April, last boil, a cold day. Done by mid-afternoon. Four boils for the year, about average. In an age, some would say a psychosis, of global warming where all indicators are ominous; it is nice to have a normal pattern to weather, a cold spring, maple sap. Sugar folk are inveterate practitioners of statistical analysis, by journals and memory comparing yields of warm winters to cold, deep snow to open. Slow spring to sudden, frost depth, first moth in the bucket, yield per tree, old tree, young tree, under a limb or not. The thing about sugaring is its uncertainty, neatly fitting with other agricultures, dependent on a range of factors that like as not leave multi-generational practitioners scratching their collective noggin. I am humbled by this simple relationship with a tree to secretly desire religion were likewise. The church of the maple tree may not have the same cachet as the Big Bang et. al. but despite the flaw is the more proximate. What one loses in megatons and gigaparsecs is the gain of the perspective and the benefit of the personal place versus another big scale, one size fits all solution, or heaven.

I am hesitant to admit as a modern man, a modern farmer that I sugar. To be candid fake maple syrup is good stuff if without the nostrum and romance of genuine maple syrup it suffices the pancake. Sugaring doesn’t seem to go with what constitutes modern farming where the cost of a new potato planter will set you back $80,000, and as for tractors…don’t even talk about tractors. Before the potato crop even sprouts there’s $600-700 per acre not including the rent. Bankers don’t like to see farmers at their front door – at least with a toxic house loan they can salvage the 2 x 4s and appliances.

Perhaps that in itself is why we sugar, she and I, to retreat from the modern scene. Nothing more technical than a wood fire, a Vermont evaporator and a decidedly old fashioned carrying yoke. Was 4 am when I went out to start this morning, kerosene lanterns, kitchen matches, the fire laid the night before, diesel fuel sprinkled over the kindling. All there is to do then is toss in the match. A happy sensation that, good pine kindling, a nest of fuel-soaked newspaper, and the little flame becomes a conflagration and hear the hollow bellow of eager flue gases wend their way up the stack pipe. If there is a thing that prospers the sugar arch it is the length of the stove pipe. Ours is twenty-five feet of former silo pipe that will lift small children from the ground should they venture close. A good draft is a sainthood level worship to sugar folk.

This year the dark of morning is the more so because of the post 9/11 extension of daylight saving time, so I was tempted. Tempted, believe it or not, to bring along a radio. Something for company in the morning dim…Morning Edition or Bob and Tom. I resisted the sacrilege to the sugar barn and to the reason why. We’ve already determined sugaring is fiscally indefensible and materially replaceable by Aunt Jemima. There I’ve said it, there is no reason at all to sugar. The only other difference is the means. You can heat cane sugar to the caramel point, add some twigs and mosquitoes to get a good imitation maple syrup, good enough for the kids, the school lunch room, if not good enough for peanuts and ice cream. One of my family’s cherished secret recipes:  vanilla ice cream, salted peanuts, maple syrup. What sugaring is about is the nuance, the enumerator of our person, our place on earth, that very thin slice of the modern scene that doesn’t have to be…modern. Doesn’t have to…make money, or even make sense.

Was Ezra Whittaker who hewed the logs of the cabin next to our sugar barn, circa 1858. Company B, Wisconsin Volunteers, Alban’s Regiment. Died at Shiloh. Never held sugar camp in the morning of the maple grove behind his house. Never had his children to help him carry sap buckets, the noise of their protests ringing in his ears. Never a dark morning with a cup of coffee on his finger and a dog’s head on his lap. When the light comes I will put the ham on the stove, followed by eggs and toast. At that moment I cannot tell what year it is or even which century. Such is the domain of this old ritual of the woods, the one called sugaring, and maybe that is why it matters.