Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sugarbush time

As this is being written, the temperature outside has exceeded forty degrees for the first time since ...? Icicles are forming from the rain gutter over the front stoop, as they do almost every year. It was disconcerting this morning to walk the dog in full darkness once again, but that will only last for another few weeks. (On March first, sunrise was about 6:51. It will be 6:56 on March 31.) Slightly less than a year ago, the branches in front of the house looked like this.

Unless we get an unusually rapid warm up this Spring, we probably won't see bud development that looks like that until next month. If I haven't mentioned it before, one of the best books I've read in the past decade (we won't talk about how many books that might involve) is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

She has this wonderful description of the leaf budding process for maples:
The fact is, Maples have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring than we do. There are photosensors by the hundreds in every single bud, packed with light-absorbing pigments called phytochromes. Their job is to take the measure of light every day. Tightly furled, covered in red-brown scales, each bud holds an embryonic copy of a maple branch, and each bud wants desperately someday to be a full-fledged branch, leaves rustling in the wing and soaking up sun. But if the buds come out too soon they'll be killed by freezing. Too late and they'll miss the spring. So the buds keep the calendar.

If I had had science teachers in high school, where I spent my junior and senior years in the science honors program, who could teach the way Ms. Kimmerer writes, I might have stuck with the sciences instead of transferring to the humanities. I suggest, if you read only one book in the coming decade, it should be this one, especially if you care about our environment and future. It's available locally at at least two of my favorite bookstores, Subtext books in St. Paul and Birchbark books in Minneapolis. Our warmer days and cold nights make this time to be in the sugarbush, as Robert Frost well knows.

Evening In A Sugar Orchard

From where I lingered in a lull in March
outside the sugar-house one night for choice,
I called the fireman with a careful voice
And bade him leave the pan and stoke the arch:
'O fireman, give the fire another stoke,
And send more sparks up chimney with the smoke.'
I thought a few might tangle, as they did,
Among bare maple boughs, and in the rare
Hill atmosphere not cease to glow,
And so be added to the moon up there.
The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show
On every tree a bucket with a lid,
And on black ground a bear-skin rug of snow.
The sparks made no attempt to be the moon.
They were content to figure in the trees
As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades.
And that was what the boughs were full of soon.

by Robert Frost

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