There are two ways to know it is spring, on my farm. The sap begins to run, and the ewes go heavy into lambing. These things don’t always begin in the same order, but they belong together, and almost always overlap. My father says maple syrup is the first crop of spring. My mother says no, the first crop is the herd of lambs that gallop and play and nap in the run-in door. Both of them are right. Often my mother will be in the barn with a laboring ewe while my father is in the sugarhouse, watching the evaporator. I have spent many nights running over the squelching ground between the two buildings, from the cold barn to the warmth of the sugarhouse and back, reporting on the activity in one to the occupant of the other. They work together, shepherd and sugarmaker, to ensure a good harvest. This is the most beautiful thing.
As the roads burble slowly closer to the cavernous mud-pits they will become once we get a few sunny days, our hilltop becomes ringed with steam. Our county is known for having the best sugar bushes, the most sap, the sweetest syrup in the state, and it seems like just about everyone on our road is in on the operation, in one way or another. One neighbor boils in a pot on his stove, another boils in a custom-built sugarhouse with an evaporator big enough to get lost in. Our own little two-by-six Dominion & Grimm is patched together with coat-hanger wire and the odd welding job, the product of a combination of hard cash and the generosity of neighbors. A once-new front pan straight from the catalog, a firebox bought well-used years ago off one of the locals, the stovepipe a gift from the neighbor’s backyard, a fan for the firebox rigged out of scrap metal and the fan that used to sit in my brother’s bedroom window in the summer, when he was a baby.
In the barn, the ewes are restless, ready to have their lambs and get the wide, swaying discomfort of the last weeks of pregnancy over with. So are we–we are tired of waiting, eager to meet these woolly things, eager to reap the reward of all these anxious hours. I come home on the weekends to help, to hope for new life. And it begins to come. I kneel in the dimness of the barn beside a laboring ewe, my mother, the shepherd, standing at the gate, both of us forgetting to breathe while we watch, wait, seek after patience. Every birth seems to last a lifetime, and to be over in a moment. The other sheep stand near, close enough to watch but not so close as to crowd the laboring ewe. Her daughter from last spring, a yearling now, watches intently, responds to her mother’s nickering, comes to sniff at the afterbirth when the lambs are born, loud and triumphant from first breath.
We buy a load of RO sap from Mr. Sweet, and it is, it is sweet, “eleven percent!” he tells us, “you can’t get better!” Where sap straight from the tree hovers between one and three percent sugar content, the sap Mr. Sweet has run through a friend’s Reverse Osmosis machine is much higher than that. It will turn to syrup quickly. The exhaust from his truck, as he drives away, smells like sap boiling–I swear the engine fires on maple syrup.
To me, the sugarhouse is a creature of the night. I have hundreds of memories built up there, stored among the cobwebby rafters of the tiny, falling-down building. Late, late nights when I was eleven years old, sitting on top of the woodpile in the corner and dodging the drops of condensed steam falling from the ceiling, listening to my father tell stories. Anything was fair game–but mostly he told us, with great drama, the plots from his favorite Stephen King books, or convoluted stories that began as retellings of action movies and ended as fantastical conglomerations of old memories and original ideas. Evenings eating a family dinner together in the steam, baking potatoes and apples in the hot ash of the firebox, hard-boiling eggs in the not-quite-syrup in the front pan, eating it all with sticky fingers. Sitting in the glow of the work-light, the fronts of my plastic mud boots nearly melting in the heat leaking around the door of the firebox, reading or singing or writing letters or scribbling poems I’d memorized on the wall, the door, the arms of my chair. Cracking jokes and peanuts. All of this, under moonlight. Stepping outside in spring and seeing the glow from the sugarhouse window, the steam billowing, sparks flying out of the chimney and mingling with the stars. The mountain smells sweet.
I bloody my hands and arms helping a ewe give birth, exhaust my back by bending over her, holding up her wobbly lambs and coaxing them to nurse. When it is over, I go to the sugarhouse, ease my muscles in the heat, wash up in the steaming run-off water from the preheater. Nothing is wasted. Everything is precious.