injury this year and largely unavailable. In light of this, it made more sense to me to try to get the woods right first, and then worry about the sap later. 

 So what does good vacuum level mean? Technically-speaking, it means a system that holds around 25 hg (inches of mercury). “Inches of mercury” is a standard measurement that expresses the difference between ambient atmospheric pressure and the pressure that’s being created by your vacuum. At 25 inches, you can pull a tap from a tree and the vacuum roars. If the sap’s running, it’ll arc from the hole and into the spout. Stick the spout to the end of your finger and it bites a bit. But it’s work to get to those levels. Sugarmakers who work on a commercial scale leave their lines up all year, and squirrel chews and fallen-tree-limb damage and cracks from aging infrastructure all degrade the system. Once we’re tapped, the vacuum level is usually around 10 to 15 inches; we then have to go back, line by line, over the whole system to get it tight. What’s the payoff? Sugarmakers throw around the statistic that every inch of mercury equals 5 percent more sap. I think the reality is more nuanced than that simple statistic, but it gives you an idea of why someone would let the first sap of the year run on the ground and work on lines instead. It’s a short-term loss that is, in theory, overcome by long-term gain. 

Turning from the practical to the poetic, there’s something endearing about this year’s deep snow if you can overlook the loss of efficiency. On low-snow years, you navigate the woods haphazardly, following the straightest line from point a to point b. But on years like this, you create snowshoe-packed highways that are essentially a road system through the woods. Little snow-rooms develop where you’ve beaten down a whole area – these places are where you cache equipment or break for lunch. The animals who are out use the paths, too. Each morning you’ll see fresh deer tracks, or coyote or fox tracks, along your highways. Last Tuesday, a raccoon made its way out of a big maple cavity tree and meandered the trail system.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part I

Because it’s so intensely seasonal and labor intensive, sugarmaking has always been something of an economic side-gig. In the vertically-integrated family-farm days, maple was the first crop of the year, the literal seed money for the seed that went into the ground in May. No one was just a sugarmaker, because collecting buckets is so labor intensive that it kept operations small. The old axiom was that one adult could run 500 buckets, which is to say hang them, collect them, boil that amount of sap. 

This all started to change in the mid twentieth century with the advent of maple tubing that allowed sap to just run down hill into one collection tank. But the revolution didn’t happen overnight. The image here shows a patent for early plastic tubing, filed in 1956.

A modern producer would look at this setup with tubing running along the contours of the ground and think ugh, imagining mold, squirrel and mouse chews, ice blockages. Tubing systems and installation techniques improved rapidly, but even in the 1980s, when I was a boy, rudimentary soft plastic tubing drooped from tree to tree.

Today things are very different, and people around the state are hell bent on proving that sugaring can be an occupation in its own right.  Modern producers use semi-rigid, food-grade plastic that’s designed to be pliable enough to work with but rigid enough to hold a straight line downhill. We have fittings that allow proper tensioning, and vacuum systems that woosh the sap downhill to the tank. Reverse osmosis machines can turn 1,000 gallons of sap into a 100 gallons of concentrate with the push of a button. In theory, with the proper setup, one adult can run thousands of taps. Rumor has it there’s an operation somewhere in northern Vermont where one guy’s running 10,000 taps by himself. 

But for most people, this isn’t going to work. Technological promise is one thing, technological execution is another. Pretending you can buy enough gadgets to allow you to run 10,000 taps alone is like pretending you can seamlessly transition from in-person to remote learning in a school with enough Microsoft and Apple products. It sounds good on a slick video, but on the ground there are endemic roadblocks that technology just can’t solve, like the fact that a lot of people in Vermont still can’t get high-speed internet (he writes bitterly while staring at the blinking modem on his pathetic wireless system).

I’m thinking about the how-many-taps-can-a-person-run-alone question because that’s what I’m up against this year. The extended family chips in every sugaring season, but the main drivers are my father and I, and Dad’s laid up with a bum leg. I’ve started tapping our 3,500 trees, but I’m trying hard to keep my expectations realistic as to what comes next. 

The big roadblock thus far has been deep snow – knee deep in one bush, between knee-and-thigh deep in the other. The hovercrafts that might eventually glide us from tree to tree have yet to be invented, so I’m stuck with snowshoes, grit, and help from dear friends and family. Four other adults and two teenagers helped out last weekend, and we’re about 60 percent in. The weather will be conducive for sap later this week, so I’m off to keep up the battle. I’ll aim to post dispatches regularly every Monday for the rest of the season.

Blissfully Normal

The weather in the Valley of Vermont was quiet from the day after Christmas through the first week of January. Each day was largely dry, largely cloudy, largely the same. Daytime highs averaged 35 degrees, nighttime lows 21.

Then winter proper descended, and for the next 30 days it felt like what you’d think it ought to feel like in southern Vermont. Daytime highs averaged 28, nighttime lows averaged 12. There were only 6 days where it hit 32, and none reached 40. Each night was sub-freezing, and 6 of them were sub-zero. Snow’s been steadily accumulating and not going anywhere.

There’s nothing remarkable about those thoroughly average averages, but that’s the point. The previous two months both came in well above the long-term average. Last January, as documented in Volume I of the Almanac, featured record-breaking warmth, with temperatures soaring into the 60s and setting all-time record highs. That the January weather has returned to form to start 2021 is much welcome.

In Sync

In our Nature Notes section in January, Volume I, we included a picture of blood in coyote urine that was taken last January 23. Here’s a picture we took this year, on January 25, of the same thing. The blood is an indication that the endometrial lining in the female’s uterus is developing, and she’ll soon go into heat.

It’s not surprising that a coyote’s reproductive cycle, which takes its cue from the amount of sunlight in the day, is so regular year in and year out. After all, there’s a sweet spot when puppies should be conceived and then subsequently born. If they’re born too early, they risk dying from the cold right away. If they’re born too late, they risk going into next winter undersized and dying then. Thousands of years of evolution have helped determine the sweet spot, though it’ll be interesting to see how the changing climate affects things going forward.

 

Peace

We haven’t done a great job keeping the webpage up to date recently – our apologies for that. Part of my issue has been a long stretch of relatively warm and consistent weather that’s kept me away from a computer. Daytime highs came in between 29 and 39 degrees on every day between December 27 and January 22 in southwestern Vermont; this, coupled with low snow depths, made working in the woods irresistible. 

While the temperatures have been unseasonable, it hasn’t been worrisomely warm. As a sugarmaker, I’m always conscious of the maple trees in winter, hoping they have a proper period of dormancy before the sugaring season, worried about the root damage that’s a possibility in winter when there’s not an insulating snowpack. Where I live anyway, the temps seemed to have stayed on the good side of warm, which is to say the sap mostly stayed in the roots, and my guess is that the duff layer and minor snow depth kept the frost from burrowing deep in the ground. 

From a work perspective, it’s been a guilty pleasure. In late December, brothers Keith and Justin Severance came down to deliver a 4,000-gallon sugaring tank we bought from Reg Charbonneau, and we got it moved in to place relatively easily with some prybars and Yankee ingenuity. 

Over the last month I’ve been able to rebuild a major section of mainline in one of our sugarbushes, working without gloves or snowshoes. The plastic tubing doesn’t handle well in frigid temperatures, as you can imagine, but high-30s leaves it reasonably pliable. 

Whenever you rebuild you get a chance to do things better, and part of that often means thinning the forest. With the lines down I cut some ash that is likely going to die soon anyway from the emerald ash borer and become a line hazard. We’ll burn this wood next winter. There was enough frost in the ground to drag some logs across a wet area, but it was warm enough that I didn’t have to fight anything.

The weather started to change last week, when the snow came properly. We got about 3 inches out of the slush storm last weekend, but a lake effect conveyer has been dumping cold powder on top of it almost every day since – we’re probably up to a solid 12 inches in the valley, and up on the hills, where the first storm was all snow, depths are being measured in feet. I tried pulling the last few logs out over the wet spot yesterday, and promptly buried the tractor to its axle. Canadian air brought deep cold in last night, and when I tried starting a UTV to break a trail up the hill to the back reaches of the sugarbush, the ignition was frozen. Everything just gets fragile and miserable with the snow and cold. 

That’s alright – it’s good, even. Ecologists are always talking about how plants and animals need a period of winter dormancy, but the same can be said for people. There’s always such a rush in fall to get things ready for winter, and if winter doesn’t come properly, it’s easy to just not stop working. Here’s to peace and the chance to catch up on the things in our hearts and in our heads. 

Partnership

One of the things we love about this project is that it combines the arts – writing, photography, painting and illustration – and farm/forest work. And the partnership goes beyond what you see on the page or screen. Our books come in cardboard boxes – 26 to a case – and we’ve enjoyed hearing stories about the boxes being repurposed for maple syrup, or frozen lamb, or CSA produce. 

A second printing of the Almanac was delivered to Sunrise Farm Wednesday. Bob Sandberg, from the Sandberg Farm/Cookville Compost, came down in his compost truck to haul the books; he was out that way anyway on his compost route, which runs from Bradford to West Lebanon. Three pallets of books fit nicely between assorted compost totes. The poetics of the moment were nice, too.

No Salvage, Only Song

Our friend Verandah Porche shared this New Year’s acrostic with us. You can also find more of her work here.

For the 52 years we’ve lived here, the barn stood

for everything that mattered: animals named,

tended and eaten, lovers, then children in the hayloft,

plays performed, weddings, and funerals.

We sought advice about saving our loved barn,

but the price was wrong and the livestock were gone.

A local contractor with a crane will finish what

the wind began. And the future landscape will take shape,

for all of us.

 

2021: NO SALVAGE ONLY SONG

 

Haphazard gifts…

A neighbor’s whip of forsythia

Proliferated. In this thicket, a cardinal

Pivots, chest puffed, barn-redder than

Your heart.  Listen for his forked cheer,

 

Now barely audible under the squall.

Each burst peels the barn from the bird

Who doesn’t waver: no salvage, only song.

 

You want it over: the shape that sheltered

Every creature, the year we flinch from touch.

After grief, let unroofed heaven gentle down.

Raise sweet corn in the manger. Scatter seeds.

The Newton Farm

As we work on this project, we’re constantly reminded of what a small state Vermont is — small in the very best way. An example of this involves the cover image. We chose the Susan Abbott painting because we thought it captured rural Vermont. Shortly after releasing the image to the public, we got this letter, validating our choice:

Just want to say “Wow!” to the cover choice for the Almanac. Susan Abbott’s painting captures the perfect blend of Vermont imagery, somehow incorporating the state’s flat-rolling-mountainous qualities in the same image; the sense of rural life that goes on and on despite everything; the typicalness of the barn and older vehicle, the road and dooryard; the wide view of milky, lovely skies.

We also got letters — almost immediately — from three people in the extended Newton family who said: “hey, that’s our farm!”

I asked Denise Newton to tell me a little more about the place, and she wrote;

This farm has been in our family since the 1940’s. We are a third generation dairy farm. We sold our herd because of the economy in Spring of 2019. My husband Stephen dedicated his many 41+ years to this farm. Our four children, Amy, Shannon, Todd, and Lindsey are very proud of their hard working family and have put in many hours, as I did, to support this farm and will always call this place home. Stephen and I have diversified the farm and raise pigs, turkeys and a few cattle. It’s sits on 70 acres in Marshfield with a beautiful view of Camel’s Hump with great sunrises and sunset, also with an 18 acre sugarbush. It’s truly our little place called paradise. The truck in the picture is Stephens and the round bales are from his harvest.  

The photo at the top shows one of those lovely sunsets.

 

A Year of Winter Finches Ahead

It’s predicted that the finch species that nest and winter here will be joined by an unusually large number of their more boreal brethren this coming winter. Winter finches rely on tree seeds in winter and when these are scarce, the birds will be on the move. Most of these finches usually come south, but some species, like white-winged crossbills and sometimes pine siskins, may move east or west rather than south when food is scarce.

It’s easy to foretell the status of the boreal seed crop by mid-summer, well before the seeds have matured, by the number of visible cones on tamaracks, the spruces, and hemlocks. White pine seeds take two years to mature, so estimates can be made of the seed crop both for the coming winter and the next one by counting the new small cones and the larger, nearly mature ones.

You might think that a poor seed crop, though good for us birdwatchers, would be terrible for the finches, but tree seed crops have always had big ups and down and the birds that depend on them are used to and good at being nomads. In many years, Christmas bird counters in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario have found fewer than a hundred finches of all stripes, while almost 13,000 were counted in 1989.

Pine siskin

Pine siskins nest to the north of us and they often come this far south in winter unless there’s a big crop of conifer seeds back home. We can expect to see more of them than usual this winter.

Redpoll

The birch and alder seeds that redpolls like are in short supply this year and because of that, many redpolls have already shown up here and more are likely to arrive. They’ll eat goldenrod and aster seeds until the snow is deep. When there’s an exceptionally large crop of paper birch seeds, redpolls may stay put in the north.

Red crossbill

Perhaps later in winter, when they have finished off the supply of white pine seeds, red crossbills will head south. Typically, most of them don’t migrate.

White-winged crossbill

We might well see a lot of white-winged crossbills this winter because spruce and tamarack cone crops are poor.

American goldfinch

Many more American goldfinches winter in our area now than in the past, perhaps because of the ever-growing number of well-stocked birdfeeders to be found. Absent birdfeeders, they, too, rely on tree seeds in winter, when thistles and the many other composites that they eat in summer are buried in snow. By late February or March even the boreal stay-at-homes may head our way if they run out of food.

Evening grosbeak

The population of evening grosbeaks rose dramatically during the severe spruce budworm outbreak in the 1970s and 80s and has recently increased again – along with a new outbreak of spruce budworms. Both adults and chicks eat budworm caterpillars in the summer, but in winter it’s mostly deciduous tree seeds from sugar maple, box elder, and ash. They may deplete this resource and show up here in large numbers.

Purple finch

Current spruce budworm outbreaks in the north have enabled purple finches, like the evening grosbeaks, to fatten up many nestlings. There may be too many purple finches in the north for the available food supply.

Pine Grosbeak

Because there’s a good supply of mountain ash seeds (it seems that the birds spit out the berry skins and much of the pulp), pine grosbeaks are likely to stay in the boreal forest, which they often do. They don’t migrate unless they have to.

Thanks to The Finch Network for these forecasts.

Dispatch from Deer Camp, 2020

My father tore the tendon that attaches his thigh muscle to his leg in early October. He’s looking at about a year for a full recovery, so on opening weekend of November’s rifle season he was still very much disabled. My brother and I drove him to camp, raked the leaves away from the stoop, and guided him up the stairs. Once on the porch he was able to shuffle around all right with a walker.

These modern walkers are slick – they’ve got wheels and brakes like a bike. And you can set a parking brake and turn it into a seat, which is what he did on opening morning. We helped him get socks and boots on his still-swollen foot, and pull on his sweat pants which stood in for wool pants this year. When everyone else disappeared into the pre-dawn blackness, he took up a position on the front porch sitting on his walker. One of the things I greatly admire about my pop is that he’s not the type to wallow or make excuses. I think a lot of people’s reaction, were they unable to move one of their legs, would have been to sleep in and feel bad about missing deer season for the first time in fifty-something years. I don’t even think that entered his mind. If he couldn’t hunt in the woods, he’d hunt from the porch.

At about 7:30 that morning a six-point buck walked within 75 yards of the camp, then, inexplicably, turned and gave a shoulder in an open shooting lane. We all about lost our minds when we heard the gunshot. “Buck down” said the text.

I told him you couldn’t make a story like that up; no one would believe it if you did.