Last week I boiled down the sap from the first good run of our sugar maple trees. This is a fine thing to do, sitting in the late-winter sun, feeding wood into the firebox and monitoring the bubbling sap. Out in the open air, the calm of the natural world was just the medicine needed to counteract the coronavirus hysteria sweeping the country. The ignornace breeding the widespread panic was shocking — even Rodeau’s grocery up in Cable had been cleaned out of toilet paper. What would happen if the electricity went down for an extended period of time or our cell phones stopped working? Or in my case, if we ran out of coffee?
Making maple syrup is soothingly simple. Collect some sap and boil it. If you want, you can make syrup on your kitchen stove in small quantities. It surprises me that not more people do so as even a couple of front yard maples can produce a quart or so of syrup in a good year. The reality, though, is we’re too busy, usually with making money so we can buy the things we need instead of making the things we need. A little self-reliance, however, goes a long way in grounding us when so much of our world seems to be spinning out of control.
I’m not suggesting that we try to free ourselves from our all-encompassing economy and scrap the division of labor. Nor am I suggesting we prep for the coming apocalypse. We need to do more for ourselves rather than relying on others because it’s enjoyable, because it’s healthy. Maple syrup, honey, canned tomatoes, dried mushrooms, fried walleyes, grouse or venison — these are good things. Tasty things. Most of us work so much we have very little time to grow, shoot, fish or gather the bounty that’s out there in our woods and waters for the taking, and in not doing so, we’ve robbed ourselves of immense pleasure.
It’s not clear to me why providing for ourselves is so satisfying. Maybe our DNA is programmed to hunt and gather instead of programmed to type in an office or to work on an assembly line eight hours a day. We were made to hunt deer and forage for berries and doing so fulfills this desire. Or perhaps it’s that being even a wee bit self-reliant is something concrete, something we can grasp. A check that’s automatically deposited into our bank account is abstract — it’s yet another step removed from a stack of 20-dollar bills. When I lined up the quarts of maple syrup on the kitchen table so they could cool, I stepped back and admired the sunlight filtering through the amber syrup in the Ball jars. Later that evening, we fried some bacon up and made buckwheat pancakes, sampling the year’s first run. I had to eat an extra pancake just so I could mop up the syrup left on my plate — it’s too good to waste even a few drops.
So in these uncertain times of global pandemic, I plan on boiling more sap. We just ordered our garden seeds. And the woodshed needs filling. Happier days ahead.
Mark Parman writes from Seeley, where he lives and hunts with his wife, Susan, and their two English setters, Fergus and Jenkins.