Story and photos from March 18, 2006
The wind whipped a strand of hair across my forehead as I braced my feet against the running board and clenched the fender with my fists. Still my body swayed as the tractor bounced down the rutted lane. After slamming into the metal seat several times, I made a mental note to check my knees for bruises in a couple of days. It was sugaring season when the warm days and cool nights send the sap running up the maple trees. My younger brother, driving our Ford Jubilee tractor, and I, clinging to the fender, were running the tap line. He brought along two empty five gallon pails nestled in the pallet on the back of the tractor and I brought along my camera hanging around my neck.
We climbed the sand rise near the first clump of trees that we call "the back," just as the streaking colors of the sunset touched the cornstalk stubble in our neighbor's field. Undisturbed by the tractor and two humans, twenty or so deer grazed in our alfalfa field a few hundred yards away. My brother steered the tractor to the right and we headed to a clump of trees in our neighbor's field. As we neared the trees I spotted splashes of color against the gray-brown bark of the trees. Red, yellow and white buckets hung from taps, catching the drip, drip, drip of sap. My brother pointed out a huge, fallen tree as we passed, a casualty of a recent ice storm perhaps. Bringing the tractor to a stop, my brother hopped from the tractor and I followed. He grabbed an empty five-gallon bucket and I turned on my camera.
Stomping through the swampy ground, my brother approached each maple tree. He unhooked buckets from the taps and dumped the sap into his five-gallon bucket. Then he repositioned the smaller bucket on the tree and moved to the next tree. As he worked the sun san further in the west, turning the tree trunks into silhouettes against the streaked sky. I pulled up my hood and snapped it under my chin as the wind blew across the open field nearby. My fingers began to grow numb and I shoved first one gloved hand and then the other into the pockets of my down jacket. After half an hour one five gallon bucket was full and all the buckets in the neighbor's clump of trees had been emptied. My brother and I climbed onto the tractor. I tucked my wool skirt around my legs and we set out across the half-frozen, half-mushy field.
I squinted in the dusky light to see the blobs of darkness that represented the deer feasting in the field. We drove through the barn, filled to the roof with hay bales in the summer but now empty except a cushioning of loose hay on the dirt floor. My brother switched on the headlights and I asked him it it was to scare away the opossums--surely the most ugly animal in Michigan with their ferocious snarl and snakelike tail. But we only saw a rabbit as we passed out of the barn.
We bounced to the fencerow that marked the division on the east between another neighbor's land and ours. Against my brother emptied buckets into the large five gallon bucket. I experimented with shutter speeds and slow sync flash in the growing darkness. Then I climbed back on the tractor to wait for my brother. I caught the whiff of gasoline exhaust in the gust of wind, a smell that belongs with manure and diesel fuel. Suddenly my brother's jacket began ringing. He fished inside and answered the radio. Dinner was ready in the house. We had a few more buckets to empty. The last couple of trees were in the fencerow separated from the field by a small, but full, ditch of water. To empty the last buckets my brother backed the tractor up to the ditched and skinned across the tractor and pallet to the dry fencerow. "If you get wet," I told him, "I'm taking a picture." He made it across the makeshift bridge without mishap and we started back across the field toward the house. Every window in our farmhouse shone with light as we bounced down the lane again.
The kitchen steamed with evaporating sap and the smell of cornbread as I opened the door. I held the storm door as my brother hauled the five gallon buckets of sap inside. A vat of sap boiled on the stove and the table was set for dinner.