I’ve never written to anyone before and I quite like it.

A loyal friend is like a safe shelter; find one, and you have found a treasure. Nothing else is as valuable; there is no way of putting a price on it.  A loyal friend is like a medicine that keeps you in good health. Sirach 6:14-16

There is nothing like the thrill of opening the mailbox and finding a handwritten letter inside. I strongly believe in genetic memory. Even before our letters drew us closer, I felt an immediate knowing, a bond on a deeper level than made any sense with my distant cousin, Peter.

I met Peter for the first time two years ago when I was researching our shared ancestors. He’s an older gentleman (just turned 88 this past May). Peter drove us through the valley and up onto the hills now covered with state forest that once belonged to our ancestors. His wife, Grace, and daughter, Patti, brought along a picnic of homemade potato salad, sandwiches and cookies. We sat chatting beneath dappled August sunlight by the pond it is my dream to someday own.

McKenzie, my daughter, was along and was most grateful for the cookies and the way she was treated like instant family. After only a few hours touring the haunts of our forebears we said goodbye. A few months later I sent Peter and his wife a card to let them know I was thinking of them. Peter responded with a letter and we’ve been happily corresponding ever since.

At first I wondered was it just that as a writer I was enjoying his letters because of his answers to questions I had about our shared homeland, but it wasn’t that. Once last winter Peter’s daughter called to ask me how I was doing. It was unusual because we had hardly spoken after the picnic.

“I’m well. How are you?” I asked. “Is everything okay with your parents?”

“Oh, yes. The reason I’m calling is because Dad asked me to. He’s worried since he hasn’t received a letter in the last few weeks.”

No longer did I have to worry if my questions had been too intrusive or my letters too rambling. He liked receiving them as much as I did receiving his.

When he told me things about his childhood I would realize that I had already focused on those same themes and come to the same conclusions about our shared relations from the past while writing the story about my 3x greatgrandfather and his 2x great grandmother (my 3x great aunt). The dynamics Peter talked about between himself and his father were almost identical to the ones I imagined when writing about his great grandfather and his sons. Somehow our letters and my writing were tapping into the same magic!

This last summer McKenzie and I went to the family reunion in the same valley by the pond and I was thrilled when I saw Peter and Grace arrive dressed in their Sunday best — overdressed — but perfect to me. He tipped his straw fedora and his wife gave me a hug. It felt like all we did was eat that day. First at the reunion and then when Peter and McKenzie conspired to keep the day going with dinner out.

It was late when we said our goodbyes. Peter and Grace have a caretaker of sorts. A somewhat pushy lady with a good heart but lacking in sentimentality.

“Give me your email and cell phone number so Peter has it,” she said in her no-nonsense way.

Peter had sent McKenzie a few letters too but she’d lost interest in writing replies. “I can’t read your handwriting,” she said, much to my annoyance.

He laughed good-naturedly, but the caretaker jumped in.

“Okay, from now on you can tell me what to write and I’ll type it into an email,” she said to Peter.

Peter looked as crestfallen as I felt for a moment.

“I’ve never written to anyone before and I quite like it,” he said.

. I couldn’t let this happen no matter how well-meaning the caretaker.

“Peter, this doesn’t let you off the hook with me,” I said. “I love your handwritten letters and I can read them just fine.” The very idea of an intermediary!

He clasped my hands in his. “I love them too. I won’t stop. I promise,” he said mirroring my own devotion.

True friendships are so rare. Finally I am old enough not to take them for granted.

On the drive home the next day I received a text from an unknown number. “Are you home yet?”

At the next stop I answered. “Who is this?” though I was pretty sure I knew.

“It’s Peter.”

It’s never too late to make friends and write letters.

Anyone out there still have pen pals?

Courage in Suffering

My child, when you come to serve the Lord,
    prepare yourself for testing.
 Set your heart right and be steadfast,
    and do not be impetuous in time of calamity.
Cling to him and do not depart,
    so that your last days may be prosperous.
 Accept whatever befalls you,
    and in times of humiliation be patient.
 For gold is tested in the fire,
    and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation.


My sister just recently decided to become a mail carrier after ditching her job in the city. On the first day of training she nervously sought to fill a dead spot in the conversation.

“So, do we organize the letters and packages on our route alphabetically?”

The man looked at her compassionately. “Um, so we organize by the numbers on the mail boxes.”

My sister had been up since 4 am, was considering buying a new home, was recovering from Lyme, had failed the first mail carrier driving test, and had taken on a new labrador retriever puppy we later discovered came from a puppy mill. A few days later the same man spotted her at another training.

“I remember you!” he said with a smile.

“Yes, I’m the one who asked the moronic question.”

He laughed. “I have to admit that I thought they were really lowering the standards around here.”

My sister is funny and resilient. She takes humiliation quite well.

Guess who has the puppy now?

Children who have suffered from severe abuse have an uneasy relationship with shame. A well-loved child will be told no a million times. These little reprimands followed by hugs and kisses allow the child to experience shame in small and useful doses. It prepares them for a lifetime of mistakes and learning from those mistakes. An abused child often was made to feel shame and humiliation for unjustifiable reasons. In many cases, because of the parent’s own faulty shame response, the child becomes a hated thing. Our adopted daughter cannot take any personal responsibility. To do so releases such intense shame — a shame that causes her to hurt others.

God does not seek to shame us into submission but he allows us to learn through suffering. We all know there is no escaping suffering. It’s why some people prefer not to imagine a creator at all. A year or so ago a blogging friend AMY mentioned that she picked a word for each year. I liked the idea. COURAGE instantly came to mind.

I’m writing a novel based on my ancestors. As a timid person who hates to be humiliated I felt I really needed to explore the lives of my courageous ancestors.

Consider the generations of old and see:
    has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?
Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken?
    Or has anyone called upon him and been neglected?
 For the Lord is compassionate and merciful;
    he forgives sins and saves in time of distress.

 Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands,
    and to the sinner who walks a double path!
 Woe to the fainthearted who have no trust!
    Therefore they will have no shelter.
 Woe to you who have lost your nerve!
    What will you do when the Lord’s reckoning comes?

My ancestors cut through forests as panthers with yellow eyes stalked them at night. They lived off of turnips and beechnuts. They were captured by Indians during the French and Indian War and threw tea overboard when the government overstepped authority. They fought and died to end slavery.

I’m afraid to make phone calls.

So courage became the word of the last year. I hate superheroes. MY CHARACTERS are as flawed as I am. I can’t connect with perfect people. I’m too much a perfectionist to want competition. The good thing about aging and becoming just a little bit wiser is that I see what my problem is: Pride leads to fear of humiliation which leads to stepping back when I need to step forward. More pride, more shame, more cowardice … repeat.

One of my ancestors was sent home from the Civil War because he’d had loose bowels for so long that he was coughing up blood. What unimagineable courage it must have taken for him to reenlist a year later upon recovery. Yes, the bonuses would have been appealing to a poor farm boy, but I refuse to belittle his self-sacrifice. Imagine the many large and small humiliations suffered by the patients in those old-fashioned hospitals.

Not much has changed. Two doctors once stood face-to-face across a hospital bed fighting over who might better find a vein to draw blood from me as I lay dying. I didn’t choose that indignity so I don’t think I was courageous, yet it did refine me. I appreciated compassionate doctors and nurses more. I appreciated the hospital workers who without my prompting prayed over me. Their prayers must have worked!

Humiliations come to us even if we do not seek them. The courageous do what’s good, true or beautiful even when they know the humiliations they will most likely suffer.

Those who fear the Lord prepare their hearts,
    and humble themselves before him.

The beginning of wisdom is accepting that we cannot hide from humiliation. Yes, we will fear it and dread it. But the ancients all seemed to understand the glory of courage and the refining value of suffering. This last year I had to decide if I would forgive our daughter’s rages that so often were taken out on me. I had to fight to get her to safety and bare my soul to mental health professionals who no longer had souls of compassion.

If I hadn’t been thinking about courage and humility I could not have escaped with my sanity. I’m stronger than I thought I was, but weaker and more reliant on others than I would ever have admitted. That’s okay. It’s actually good. I’m not as brave as a soldier overtaking a breastwork, but I’m not as afraid as I once was of life’s refinery (I should probably knock on wood or something after saying that).

Where Does Wisdom Come From?

Numerous and wonderful things have been given to us through the Law, the Prophets, and the other writings that followed them. For this reason, it is necessary to praise Israel for education and wisdom. It is also necessary not only for those who read them to gain understanding but also for those who love learning to be of service to strangers when they speak and write. 

Sirach 1:1

I realized about two months ago that I walk too fast. When I was younger I used to run everywhere. I can only imagine what people thought as I raced to buy my M&Ms candy after school to share with my Yorkshire Terrier. I remember sorting the colors before eating them one by one. The tiny dog survived the daily poison.

Wisdom comes the more you notice the daily poisons you consume. The poisons can be sweet in the moment like when you’re scanning through beautiful images on Instagram. They can be masked as “goals” or “schedules” offered as help by the experts in psychology. As individuals, things that are healthy for some are not healthy for others.

There’s a man who always jogs past our house at 3 pm and upsets our dogs. He looks incredibly drained and frail from the running. I suspect it’s an addiction. Remember I used to run to get candy. In the back of my mind I was burning calories so I could eat the M&Ms without guilt.

Yet despite our individuality, I think actual wisdom comes from truths that are just there waiting to be discovered and embraced. There are those preferences that we call “our truths” but they are nothing like the time-tested TRUTH passed down through wise people in every age.

I had just started taking a class in groundwork with horses because despite my fear I can’t stop being drawn to horses. I have a sense that I must conquer fear in my life. The instructor pointed out, after the horse started nipping at me, how quickly I wanted the horse to respond to my requests . She asked why I thought the horse was doing that.

A rush of emotion welled up from nowhere. I almost cried. “Because horses don’t like me.”

I knew this was probably not true but I also knew it was how I felt in the moment when I became frustrated. The horse was mirroring my impatience and anxiety. It was the very next day when I noticed I was walking too fast. From the barn to the chicken coop, from the hay bales to the watering troughs, I raced from one chore to the next, all the while feeling a vague sense of guilt for not spending time enjoying my mini horse and my friendly flock of sheep.

We all know those stories about people on their deathbeds wishing they had just slowed down, had placed priorities on the eternal, on relationships and so on, but why in the moment is it so difficult for some of us to walk a little slower?

It really is important to seek wisdom. You don’t even have to run to the store to get it. You probably need to walk a bit more slowly just where you are, maybe hang out with an animal or read Sirach instead of scrolling all day long. We all know this and it can be hard, but walking slower this past week has made a world of difference.

“Whatever you do, think of the glory of God as your main goal.” St. John Bosco

Do you want to romanticize your life? Here’s a way to do it. It’s not the burden I once thought it might be. I was the burden. My pride, my striving, my need to produce worthwhile things for the fleeting praise I’d receive. I didn’t believe in a yoke being light. A yoke meant work and I was certain it had to be done one way. My way. The idea of bringing glory to anyone but me seemed disappointing. Yet the glory was short-lived, elusive and exhausting. I wasn’t even doing things I felt called to do.

"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

When you are called to something, the suffering should not make you more and more miserable. You know those times when you decide to do the right thing and yet it doesn’t feel right to you at all? I’ve done that more times than I can count. Sometimes I would even convince myself that God had commanded me to do such and such a thing when he hadn’t said a word.

The feel of God’s yoke is the difference between feeling content in the flow and feeling miserably tired, frustrated and angry. I’ve tried putting mini horse harnesses on sheep. They just don’t like it. I’ve often ended up like my sheep when I’ve avoided what I’ve been put here to do. The things I’ve done that seemed more selfless sometimes have been the very worst things I could have done because my motives were wrong. Often the noble things I’ve picked for myself are carefully disguised ways to avoid the fear of creating something authentic — that might not please others or be any good at all.

The world needs people who are doing things for the glory of God. So often I’ve taken on tasks that are horrible as a way of doing penance for time spent creating things I love and enjoy. This inner exchange system has usually put me on the losing end of things. What’s worse is that there’s been no glory for anyone involved.

I could say I was trying to please God, but that’s a lie. I was afraid of being me. Afraid of being called selfish or lacking in talent. So I chose things that either impressed others or filled my days with drudgery. No one asked me to do this. Even on great days of peak creativity I sought to downplay the joy of following the call that had always been there.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Life on a micro scale, minus the news (which I’ve been fasting from) is pretty incredible today. September makes everything golden. There’s a breeze outside my window. The flower seeds I scattered with glorious abandon this spring are calling in the bees and Monarchs. I never put limits on scattering flower seeds. I don’t think of myself as a gardener so my ego stays put. The flowers bring glory to God not me. I love them. I don’t need them to reflect me at all.

I thought I had to make my creative call burdensome even after years of reading about the Pharisees! Bringing glory to God is taking those pictures because you love taking photos. It’s that page written because you love your characters the way God loves you. Oxen clearing fields of old tree stumps for the gentle farmer who knows just how to carve the right yoke and how to give the proper feed and encouragement are happy oxen.

Of course we all have a certain amount of drudgery in life, but I noticed today that without the added burdens I place on tasks, I can do them more effortlessly. I’ve realized that doing things you love with gratitude instead of fear and guilt brings the most glory to God.

How about you? I’d love to know if you have struggled with guilt as a creative Do you “even things out” by taking on more than you can handle? How do you get in God’s flow?

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” ― Mark Twain

Everything you love today will be one day thrown off, cast in a heap, stolen or forgotten. You may write your mementos into a will, put your signature upon books you’ve written, and, in the case of your very body, have portraits done to capture who you once appeared to be.

An old wise owl as writing partner sits upon my desk.
As a man came from his mother’s womb, so he will depart again, naked as he arrived. He takes nothing for his labor to carry in his hands. This too is a grievous evil: Exactly as a man is born, so he will depart. What does he gain as he toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness, with much sorrow, sickness, and anger.

Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in all the labor one does under the sun during the few days of life that God has given him—for this is his lot. Ecclesiastes 

Antique fairs are like walking through graveyards but with less respect and order. Attendees remind me of grave robbers on battlefields (in a small way) though I very much enjoy being one of them. The dead are not quite so fresh at a county fairground, and we have no idea in most cases what the original owners died of. Let’s hope all in their sleep and at ripe old ages.

Last year the fair was cancelled, along with most everything that makes life worth living so this year the line to get in to see dead people’s stuff was easily a football field long. Everyone was commenting about it as they stood surveying who wore the mask correctly or not-at-all, obviously that person over there was not up-to-date on the latest studies, etc — so many studies! At least as we stood (at less than six feet apart) we were getting a good dose of Vitamin D.

Anyway, despite knowing I’ll die one day, I still love collecting old stuff. I love imagining the original owners and wonder am I imagining or tapping into their memories — it’s hard to know for sure, but I’m leaning toward objects granting the seeker a knowledge, a hint of something more. It’s the same way with writing. The muses, the spirits are there inviting you to see things, to take a chance. Where might these glimpses and promptings lead?

“One must really be brave to choose love or writing as one’s guides, because they may lead one to the space in which the meaning of our life is hidden — and who can say that this space may not be the land of death.”

Demetrios Capetenakis

I think of the Catholic Sisters of Charity who ran toward the battlefields and hospitals and died (of disease and exhaustion) for the love of many soldiers during the Civil War who would otherwise have died without names. Or the soldiers themselves who found purpose in loving their country, or comrades or family back home. Nowadays we see all death as the worst possible outcome. I think this is because we have given up on the idea of eternity.

A wonderful etching of the best and worst of life.

For the life of me I can’t keep death from my novels. I don’t even want to, I guess. I’ve made peace with what the muses say must be done. I’ll be happy if one day, for the love of my mission here, I am able to completely let my ego die and get down to just loving the people and things before me. The more I write, the more I love the characters, come what may. The fear of them leading to bad reviews or just plain bad endings diminishes the more I accept death as part of creation.

Do you know what this badge is? It’s a Grand Army of the Republic grave marker for a Civil War veteran. Somewhere a grave goes without its marker. I can’t imagine why, but I couldn’t very well leave it at the fair.

Again I think of the soldiers who died and were buried on plantations or in mass graves or even lovingly by their comrades. The men would often do their best to leave markers made of whatever they had available, most of it not holding up in the weather.

It was the evening before Cold Harbor when an officer spied all of his men crouched over sewing their names written on little sheets of paper to the backs of their jackets so sure they were of the hopelessness of their situation.

My idea is to plant a small garden for this relic of a brave soul’s life, to me unknown, but not really.

Success! You're on the list.

“The worst of all fears is the fear of living.” Theodore Roosevelt

Spring has come despite the fear swirling around the parking lots littered with tossed away masks anytime I venture off the farm and into the “real world.” I try not to believe too strongly in this real world created by men and women who will never be held accountable for the tales they tell.

I choose to believe that I will live here until it is time for me to go. I do my best to tread lightly upon other people’s fears because I have so often fallen prey to the habit and weird allure of fear and victimhood. Yet there came a time after the worst things happened that I realized I would survive. I had to decide if the pain of fear was truly the companion I would take with me on the rest of the journey.

There were many frosty days of fear promised, but I began to notice the new and emerald growth in the valleys. I used to fight my fears by diving into deep pools to see if I’d swim or sink in the tangles of worldly cares and ambitions. And then I realized these acts of daring and fight were useless and silly.

To live without any longer needing to prove to the egotistical monsters my value was truly the most fearless thing I could do. People debate health topics and kill friendships. I believe what I believe and get on with my life. Maybe I will die tomorrow. Who knows? I may as well be nice to people especially if they are still gripped in fear.

If I finish a project or don’t it no longer matters. This worry used to keep me from even starting. The Y2K scare, the 9-11 scare, the illness and disease scares — and still I am here. Don’t get me wrong. I mourn the death of my uncle who died after getting the shot and for others who died from sickness. Yet I know we all will die and that it will seem unfair or terrible. In the meantime I like having goals.

I still want to make tons of money writing so that I can buy a pond. I still haven’t figured out how to do that yet. I’m writing a novel that I’m thoroughly engrossed in, yet for now it is enough to love my characters and immerse myself in research.

As an artist and writer I no longer fear living or dying. I only fear not creating, not sharing, not encouraging beauty, goodness and truth — wherever that takes me.

I encourage you today if you are fearful to accept that the emotion is only useful to a point. Sometimes talking to a friend helps or turning off the news. We are all born to create — to bring a little heaven to earth for each other — don’t deny us what only you can offer.

Since my daughter is still in the mental health facility I’ve had time to not only write, but to make crafty things for the sheer fun of it:

Over the winter I started making gourd head dolls too. Little Zack has been wanting to kill them for weeks and yesterday he climbed up and got one!

Have a wonderfully fearless week!

The Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.
I gaze until she seems to stir,—
Until mine eyes almost aver
That now, even now, the sweet lips part
To breathe the words of the sweet heart:—
And yet the earth is over her.

Alas! even such the thin-drawn ray
That makes the prison-depths more rude,—
The drip of water night and day
Giving a tongue to solitude.
Yet only this, of love's whole prize,
Remains; save what in mournful guise
Takes counsel with my soul alone,—
Save what is secret and unknown,
Below the earth, above the skies.

In painting her I shrin'd her face
Mid mystic trees, where light falls in
Hardly at all; a covert place
Where you might think to find a din
Of doubtful talk, and a live flame
Wandering, and many a shape whose name
Not itself knoweth, and old dew,
And your own footsteps meeting you,
And all things going as they came.

A deep dim wood; and there she stands
As in that wood that day: for so
Was the still movement of her hands
And such the pure line's gracious flow.
And passing fair the type must seem,
Unknown the presence and the dream.
'Tis she: though of herself, alas!
Less than her shadow on the grass
Or than her image in the stream.

That day we met there, I and she
One with the other all alone;
And we were blithe; yet memory
Saddens those hours, as when the moon
Looks upon daylight. And with her
I stoop'd to drink the spring-water,
Athirst where other waters sprang;
And where the echo is, she sang,—
My soul another echo there.

But when that hour my soul won strength
For words whose silence wastes and kills,
Dull raindrops smote us, and at length
Thunder'd the heat within the hills.
That eve I spoke those words again
Beside the pelted window-pane;
And there she hearken'd what I said,
With under-glances that survey'd
The empty pastures blind with rain.

Next day the memories of these things,
Like leaves through which a bird has flown,
Still vibrated with Love's warm wings;
Till I must make them all my own
And paint this picture. So, 'twixt ease
Of talk and sweet long silences,
She stood among the plants in bloom
At windows of a summer room,
To feign the shadow of the trees.

And as I wrought, while all above
And all around was fragrant air,
In the sick burthen of my love
It seem'd each sun-thrill'd blossom there
Beat like a heart among the leaves.
O heart that never beats nor heaves,
In that one darkness lying still,
What now to thee my love's great will
Or the fine web the sunshine weaves?

For now doth daylight disavow
Those days,—nought left to see or hear.
Only in solemn whispers now
At night-time these things reach mine ear;
When the leaf-shadows at a breath
Shrink in the road, and all the heath,
Forest and water, far and wide,
In limpid starlight glorified,
Lie like the mystery of death.

Last night at last I could have slept,
And yet delay'd my sleep till dawn,
Still wandering. Then it was I wept:
For unawares I came upon
Those glades where once she walk'd with me:
And as I stood there suddenly,
All wan with traversing the night,
Upon the desolate verge of light
Yearn'd loud the iron-bosom'd sea.

Even so, where Heaven holds breath and hears
The beating heart of Love's own breast,—
Where round the secret of all spheres
All angels lay their wings to rest,—
How shall my soul stand rapt and aw'd,
When, by the new birth borne abroad
Throughout the music of the suns,
It enters in her soul at once
And knows the silence there for God!

Here with her face doth memory sit
Meanwhile, and wait the day's decline,
Till other eyes shall look from it,
Eyes of the spirit's Palestine,
Even than the old gaze tenderer:
While hopes and aims long lost with her
Stand round her image side by side,
Like tombs of pilgrims that have died
About the Holy Sepulchre.

Painting: Ophelia by Arthur Hughes 1863 (Public Domain)

DIY Maple Syrup

In 1860 the United States produced more than six and a half million gallons of maple syrup. In 2019 only about one and a half million gallons were harvested. What’s wrong, Americans?

My husband “sugars off” the sap alone at our house after the one year he slipped out of a church function to tap trees and left the rest of us to endure an awkward after-church potluck and games gathering. As a family of introverts, we (as one) revolted. Soon after our two strong sons disappeared into adulthood and far from the sugar bush. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I’ve had weird luck with broken arms and hands in March so I’m never much help and stand by the fire only now and again to see how things are progressing (I am the main imbiber of the golden sweetness though).

My husband is not 100% selfless. He loves to plan, to improve, to go bigger, to make more, to give away more, and especially how by the second or third week the sun warms the chair he sits in as he listens to the bubbling sap. There is nothing like the smell of maple on the wind. The dogs instantly lift their noses to it when I take them outside on their little rambles. Nala the farm dog used to lounge with my husband until a local marathon runner started jogging by. Nala hates fast moving people and makes it very plain. Nobody likes a big white wolf-dog snarling and hopping at their heels.

In pioneer days the young people loved a good sugaring-off party for sweets and sparking. We do that too when I remember to bring my husband out coffee. Here’s how native New Yorker THURLOW WEED remembered it:

This is a season to which the farmer’s sons and daughters look forward with agreeable anticipations. In that employment toil is more than literally sweetened. The occupation and its associations are healthful and beneficial. When your troughs are dug (out of basswood, for there were no buckets in those days), your trees tapped, your sap gathered, your wood cut, and your fires fed, there is leisure either for reading or ‘sparking.’ And what youthful denizens of the sap-bush will ever forget, while ‘sugaring-off,’ their share in the transparent and delicious streak of candy congealed and cooled in the snow? Many a farmer’s son had found his best opportunities for mental improvement in his intervals of leisure while ‘tending sap-bush.’ Such, at any rate, was my own experience. At night you had only to feed the kettles and keep up your fires — the sap having been gathered and the wood cut ‘before dark.’ During the day we would also lay in a good stock of fat pine, by the light of which, blazing brightly in front of the sugar-house, in the posture the serpent was condemned to assume as a penalty for tempting our great first grandmother, I have passed many and many a delightful night in reading. I remember in this way to have read a history of the French Revolution, and to have obtained from it a better and more enduring knowledge of its events and horrors, and of the actors in that great national tragedy, than I have received from all subsequent readings. I remember also how happy I was in being able to borrow the book of a Mr. Keyes, after a two mile tramp through the snow, shoeless, my feet swaddled in remnants of a rag-carpet.

Thurlow Weed, History of the Town of Marathon

Here’s the way the season goes:

When the days of the thaw and nights of cold are balanced perfectly (days 40-52 degrees/nights 24-32 degrees) the sap starts flowing — for how long nobody knows so you have to be ready!

My husband has a source of free pine which is the preferred wood for boiling. He cuts, stacks and ages it all year long.

In late February we tramp through the snow, falling in when there’s a layer of ice on top, looking for the maples marked for tapping the previous summer. In the old days farmers would sit by their hearths in winter whittling sumac spiles (spouts). to tamp into the bored holes on the sunny side of trees at least 10-12″ in diameter and 1-4ft from the ground. Nowadays you can buy metal or plastic spiles online (but do it early!).

The average farmer in the olden times relied on a good cooper for his buckets. My 4x great grandfather was a master cooper until the drink dulled his skills. A leaky bucket then was very bad indeed. I imagine my poor grandmother doing her best to keep the family in funds with her spinning, but from what I know, the children suffered. Drink sap to play it safe. Sweet water (before it’s boiled down) can give you a bad stomach ache so don’t be greedy!

Millions of sap buckets were required in the mid-nineteenth century and each one was made by hand and sold for six cents a piece:

They were shaped not for finish nor beauty, but solely for utility, and not one unnecessary stroke went into their construction. Almost invariably the material was the very best old, free-splitting white pine … Neither the inside nor outside of the staves was touched with any tool, but left with the grain showing as rived from the block. The edges of the staves, however, must be beveled and jointed with almost perfect accuracy, and the bottom must fit the chine, the groove cut to receive it, with the same preciseness.”

The Golden Age of Homespun by Jared van Wagenen, Jr.

Some say that Native Americans boiled down sap and showed the process to the first pioneers, others disagree and say it’s only folklore because the Native process in the way that it’s spoken of doesn’t seem to get the sap quite hot enough to be true. Maybe they just drank the sweet water as-is which with the minerals may have seemed a healthy tonic. Who knows?

The first year we tapped trees, we boiled sap over a metal grate sitting on cinder blocks. My husband’s set-up improved over the years and now he boils on a converted fuel oil tank.


In the last month he picked up two old oil tanks, some angle iron and a welding machine off Craigslist. I steered clear of the sparks that he said could blind me until the tank looked like this:

The tank was empty so my husband welded the shelf within–I had no idea what it all meant until it began to come together .

First we put in some sand and leveled it:

Then I had the job of cleaning old mortar from the bricks also gotten off Craigslist while husband cut a door into the tank.

Cutting through metal is loud!
This looked so pretty!
Oliver the cat (who stares down foxes) loves the cozy vibe of an evaporator.

Carrying the full buckets of sap back to the evaporator is a test of endurance when snow is still on the ground (some years a foot or two of it). The pioneers used to have yokes to wear over shoulders with hooks on the end for buckets or big barrels as reservoirs on sleds to bring the sweet water to the fire. We lug the buckets out of the woods (the reason the boys go AWOL). Some people have intricate systems of plastic tubing running into a reservoir at an easier location to access the sap. We’ve had years where we’ve had to climb snowy hills to retrieve the buckets –a lot of splashed out sap! We’ve also dug out snowy trails in February. The boys did not approve. Now my husband uses a mix of human and tractor power to get the sap. It’s not as picturesque, but I’m not complaining. I like my coffee sweet.

Once the maple trees start to bud and the peepers come alive in the puddles and ponds of melted winter, farmers know the Frog Run has come, the final sap drips just as the daffodils begin to stretch from the garden beds. And just like that the robins arrive and the buckets go away for another year.

The neighbors greet my husband with grins as he tramps up their driveways with gallons of the real deal.

Yet, haply, in some lull of life,
Some Truce of God which breaks its strife,
The worldling’s eyes shall gather dew,
      Dreaming in throngful city ways
Of winter joys his boyhood knew;
And dear and early friends—the few
Who yet remain—shall pause to view
      These Flemish pictures of old days;
Sit with me by the homestead hearth,
And stretch the hands of memory forth
      To warm them at the wood-fire’s blaze!
And thanks untraced to lips unknown
Shall greet me like the odors blown ...
John Greenleaf Whittier

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The door to oblivion, kitty …

Some of this post comes from my old farm blog at RAISING MILK AND HONEY

We no longer raise milk or honey. After too many bee swarms my husband realized how much he hated seeing bees die. I felt the same about my goats. Despite years of vet bills and consults we just couldn’t figure out why our goats always failed to thrive. We have some theories about our sulfur water preventing uptake of copper in goats, but who knows? Our sheep are much healthier and just as cute.