I’m sitting on the 45th Parallel, exactly halfway between the equator and North Pole, on the day that is precisely equal parts light and darkness. It’s 3:20am, seasonably cold here in Montana, and over the gentle whisper of the Yellowstone River’s flow, a river not yet receiving any mountain snow melt, I just heard a great horned owl call. From the very edge of earshot, its mate replies and I smile, imagining them checking in with each other during a night of hunting. “All’s well in my search for voles, and I simply wanted to hear your voice.”
In front of me, across the river and beyond a couple of miles of juniper-studded foothills, the Yellowstone Range shoves into the sky, peaks over 10,000 feet high showing off their treeless, snowy summits under the soft light of a few million stars. I’m waiting here, shivering and rubbing my hands together for warmth, watching for the gassy core of our Milky Way galaxy to rise above these mountains so that I may photograph it for the first time this year. There’s no moon, and yet the night pulses with seemingly more than starlight, my eyes now well enough accustomed to its dim glow to pick out a beaver’s silver, V-shaped wake as it swims upstream through slack water near shore. Above it, the dark silhouettes of geese cut through the night en route to some early breakfast further downstream. All around here, the world is waking up from winter, the infant stirrings of spring signaling Nature’s intent to begin a shift in seasons.
I feel it, too, an instinctual relief and renewed energy making it easier to rise in the middle of the night and drive what approximates the entire length of Vermont, the state where I grew up, to be here during the single-digit hours of early dawn to take a single photograph. Fall has always been my favorite season, though one has never arrived entirely devoid of some innate sadness – the ragged butterflies, the bittersweet warmth of shorter days, the heavy dew that becomes heavy frost. Autumn, with its overwhelming sense of unequivocal ending, can be loved but cannot be joyous in the same way that spring can.
A fish slaps the surface near the hulking shape of a boulder wearing a headdress of lighter-colored sticks, the remnants of last year’s high water. Before summer, this wig will be borne away, carried to some distant, downstream logjam as the Yellowstone crests feet higher than the top of this stone. It seems a long way off now, but staring at stars over the mountains in the east I know that’s an entirely relative perspective. I think about it for a moment, the countless millennia this cycle has repeated here, the bond between river and earth strengthened as one cuts away the other. Again I hear the great horned owl, and again its mate answers.
I stamp my feet and shake the small pouches of dry-chemical hand warmers I’ve brought, speeding their reaction with oxygen in the air, their growing warmth spreading from my palms up my arms. I’ve aligned the motorized mount on my tripod, the equatorial mount capable of replicating the rate of our Earth’s rotation in relation to the stars, to true north, and switched it on. A pale-green LED signals the silent motor is working, but our galaxy is still half an hour from where I want it for this picture. Still partially hidden behind the great mountains that keep drawing my eyes their way. Like the proverbial watched pot, the Milky Way’s core seems stalled on the back side of Emigrant Peak, enthralled perhaps with the view of the Absaroka Beartooth and its thousands of square miles of unbroken wilderness. I’ve seen it, too, from a jet flying between Billings and Salt Lake City, and I don’t begrudge the stars their extended examination.
I laugh out loud. It’s not even quarter of four in the morning, I haven’t seen so much as a set of headlights in nearly an hour, and I’m standing out here shivering, imagining the stars peering down on country sporting six feet of snow. Waiting for that first line of grizzly bear tracks to cut a trench down the slope of some north-facing peak.
A puff of air – not yet a breeze – like the night exhaling softly in deep sleep, carries a scent I haven’t smelled in months. It’s dirt, the celebratory aroma of a ground beginning to thaw, and instantly I’m back on the front porch of my Vermont home thirty five years ago, a boy with his nose to the wind, uncontainable happiness sweeping me up, thrilled beyond all measure by the realization that winter is not interminable. And all because I’ve smelled dirt.
In the spring of 1981, and by spring I mean a day of sun in early March when the glacial, roadside snowdrifts on Irasburg, Vermont’s Route 14 first relinquished a trickle of water, my dad and I bought one dozen tin maple sap buckets. They came with Pilgrim-hat lids, designed to slide over their rolled rims and keep rain – or more likely snow – from falling inside, 12 galvanized, hollow-tube taps with hooks to hang the buckets on, and one drill bit the right size for boring holes in sugar maples.
The buckets, even stacked together, wouldn’t fit in the trunk of our Nova, and rattled noisily in the back seat between the Irasburg General Store where we bought them and our home a short distance away. I liked the sound. The metallic clanking spoke of doing something. Of making things. Of joining, if only in a small way, the families who boiled sap into syrup every spring, sending white columns of steam into the sky, offerings to the gods to bring spring, but slowly.
A good sugar season with a long run of sap needs sunny days and cold nights. A cycle of freeze and thaw during which Vermont’s iconic maples can drink from the earth every day for three weeks. Too warm, and the run will be over too quickly. Not warm enough and the sap won’t flow. I knew this by the time I was eight years old and riding home with our buckets, though I can’t now remember exactly when I learned it. Perhaps it is knowledge acquired instinctually, imparted from the Northeast Kingdom at birth, like a love for the Red Sox or an understanding that come the second Saturday in November nothing in the world is more important than hunting whitetail deer.
By 1981, WD-40, the aerosol, fix-all lubricant, had been around for almost thirty years, though never in the Mosher household, where we accepted the Northeast Kingdom’s inclination toward – and affection for - oxidation as simply the way things were. When a door latch rusted shut, you tapped it back and forth with a hammer. If the nut holding a lawnmower blade in place grew round with rust, you beat a pipe wrench onto it when it needed loosening. And when, if all else failed, as it did with my attempts to turn the chuck of the hand drill I’d found in the attic of our garage, my mother would dab a little sewing oil onto it, golden drops falling from a tin, rectangular can sporting a bright-red spout. Like the sap buckets rattling, I liked the sound of the oilcan flexing in and out as my mother oiled the drill, the chuck eventually spinning in my hands, ready to accept the bit my dad bought for tapping maples.
If the drill wasn’t one hundred years old, it was knocking damn hard on that door. It was a U-shaped contraption with a round, flat, wooden knob on the back end polished to a burgundy sheen from countless hours of resting against a man’s palm while he turned the drill, the entire apparatus a very small technological upgrade to the T-handle tools used in barn building that preceded it.
I wasn’t tall enough to drill a hole in the prodigious maple tree in our front yard in the right place. I could do it – by bracing the handle of the drill against my thigh and leaning into it for all I was worth while I cranked, but the ensuing hole was too near the ground to hang a bucket on. I watched my dad, enviously, as he carved a hole in the tree a couple of feet above mine, the bit chewing through lichen-covered bark before sending damp, curly cuttings of white wood squirming from the hole. I watched as they bounced down the trunk to the patch of bare ground where sun, reflected from the tree, had exposed some brown grass.
“The Abenaki Indians were the first people to make maple syrup,” my father said while I hammed a tap into the hole he drilled. “At some point, someone must have tried burning a green maple log in a campfire and then tasted some of the sap that bubbled out.”
From the next hole, I selected an especially long cutting and placed it in my mouth. It didn’t have nearly as strong a flavor as the wintergreen-infused yellow birch twigs I’d nibbled on while fishing, but through the wood came a hint of something sweet, gone in an instant, leaving me wiping my tongue on the back of my hand, flecks of lichen sticking to it as they had the cutting.
To the honking of horns from several passing cars, we hung five buckets on the tree in our yard, and before the last hole was drilled sap was flowing from the first, plunking onto the bottom of the bucket with another pleasing sound. In a land of ice, not all was frozen.
We hung the remaining seven sap buckets on two trees towering from the ruins of a stone wall in a neighbor’s horse pasture. My father pulled me down there in a large, wooden toboggan, past reddening clumps of osiers, the bounding tracks of snowshoe hares, and a lone, wrinkled, wild apple lying on top of the snow. He let me drill one of the holes, balancing on a bread loaf-shaped granite boulder around which a portion of the old wall had been built, as he sang Luckenbach Texas, humming for all the words except “Waylon, Willie, and the boys,” a refrain he sang over and over.
By the time we got back to our house, I could no longer hear sap hitting metal in any of the buckets on the first tree we’d tapped, falling quietly onto a shallow layer of liquid instead. It ran well until the middle of the afternoon when the wind swung to the north, blowing hard out of Canada with a winter chill. When I woke up the following morning and peered under the lids of the buckets, I saw that during the night the last drops of sap had frozen, hanging from the taps like the icicles from the eaves above our porch.
The sap didn’t run for three days, though I did my best to will it from the ground, my inspections of our buckets becoming more intense both before I headed to school and again immediately upon my return. When the cold snap broke on the fourth day, and the sun rose warm over Allen Hill, it was as if the trees knew to make up for lost time. The sap flowed so fast from our taps that I could barely count individual drops. By early afternoon, the buckets on the tree in our front yard were more than half full, cakes of frozen sap floating in them, melting faster I believed if I chopped at them with the tine of a pitchfork I’d unearthed the summer before while digging for worms to use fishing.
Shortly before supper, my dad lashed a plastic garbage can into the front of the toboggan and we trudged down through the pasture, sinking deep in soft snow. I was elated to see that “my” bucket had at least two inches more sap in it than any of the others, a result of its position directly below the tree’s largest limb, my dad said. One at a time, we dumped the buckets into the garbage can then carefully retraced our steps, trying to keep the toboggan in its own track where it packed a narrow path. With the sap from the tree in our yard added in, we had almost twenty gallons – enough for half a gallon of syrup.
The following day, a Saturday, was warm again but for some reason unknown to all except the maple trees, the sap didn’t run as fast. My dad let me take the toboggan by myself that afternoon, showing me how I could step inside the loop of clothesline he used to pull it, placing the rope against my waist to use my legs as much as possible. It was a relatively flat shot to the trees in the pasture, and I belted out “Waylon and Willie” much of the way there, stopping once to look at large, melted tracks that cut across the ones my dad and I had made a few days before. The trek back was harder, and I had to rest five or six times, but as more and more of our house came into view I sang louder, eventually heaving into the driveway with eight gallons of sap sloshing around in the garbage can.
My mother began boiling as soon as we finished supper, cooking the sap in the metal tub-like pot she used to seal canning jars. I had to stand on a chair, its wicker seat sagging and doweled legs wobbly, to see down into the boiling vat, and after my second view of the foamy, rolling surface, my mother said no more. She didn’t need a broken chair or a broken son. So I sat at our kitchen table as the room grew damp with condensation, the ceiling above the stove beading with water, listening to the rhythmic roll of boiling sap. Every fifteen minutes, my mom would add more, ladling it from the garbage can on our side porch with the same pot she used to boil the eggs that we’d colored for Easter the year before. The boiling would slow and then resume its pace, the windowpanes throughout the downstairs of our house shining wet with round balls of water.
While my dad sat on our living room couch and read, my mother and I talked in the kitchen, discussing the diminutive size of the tomato seeds we’d planted in peat pots, the possible identity of the beast which had plowed through the snow near the pasture maples, tracks too large I thought for any earthly creature, and what my stub-tailed cat, Lynx, might be doing out on the town, feeling the call of spring. We wondered when I’d see the first butterfly of the year, and whether it would be a mourning cloak or tortoiseshell. I asked her how many more times she thought it would snow, and if she would help me build a mouse trap in our cellar using a bent handsaw blade and dental floss coated with cheese. The small wall clock, hanging in its copper-colored shell, read seven, then eight, then nine.
It was after ten when sap turned to syrup, dripping slowing from the fork my mother dipped into the kettle. She poured it off into canning jars, liquid the color of standing, autumn field grass just before the sun falls over the horizon. Extra fancy grade, we both agreed. And then I fell asleep as mice rolled something inside the lath walls of my bedroom, the world outside crawled through a cold night, and the enveloping sensation that nothing could be better than being a boy at springtime held me tight.
The core of the Milky Way has summited these Montana mountains now, and if I’m to make anything of this long night I’d better take a few pictures. I level my camera and open its shutter to begin one of several three-minute exposures, the equatorial mount turning it imperceptibly slowly, following the motion of the stars along their nightly arc.
As it captures a little of the world above, I sit on the bank of the Yellowstone, listening to the water, looking up at the sky, and wondering how in the hell time has gone by so fast. The maple tree in the front yard of my boyhood home, planted shortly after the house was built around 1870, came down six years ago. One of its seedlings, planted near the stump of its father, is already fifteen feet tall. The kitchen wallpaper, left peeling and loose during the 1981 sugar season, was replaced long ago, and new, double-pane windows throughout the house have never shed a tear of condensation. Like any old, New England home, it still has a few mice, though with its walls packed with blow-in insulation they’ve been forced to find new bowling alleys. The footfalls of a new cat, this one with a complete tail but claws as thick as a bear’s and a fang that leaks from its mouth like a saber tooth, keep my mother, living there alone, company.
By the time I spot the beaver again, swimming back downstream, the eastern sky is as silver as his wake and the Milky Way is fading into another day.
“You’ve seen this all a million times,” I think silently, watching the brightest stars in our galaxy dim with coming dawn. “Seasons and trees and families. Rivers and mountains and owls.”
As if on cue, the pair calls again, their voices together now, I think. I answer them, in my own language, introducing them with unabashed bravado, to Waylon, Willie, and the boys.
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