Mud Season & Maple Syrup

“Good afternoon,” I called to Donna, sloshing on my side of Cemetery Road. She pulled her earbuds from her head and smiled, nodding to my muck boots.

“Mud Season has begun,” she called back, rolling her eyes and smiling.

“So it has,” I said, letting my dogs pull me on and waving goodbye. It was an unwelcome holy moment, like a preacher breaking in with an Amen to silent prayers still spinning in the congregation’s head. My neighbor’s nod to the mud soaked dog paws, the ruts rising up from our dirt road, the thick wet seeping from the earth was nothing I couldn’t see, but I wasn’t ready to say it.

Mud Season be with you.

And also with you.


Winter is over. The cool, thick blanket of endless bright and dreary days is melting down, and the close comfort of death is rotating its face over to someone else’s falling leaves.

In the last few days, I’ve felt the brush of Death– nothing harrowing or sudden. More the slow passing of someone on their way to a different meeting. I don’t know how to describe it other than this– a shoulder brush with a mumbled “Excuse me,” as she moves onward. I don’t get a chill up the spine, or a panic in my stomach. I feel quiet. Accepting. Grateful. And, understandably, a little overwhelmed. I tried to explain it to my Someone.

“But you don’t know it’s death,” he said.

“But I do,” I said, plainly.

He waited a beat, then conceded.

“I know you do,” he says.

It scares him only a little, he admits. He’s grown accustomed to my strange emotional sorcery, though he and I are both a bit unsettled by my lack of fear. I have always been afraid of Death. Though maybe it is knowing that she is not coming for me– at least not this minute– that keeps me from the usual unraveling. These last few days, I have wrapped myself in Death, like a snowy blanket, luring her in to sit comfortably between myself and living. Between myself and Mud Season. But Mud Season is upon us. The death of Death itself. I find no comfort in the petulant reemergence of life. Not this season.

photo by Aaron Doenges

In January I had the honor of visiting a friend to assist in their recovery from a brutal procedure. I accompanied them to the hospital, sitting for their appointments as they made the slow trek back from the deep whirlpool of cancer. On one visit, they told the doctor of their pain. Not the pain of the cancer, but the chronic, unruly pains that followed them. The doctor blinked once as if computing, leaned forward, and delivered frankly–

“But you have old bones. You will always have pain. Old bones have pain. It does not get better from here.”

I must have misunderstood her. Then she followed up.

“You must find a way to deal with this fact.”

I will always have pain. Each day I am ever nearer to my end, as near to it as I have ever been. The murky, slothful propulsion is inevitable, and this winter, it has worn me down. Fact: I will die. Fact: I can do nothing for it. Question: How will I deal with it? The answer these days is to settle in and wait for its consummation. To endure its passing me by another day with gratitude, with watchfulness, with a big sigh of relief and a rattle of feelings.

This is new for me. So far, I’ve dealt with Death by denying it, by fighting it, by negotiating with God or the Unconscious, praying myself to be the anomaly, the only one who will never need to confront their Old Bones. This new method of wrapping myself in its snowy blanket, cooling my heart beat to a shiver: it’s refreshing.

But it is also a distraction. Because even Death has a season. I cannot stay there forever, or my acceptance transforms from a healthy seasonal reckoning to a moping over Old Bones. So the ugliness of reemergence into the land of the living. So, Mud Season.

And with Mud Season comes a healthy fear of Death.

And so with the fear of Death comes the sap of life.

photo by Aaron Doenges

Laurie called on Monday, bubbling with the news.

The sap was running up the maples– I should bring my friends. We crossed the Connecticut River to the fertile side of Vermont and climbed our car up the mountain to Rowe & Laurie’s place. Their house shines as a bright barn red on top of a hillside they’ve cultivated to include the perfect sledding hill in the winter, and an illustrious garden in the summer. Behind the patch of birches, a row of maples stood in a line with galvanized steel buckets attached, popping a silver light against the mud. We visited each tree with a large white five gallon bucket, collecting the watery offering.

photo by Bryan Currie

But before we’d move on, Laurie would hush us and lean close to the sap bucket. The small plink of the first new drop hitting the now empty vessel was our signal to continue. A small celebration.

Laurie loves her maple syrup in a way that practically makes her radiate. Rowe jokes that her epitaph will read “Did you put maple syrup on that?” As we continued through the process of separating the sap from the water, straining the bugs and leaves, and watching it boil in the small alter they’d build in their barn, I understood the spirit of it. We were gleaning first life, first nutrients of the season, boiling it down and letting its steam waft over us, revitalizing our chapped faces after the long season of Death.

Rowe continued to keep watch over the sap-and-future-syrup Monday night and all day Tuesday, and Laurie promised to call us when it was ready for finishing. Like awaiting a child from labor, we kept our boots lined up and our ears to the ground. We got the call Tuesday evening, and scurried over with snacks and local cider and the thrill of watching the blood of a tree turn into a small taste of sugar. This was a party. We crowded into a steamy kitchen that had notes of marshmallow and graham cracker and vanilla and watched as Laurie dipped the hydrometer in again and again until– so soon and so long at once– it was time. Rowe & Laurie scrambled to turn off the heat and strain the syrup for one last filter. As we watched, spoons in hand, Laurie waved us over to the sink.

“Go ahead!” she said, “Get your spoons under there.”

photo by Aaron Doenges

And that was my first taste of new life. Oh, Death, where is your sting? I can endure anything. Even Mud Season.

The syrup was placed in four jars, two large and two small, screwed tight, and turned upside down. We retired to the living room where the woodstove burned so warm Laurie had to crack a window, and we pattered conversationally while snow glittered on the windows outside. Just as we waited for the plink of the first sap drop, we waited now for the plink of the jars, indicating that they are sealed and ready. The ding of the metal announced itself in a stagger, and Laurie delivered a small jar to me, still warm. This is what the living do, I thought.

photo by Aaron Doenges

But also, this. The previous day, when we’d first carried our large bucket to collect the sap, we passed several large maples in the front of the house. Rowe had noted that, no, they don’t tap those trees anymore. Laurie smiled sheepishly and said,

“I like to let my trees retire,” she patted one on its trunk as we passed. “I just think at a certain point they should get to rest.”

There near where she patted was a small scar from an old tap. They certainly could produce an abundance of maple syrup, but Laurie wouldn’t have it. She listened, and when she sensed a tree was done, she let it go. They had old bones. Let old bones do what old bones do. These trees, the retired lot, were the ones who shaded the front of the house all summer and speckled the lawn with brilliant fall colors. A stunning way of coping with old bones, of reckoning with the closeness of death– simply: living.

I am ready for Mud Season, now. Though, truthfully, we are missing it this year. We’re skipping right into spring, packing our camper this week and launching it to Florida, where spring is already underway without a road rut in sight.

But before we could set sail, I had another brush with Death. A snow storm blew in on Wednesday night, and I awoke to another thick cold coat of white. The trees are weighed down heavy with the stuff, and I can hear it sliding in clumps from my metal roof. So my Someone and I did what we always do on snow days. We ate pancakes.

And we topped them with a rationed pour of our new maple syrup.

I begrudge the snow a little, at the taste of the sweet candied syrup while I squint at the brightness through my window. But the Death outside, I remember, is a great mercy to my life. Sure enough, it has come in to save the day, freezing the ground well enough that we can safely pull out our old rig and begin moving again without sliding or getting stuck on the way.

It’s the only way to really appreciate the two– life and death– as they press toward each other on to our old bones: together. Like the taste of two day old maple syrup on a bleak, snowy winter morning.


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