Here is something I love about living in New England: here, “sugar” is a verb. At least at this time of year it is, when the worst of winter has passed, and cold nights give way to days that are longer and little warmer, days when blooms no longer seem impossible, when sap pulses through still barren maple trees, in preparation for budding leaves.
I don’t know how to write what I want to write today, but I know I want to start with that: the fact that sometimes, sugar — source of sweetness and pleasure — can be a verb.
Here is something else I love about living here:
These are our friends, Janine and Foster. Their oldest son is in Merrie’s class. They are some of the most open, friendly souls we know. Janine can move fluidly from a minivan filled with children to a night out where a bunch of otherwise harried moms dissolve, shaking, into peals of laughter. Foster, too, is always rustling up fun. Recently, we had their family over for dinner, and by the end of the night, Foster was break-dancing in our living room, doing the worm across our carpet. On New Year’s Day, their family joined ours for an unofficial “Running of the Princesses,” in which we dressed in royal finery and ran through the middle of town. It was ten below zero with windchill, but Janine and Foster whooped and grinned as they ran. They are good people, solid people, always filled with life, and invariably warm. I’d say that “warm” should be a verb, too, except that it is. “Friend” didn’t used to be a verb; thanks to facebook, it is now, but not in the way I want it to be.
Like all the finest people, all of those who seem to instinctively understand about the importance of embracing life, Janine and Foster have had their share of heartbreak, but we’ll get to that.
Last Friday, Merrie’s first grade class went to Janine and Foster’s sugar shack to do a little maple sugaring. “Sugar shack.” It sounds like it should be a heroin den, but instead, it’s a little cabin in the woods, with steam billowing out around it.
This sugar shack is on Foster’s parents’ property, and every year, the family spends much of March in and around the sugar shack, tapping trees, boiling sap, and creating fresh maple syrup. They create other things, too, big powerful things that also deserve to be verbs, but again, we’ll get to that.
Making maple syrup is one of those things that seems impossible, until you do it. But the truth is, like most great things — babies, ocean breezes, the sun shining, at last, through a blue sky on the final day of a long winter — nature does all the work.
It all starts with the tree. You drill a hole in a mature maple tree, hammer in a sap spout, and hang a bucket right below the spout. If you’ve got the right combination of cold nights (below freezing), and warmer days (40-50 degrees), the sap will flow; during the night, the sap gets pushed up from the roots, where it freezes in the branches. The next day, as the temperature warms, the sap flows back down and drips through the spout:
But wait, you say. That’s not syrup; that’s ice water. And you’re mostly right. It’s mostly water, only about 2% syrup at this point. In fact, it takes 30-40 gallons of sap to make just a single gallon of syrup. All of the rest of the liquid gets boiled away. Often, you’ll see people boiling giant pots on open campfires that burn all day long, day after day. But Janine and Foster’s family have a more sophisticated indoor system. The goal of it is the same, though: boil away the liquid, letting the water escape as steam, until all that remains is syrup. Here’s Foster’s dad, Don, showing the kids how it works:
And here he is, laughing as the kids answer the question, “who likes pancakes with lots of syrup?”
The children love the swirling steam. So do I. At times, it’s so thick it’s hard to see even a few feet in front of me:
But more important, it brings warmth to this otherwise chilly day, and it smells like candy.
Because this is Vermont, it must be shown what the view is like beyond the sugar shack:
But back to the syrup. After it’s been boiled down, and it reaches the right temperature, the syrup gets poured into a bucket:
And then filtered:
And then “graded,” wherein the color is measured against standards set by the state of (in this case) Vermont:
The amount made gets recorded in the sugar house, sometimes with a highly sophisticated system:
The walls also keep track of other important business:
And then, when there is enough, the syrup is sold.
And this is where I want to talk about something else, something that is more sorrowful than you might expect to find in a post about a bunch of seven year-olds and a sugar shack. It is also where I want to talk about other types of words — words like compassion and mercy and redemption and humanity — that also deserve to be verbs. Grace is a verb. Perhaps that’s the best word of all.
On the day we went sugaring, the eve of spring, Foster and Janine were there. Foster’s dad was there. Foster’s mom, Sally, wasn’t able to be there that day. But more important, neither was Foster’s brother, Peter. That’s because one Tuesday morning, seven and a half years ago, before any of those children were born, Peter — by all accounts curious, loving, enthusiastic and kind — boarded a plane at Boston’s Logan Airport, bound for Los Angeles. A short time later, just after 9AM, that plane crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, forever altering both the world at large and this one family in Vermont.
It’s hard to even type those words. I want this post to be about the sweetness of life, about a single lovely, clear day in the middle of March, a day when seven year-olds leapt through the woods and scrambled over logs and tasted the best that nature can offer. And it is about that, all of that. That part is undeniable.
But it is also about something else.
One might expect that after losing Peter, especially in this way, his family members’ hearts would darken and shrink. I imagine my own heart in that situation, the way it would tighten to the point of being unyielding, just an opaque knot knocking around in the middle of my chest. But that’s not what happened to their hearts. Or, if that happened, it’s not all that happened.
A few years after they lost Peter, the family received a letter from one of Peter’s childhood friends, a marine who was serving in Afghanistan. The letter told of the dire conditions in that country, of the desperate need for education, for educational supplies, and by extension, the letter told of the desperation that can make a dark path appear light. This letter spoke to them. They founded the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, with the goal of responding to terrorism in a way that honors Peter’s memory: with justice, mercy, and compassion. The foundation built a school for girls in Afghanistan that would help loosen the Taliban’s grip on that region and ultimately promote cross-cultural understanding. By 2006, the foundation dedicated a 26-room, two-story building big to educate 500 girls in Logar Province, about an hour south of Kabul. Last year the Foundation funded the salaries of four teachers to work through the winter and purchased stoves and wood to supply heat. They have also helped sponsor educational exchange opportunities for promising Afghan students who embrace Peter’s spirit.
As Sally, Peter’s mom once said, “the allure of terrorism does not match a life where there is actually opportunity.”
It is a remarkable story, a remarkable family. And the story is everywhere on this day, as small children taste warm syrup, poured into tiny dixie cups, right there in the woods. The story is everywhere not simply because every drop of syrup this family sells all goes to support the Goodrich Foundation, but also because Peter himself is everywhere, in the children’s voices, in the labor of his family members, and in the cold sweet air.
The syrup, when we taste it, is still warm, and it is stunningly good. I always hate when people say things like “oh you’ve never tasted XYC unless you’ve done this impossible thing…” Like, “oh, you’ve never tasted a hamburger until you’ve strapped a wagyu cow to your back, scaled all 13,000 feet of Mount Fuji, then slaughtered the cow yourself and cooked it over an open campfire as the sun sets and the late Emperor Hirohito himself offers a ritual prayer to the sun goddess.”
But I will say this: if you are ever in New England during sugaring season, you should visit a sugar house. While there, you should drink warm syrup, smoky and rich, just hours after the sap ran through trees. If you can do this surrounded by beloved carefree children, and pause for a moment to think about those who came before us, and also those who carried on without them — if you can remember that sweetness and sorrow are one in the same, and that in the end, sugar can be a verb, just like warm and grace, and love and hope and honor — well, then I assure you: your time will have been well spent.
Later, after the kids have sampled, and played, and then returned from roaming the woods…
…and walked the long driveway to the waiting bus:
… Janine and Foster return to their sugaring, stopping first to savor this moment, on this lovely day, in this one precious life they share.
You can read more about Peter’s story over at the Goodrich Foundation web site. If the story moves you, and you happen to have a little money to give, I encourage you to do it. But either way, I hope you read about the story, and I also want to share a little of this day. So let me know that you visited — either in comments or via email at cleanerplateclub AT gmail. Just by visiting, and reading about Peter and his family, I’ll put you into a drawing for some maple syrup, made on this beautiful day by these remarkable people, as young children tasted sweetness and joy.