McCallum: Cleaning Up

Mar 17, 2016

A friend recently called while I was working outside and asked me what I was up to. “Picking up sticks,” I said. He knew instantly what I meant since he’d been doing the same.

New England country dwellers welcome the end of winter by shedding tired heavy jackets and putting their yards back together. The insults on the landscape of a long winter reveal themselves as the snow recedes. And while Vermonters are emerging from an unusually benign winter, what little snow we had carpeted fallen limbs, gouges and gravel left on the lawn by the snowplow and deep muddy ruts in the dooryard. Last year at this time I was shoveling paths between tall heaps of solidly frozen snow; this year I’m already raking.

My walks around the neighborhood take me past a small shed on the side of the road that houses a collection tank for sap that rushes through lines from 3,500 taps in the forest up the hill. On warm days that follow cold nights, a truck stops by multiple times to empty the tank into a monstrous one on the rear of the truck and ferry it to a sugar house for boiling. This sugaring season has been an early one. If it also turns out to be short, hopefully it will still be a sweet one for Vermont’s signature product.

I think about this when I walk past the shed and hear the electric hum of equipment that pulls sap from the trees into the tank through a modern vacuum tubing system. With technology on his side, this modern sugarmaker relies on special apps that alert him on his smart phone when and where his tubing has sprung a leak.

Climate change is forcing maple sugarers to up their game with technology that could save the industry while altering its practice dramatically. Buckets, spouts, taps and tubing in old trees may evolve into farms of juvenile crop trees planted in rows, plantation style, thus changing the face of a cherished and iconic Vermont tradition forever.

My own cherished tradition of tidying up the March landscape has also taken a new turn. On those walks past the tank shed I pick up the many beer cans thrown with abandon from car windows all winter. I use them to festoon roadside trees, creating what might evolve into a colorful avenue for passersby. Beer Can Alley. Or a new crop of my own, plantation style.