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Finding Signs of Hope in Surprise Sugar Maples

In the midst of a pandemic, nature reminds Susan Krawitz that miracles are possible.

Susan Krawitz | Longreads | March 2020 | 4 minutes (915 words)

It wasn’t the threat of a maple syrup shortage that got me into the woods with a power drill, hammer, makeshift buckets, and spiles, but my daughter’s request to tap some trees. The sun was out but the sky was cloudy, and the blue behind them looked bruised. And though the woods were quiet, the road I live on was far less so. There were dog walkers, joggers, and some people on bikes; a classic midsummer scene, but a very unusual one for an end-of-winter Monday. Local residents are very resident now, and so are the usually weekender ones. Alone together, we are hunkered down on this rural Catskill hillside, and in that suburb, in those cities, all across the world. We are buckling in for who knows how long, and finding ourselves with too much to think about, and all the time in the world to do it. So we walk, we bike, we tree-tap.

I should have tapped far earlier, as the sap run is nearly done. But I have a challenged history with maple sugaring. This property holds lots of red maple trees, but only one lone, sad specimen of the sugar kind, and the difference in sweetness between the two means far more effort, more boiling time, and less product at the end of it all. I ask myself every year if it’s really worth it, and many years that answer is oh heck, no.

It was a fairly warm day, so after setting a few taps, we trekked a bit further into the woods, exploring. There are huge thriving oaks there, and large pines as well, and also lots of ash tree skeletons, because the emerald green ash borer has recently decimated this tree tribe. But on the stone wall that divides my property from the next, I found the surprising sight of an ash waving live buds at the ends of its branches instead of dead knuckles.

Two months ago, I’d say finding this tree was like stumbling onto a trunkful of gold. A very recently updated metaphor would be spotting two 12-packs of toilet paper on a supermarket shelf.

***

It’s amazing how fast our value meters can shift. And how quickly a small, rural town can go from busily cheerful to Day After Zombie Apocalypse. On my last trip off this hill a week ago, everyone I saw seemed engaged in a dance of mutual suspicion. Are you a vector? was the clearly universal thought.

Two months ago, I’d say finding this tree was like stumbling onto a trunkful of gold. A very recently updated metaphor would be spotting two 12-packs of toilet paper on a supermarket shelf.

The news says this virus is traveling through the human population as methodically as the emerald ash borer coursed through the American woodland. Finding a tree these bugs had spared seemed like an actual miracle, and I felt like I deserved another one, so I kept looking. But my next find wasn’t another live ash, it was a large maple with grey, instead of red buds on its twigs. A sugar maple. A sugar maple? When I drilled a hole in its bark and tapped in a spile, sweet sap gushed forth.

But it couldn’t be. My former partner, a trained naturalist, had scoured this land and found just that single, scrawny specimen in another part of the woods. The land is too marshy, apparently, too acidic, too overrun with pines.


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I checked the tree’s bark and twigs again. Still yes. If one had been secretly living in these woods, there could be more, I realized, and quickly found five smaller ones within a few yards of the first.

I have lived on this property for over 30 years and thought I knew every cranny of it. I have lived on this property for over 30 years and when someone told me how things were here, I believed them. I have lived on this earth for far more than 30 years, and in that time, it’s become increasingly clear to me that “reality” isn’t an objective thing any one person actually knows.

***

My daughter was upset last night. She graduated from college in December, and is facing possibly one of the worst times to be a newly-minted adult in recent history. Job hunting isn’t what she’s worried about. “I don’t want to get sick,” she told me, “and I don’t want to get anyone sick either!”

There are no answers right now to anything, only questions on questions. But the forsythia is beginning to bloom, and house wrens are singing.

It’s hard to know what to say to her. The virus toll in Italy is currently huge, and a friend in Paris says people are only allowed a few minutes outdoors each day to walk their dogs. But the canals in Venice are suddenly so clean, swans and fish are swimming in them there for the first time in 60 years. Restaurants around the globe are offering free food for school children, and some are turning into soup kitchens. And online, and in “real” life as well, people are sharing with each other in remarkable, generous, incredible ways.

There are no answers right now to anything, only questions on questions. But the forsythia is beginning to bloom, and house wrens are singing. It’s time for woodcocks to start mating in the marshy meadows, and comfortingly, they are. And I just found two trees that live in my woodlot in defiance of all experts and odds.

I listen to the news, but I also listen to nature, and what it’s telling me right now is this: we can’t see everything there is to see. We don’t always know all we think we know. And the very last thing we should ever give up is the possibility of miracles.

* * *

Susan Krawitz is an author, freelance book editor and writer who has written essays, articles, and children’s fiction for a wide variety of publications. Her debut children’s novel, Viva, Rose! (Holiday House, 2017) won the Sydney Taylor manuscript award, and was named a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, a National Jewish Book award debut fiction finalist, and a Western Writers of America Spur Award juvenile fiction finalist.

Editor: Sari Botton