The Art of Beginning

All right…I REALLY want to forget about this whole shooting thing for a bit and return to some semblance of normal. Right before the March 19 incident, we recorded our first podcast of the season. The launch may be a little late, but the sentiments are still the same….

Spring catches us with our pants down.

One minute, we’re shoveling snow, breaking the ice over the water buckets and watching the wind whip storms of snowflakes across the fields.

The next, the clocks have changed and the snow has turned into an incessant rain that chisels at the snowbanks that tower over my head, sending torrents of water into the ground, turning everything into mud.

One minute, the sap refuses to flow: the days will never seem to warm enough. The next, the sap tank is full, and the need to boil off is urgent.

“I’m too old for that stuff,” I crow from the farm living room as I drain the last of my martini and watch Tess and Will scrub down the evaporator while Jenn and Nate bring in the sap, then opt to run home to find warmer clothing that can repel the relentless wet. Dark has settled, and they are hoping to boil through the night. They wanted to start sooner, but their schedules got away from them. This is the first year the two young couples have teamed up together to tap our sugarbush. Now, if they don’t make rapid progress with boiling off in the next twenty-four hours, they risk losing the sap to spoilage.

From our places beside the wood stove, we’re cheering for them. Mom and Dad helped pay for the new evaporator pan. Bob and my brother Sean go out to help them string lights, but otherwise, we leave them be. Mom, Dad, Bob and I have parented and operated a business with employees for enough years to understand the importance of not guaranteeing the success of their venture. We could have gone out earlier and scrubbed things down and got it set up. We could have brought the sap in. We didn’t.

We want them to succeed, for certain. But whether a spoonful of maple syrup finds its way to anyone’s lips really isn’t the point of what’s happening. It’s about making sure there will be syrup for years to come.

These two couples are waist-deep in the sacred hours of beginning a job.

It’s one of the hardest parts of farming: identifying the tasks necessary to complete an appropriate endeavor, allotting the time so that they can be accomplished at a comfortable pace, acquiring the tools and materials to complete the tasks, figuring out the flow of the work, employing all hands available efficiently, making sure to treat each other with kindness and respect, even as fatigue and frustration pelts down harder than the rain. It’s a self-induced initiation…one that, I’ve found over time, becomes a cherished ritual to mark the seasons, like planting the herbs in front of the cafe each spring, or taking down the canner each August.

If Mom, Dad, Bob or I get involved, we risk interfering with their growth and confidence. In our set ways, we see ourselves as experts, and that limits the possibilities before all of us. If we were in charge, we’d have quit by now. It’s too late. Too dark. Too cold and wet. They are un-phased by these obstacles.

If Mom, Dad, Bob or I were in charge, they wouldn’t learn their own lessons about timing, sequencing and flow. The less they know about these things, the less secure they will feel, and the more vulnerable their enterprise will become. But if they struggle and overcome, they will grow more comfortable with the process of starting anew. When that happens, anything becomes possible….far more than our seasoned jaded experience can promise.

My brother brings Mila, his three-year-old who has been staying with us for the week, down to say goodnight. I give her an absent-minded kiss as I contemplate all the beginning events awaiting my attention in the coming days and weeks. Nate, Jenn, Tess and Will are teaching me with their learning. Bob and I must also begin again. It’s time to call all my suppliers and check on our prices. It’s time to update the menus, review the inventory and order in supplies. Then we need to scour the winter mud off the cafe and get it ready to open. Then we need to set up for shearing the sheep, start the first batch of croissants, and go over the espresso machine to make sure everything is working. And once the cafe is up and running, we have to launch the new vacation rental across the street, settle in to lambing, and then begin making the rest of the spring repairs. It is easy for overwhelm to cast a pall over all of it. But 40-plus years on this land has taught me to have faith: The syrup will be made, the cafe will open, the sheep will be shorn, the lambs will be born, and the flurry of spring beginnings will melt away into the growth of summer. And to enjoy it all, I must stay open. This is not a time to cloud the future with the pessimism of experience. It’s a time to honestly believe, as these two couples working in the rain do, that anything is possible.

But on this night, I am beginning nothing. I am watching this new generation of farmers from the living room window figure out the next steps they face for the ultimate alchemy of turning sunshine and water into that miraculous syrup. Dad sits beside me, going back and forth to the smoker, where he’s finishing off the Easter hams. We reminisce about the days we stood over the old evaporator pan, how we learned to fit in boiling off between his running to work and Sean and I getting off the school bus. It all seemed so grueling and improbable then. But now, he has time to sit, and I am able to enjoy his company. Three granddaughters fill the kitchen with laughter. One is carried up to bed, and two begin putting away the food. At this moment, on this rainy spring evening, the farm is humming with so many generations of life: Dad and Mom, Bob and me , Saoirse and Ula, my brother and his expectant wife and Mila, Nate and Jenn, Tess and Will. And I am seeing so much beginning: new life, new paths, new partnerships, new community and cooperation, new stories to tell. It seems fitting that the season on Sap Bush Hollow begins with maple syrup. Because it’s just so sweet.

The Hearth of Sap Bush Hollow podcast happens with the support of my patrons on Patreon. And this week I’d like to send a shout out to my patrons Vivian Kaufman and Tonja Palmer.

Thank you, folks! I couldn’t do it without you! If you’d like to help support my work, you can do so for as little as $1/month by hopping over to Patreon and looking up Shannon Hayes.

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