‘Sugar’ is a verb, and so is ‘hope’: making maple syrup in Vermont.

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:

sugaring-fos-and-janine

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.

sugaring-shack

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:

sugaring-sap

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:

sugaring-boiling

And here he is, laughing as the kids answer the question, “who likes pancakes with lots of syrup?”

sugaring-who-here-likes-maple-syrup

They all do.

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:

sugaring-stem

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:

sugaring-view

But back to the syrup. After it’s been boiled down, and it reaches the right temperature, the syrup gets poured into a bucket:

sugaring-pour

And then filtered:

filter-pour

And then “graded,” wherein the color is measured against standards set by the state of (in this case) Vermont:

sugaring-compare

The amount made gets recorded in the sugar house, sometimes with a highly sophisticated system:

sugaring-highly-precise-system

The walls also keep track of other important business:

sugar-march-madness

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…

sugar-shack-walk

…and walked the long driveway to the waiting bus:

sugar-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.

sugaring-fos-and-janine-hug

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.

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24 Responses to “‘Sugar’ is a verb, and so is ‘hope’: making maple syrup in Vermont.”


  1. 1 Vikki March 23, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Sweetness comes from so many sources…the sap of trees and lives well-lived. Thanks for this story.

  2. 2 Snady Bechtel March 23, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Family Friend spend most everyday sugaring with them. You are as Janine said a beautiful writer. loved the pictures and story. Should be printed would love a copy. A very special family.

  3. 3 Roberta March 23, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Janine sent me a link to your post, and I’ve got tears in my eyes reading your wonderfully written account of sugaring and its connection to Peter and the Goodrich Foundation. Janine & Fos are old friends and some of the dearest people in the world to me. You captured their generous, loving spirits perfectly. I hope we can make it up there for sugaring season some year.

  4. 4 Jennifer March 23, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    What a beautiful story!

  5. 5 margalit March 23, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    I wish I could drive up from Boston to Vermont to give your friends a big giant bear hug. I lost a friend on that same flight and I know that the whole in my heart will never be filled, even in a steamy sugar shack filled with the glorious scent of maple syrup being made.

  6. 6 Mrs. Gregorton March 23, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I’m so moved to see a family that followed through in a big way on turning their grief into something good. The pictures of the girls in school are amazing.

  7. 7 Maribeth March 23, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Yay for Janine, Foster, and family. And thank you Ali for the sugaring tour.

  8. 8 Terra March 23, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Janine and Foster are also dear old friends of mine. I had the good fortune to go to college with them and Roberta who posted above at Middlebury. You summed up their family so beautifully. I look forward to my annual visit from Seattle to Vermont to see them and their family so much. In fact I’m jealous of those of you who live so close and get to see them more often. I tell the story of how their family dealt with Peter’s loss as inspiration for people all the time.

    Thanks for the story.

  9. 9 Emily March 23, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    A beautiful story and so well told. Sugaring is such a foreign concept to this southern California girl and I’m so glad to have had this glimpse into its many meanings. Thank you.

  10. 10 nono March 24, 2009 at 1:26 am

    Ali, what a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it. I’ll be thinking of Peter, his family, and their wonderful tradition of sugaring throughout this New England Spring. Eventually the lump in my throat will subside. <3

  11. 11 Jonquil March 24, 2009 at 1:58 am

    A lovely post, Ali. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  12. 12 Maya VanPutten March 24, 2009 at 4:36 am

    Thanks you for this. It is a wonderful, beautifully written story, and honors some of my favorite people in the world, Neen and Fos. It made me cry! I often think of their journey as one that models how to turn saddness into hope, darkness into light– good lessons for all of us. Plus, I love and miss VT and loved reading about the adventure of sugaring.

  13. 13 Elementalmom March 24, 2009 at 5:33 am

    I’m struggling with expressing this… but it seems to me that while governments used the whole 9/11 thing as a springboard to hate, the more stories of real people and real families I find, the more I see that the *people* get what the governments do not; that there is always a better, higher, more right response than just flinging bombs at people.

    I’ve never toasted someone with syrup before, but apparently, it’s time to start.

  14. 14 Bad Hippie March 24, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    Wow. I could only wish that everyone in this world responded to tragedy in such a remarkable way! I quite honestly don’t think I could have been so amazingly generous in the face of adversity, but I would like to remember this story and take it as inspiration. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  15. 15 an old friend March 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    A beautiful article about a wonderful family. I knew Peter well and know that he would have loved this story. His personality was larger than life, similar to Foss’, and would have filled that sugar cabin. Sally, Don, Foss and Kim have turned this tragedy into something beautiful from which we can all learn. Thank you Ali for sharing this. I cried tears, some happy, some sad,all good!

  16. 16 Amber March 25, 2009 at 12:49 am

    What a beautifully written article. I visited the site and read about the foundation. Do they sell their syrup over the internet? They are amazing people to turn their tragedy into something so meaningful. Don’t you wish there were more people in the world like the Fosters? It would be a better place…

  17. 17 Pamela March 25, 2009 at 2:02 am

    Your story was so well written! I could feel the steam in the air. I could smell the sweetness in the cabin. I could taste the syrup. And I could feel warmth of the Goodrich family.

    The photos captured a perfect day — the scant snow on the ground, the blue sky and the warmth of the cabin inside. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

  18. 19 Sue March 26, 2009 at 2:27 am

    Thanks for sharing Peter’s and his family’s story. My daughter and her family now live in Wallingford Vermont. I remember 9-11, as many do, as vividly today as if it happened yesterday. Sending love, hope, encouragement and admiration to the Goodrich’s. Their endeavors are a monumental tribute to their son, Peter and all the other souls lost on that fateful day.

    Sue

  19. 20 Amy March 27, 2009 at 12:46 am

    Thanks Ali, for capturing it all.

  20. 21 CA Mama April 5, 2009 at 3:09 am

    What a beautiful way to honor their son, and to educate children about hope. Thank you for sharing. Will savor the syrup on my pancakes evermore on Sunday morning.

  21. 22 WickedStepMom February 18, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Why have I waited so long to read your blog? You are an amazing writer. I’m overwhelmed with egg-in-the-hole (which your dad makes for Tom), carrot souffle, and this sweet story of folks who take the high road. Can’t wait for the book! I like paper.


  1. 1 The Jew and the Carrot » Blog Archive » As the Sap Flows: It’s Maple Syrup Season Trackback on March 24, 2009 at 1:51 am
  2. 2 Acai Berry Benefits Trackback on June 23, 2009 at 4:23 am
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