Dear Loyal Watchers, Interested Visitors, and Confused Passersby:
It was eighteen degrees fahrenheit when I slipped into the car, the coldest it's ever been when I've done this.
Winter still sits heavily around my house, seeping in where the frames of doors that are older than myself by decades sag, sitting on my porch where it flew in before I cold rescue the artifacts of the last summer.
Ice sits around the Baby Jesus of my large, plastic nativity, having frozen my polymer savior to the hard earth of my garden. Christmas decorations still sit glazed in ice upon my roof, around my doors, and to my mailbox, the tokens of a birth held there fast even as the remembrance of a death and resurrection quickly approaches.
My cats stare out windows, yellow eyes staring out over my yard, their noses leaving vapor as they wonder if winter will ever leave... if there will ever be rays of summer sun to lie in again. My breath freezes in my beard I wait for the car to warm, and I share their concerns.
The trees, however, know better.
I head south, away from the periphery of the sprawl that has consumed the farms where I grew up. I head south, farther and farther from chain stores, parking lots, and tract housing. I head to places where life returns to the mythological rural image I have of my childhood, places where old barns stand beside the road, where I flash through villages with five or six affable old buildings that lean forward, as though trying to proclaim the words that sit upon them. "Masonic Lodge", "Grange", "Co-Op", they announce, each one trying to gather attention to itself.
I make a right, and there the old sign of the return of spring sits ready, announcing that winter cannot last, that it has already begun to die as the sunlight grows each day and the temperature sneaks above freezing for a few precious hours...
... that the trees know better.
It is maple sugar time again, and the birds that sit in the bushes sing as they eat the old berries, announcing their joy at the growing days. The old silvery bucket sits there, the last of its kind as nearby blue lines of plastic bring the sap down from the sugar bush.
I open the lid, expecting to find the bucket somewhat full of the offering of the maple tree. Instead, it is frozen solid, the tap glistening in its coat of ice, as though embarrassed.
It was only eighteen degrees fahrenheit, the coldest it's ever been when I've done this.
I wonder if there might not be enough syrup yet for this tradition, if there had not been enough sap gathered this year yet, if I might have come south just to be turned away.
Behind me there is a blast of warm air, and the door to the structure comes open. Happy voices fall out, and my worries are put away.
The trees know better.
I slide inside, and at once the familiar warmth and smell overtake me.
The counter man greats me, tells me to sit anywhere that I want, just as he always has. From the look in his eyes I know that he remembers me from the last half-decade that I've been coming here... but he's never asked me my name. I've never asked his, so I sit, that little exchange having passed for another year.
I find a single spot, crammed as it was between two families, two groups of strangers that struggle to ignore one another in the close, intimate confines of the sugar house. It is a good spot, located between the two wood stoves that heat the building, inside the zone where the two wavering thermal layers compete.
There are at least thirty people in the sugar house, eating at picnic tables crammed inside. The instant I sit they ask me what I wish to drink (Milk, please.), if I'd like sausages or bacon (Sausages, please.), and how many pancakes I'd like to start (As many as God deemed possible to fit on a plate, Ma'am).
I say my breakfast grace silently, looking down over the tall stack of the golden goodness, a child in the family on my left looking at me with an arched eyebrow. I reach for a bottle of syrup. Even through the bottle, I know that it is warm, perhaps just off the evaporator that sits behind us all. I grin a wide grin as it flows out, melting the butter on contact, the amber color soon holding immutable dominion across the paper plate.
Hot pancakes, warmer syrup, cold milk. Sometimes my life is more perfect than I have the right to ask it to be.
I slice my pancakes the way my grandfather had, the way I had watched him do as I sat at a counter for the first time. Wide swipes of the knife across the bunched up piece. I slowly eat, tasting the perfect, real, honest syrup as long as I can.
To my right a group of older men talk about their lives in the navy, one speaking about a typhoon when he was stationed on the Essex. My breakfast is interrupted by the summer of 1962, and F-8 Crusaders go crashing across the aircraft carrier's deck into the sea while the ship comes perilously close to going "flat stacks under" as I finish my milk.
I wipe my face, horrified that there may be syrup in my beard.
The family on my left leaves, and their place is quickly reset, and once again I get the uncomfortable feeling that I, a single man, am somehow in the way. I try some conversation with the young man across from me, but it goes poorly. His children look around in wonder, and I share their enthusiasm at the old signs advertising farm equipment and ancient syrup tins that line the space. I race through my second, and third helping of pancakes, and then take a warm cup of tea to walk around with, leaving my space to more newcomers.
I look the evaporator over as I drink my tea, studying it as the sap boils away to syrup as it has for the last half-of-a-decade that I've been coming to the farm, to this sugar house by the side of the road.
I buy my annual treats. A pint of syrup, some sugar candy, and some maple cotton candy to give to my Sunday School kids... another tradition that I alone know to remember and observe.
I step out into the cold. It's still only eighteen degree, the coldest it's ever been when I've done this.
My feet crack the ice of the fields as I stumble towards the sugar bush. There the sugar maples await, the taps deep in their heartwood, offering up their essence to be made into syrup, the ancient partnership between man and nature going on as it ever has.
As I march I wonder why I've come just to eat alone among strangers. I can eat alone at home.
Still, the only "maple syrup" in my house is only flavored as such with corn syrup, and does not come off of a boiling evaporator. It is not served to me fresh by a family who communes with nature as a part of their daily lives. It is not placed across pancakes given to me by a nice little woman who calls me "darling", by her family who call each other "aunt" and "cousin" over the din of strangers enjoying the gifts of a waking earth.
I stand in the sugar bush, great blue lines of tubing snaking around me. Around me chickadees and cardinals congratulate themselves on surviving another winter. I put aside the question of whether or not I will be back next year.
The trees know better.