When Carly was in Kindergarten we lived in Shelburne, Vermont and I worked as a caretaker on an estate. It was an 18th century farmhouse perched on a hill, owned by one of the families with buildings and plazas, foundations, and institutions named after them.
They flew us up to look the place over and interview for the job.
She talked about what the farm meant to her. Her own place.
He talked about setting up an organic farm and beginning a business.
“I want to develop the farm as refuge,” he explained, leaning forward, suddenly serious. “Difficult times are coming. We need to be prepared, ready to be self-sufficient.”
I wasn’t sure what apocalypse he wanted to be ready for but an all-expenses-paid organic fantasy was too good an opportunity to pass up. Fifty acres on a hill beside Lake Champlain. It was as perfect as an heirloom tomato.
Reality, as it so often is, was another story. More like Good Housekeeping goes Vermont rural with the hand rubbed shine that only old money and someone else’s elbow grease can maintain.
I swept out the fireplace each morning when they were there and laid a new set of kindling and logs just so. Beds with hospital corners. Lawn mowed to a pattern. Driveway gravel weeded and raked. House cleaned every day when they were there and three times a week when they weren’t.
Planted seedlings in the spring. Salon styled garden beds. No faded blooms or wind blown bits. No stray weeds or browning leaves. Every bed coiffed just so.
Fed the chickens and gathered the eggs. Picked up the scattered towels from the bathroom floor. Got lessons in folding sheets fitted sheets, streak-less windows, metal polishing, laying fire kindling geometrically. Just the regular chores. The things one does around the house. What you’d expect for an organic homestead; bee hives, turkeys, hens for eggs, fifty chickens for meat.
“We want roasters,” he explained. “Not the little fryers in the stores. See the turkeys boys? Aren’t they amazing!”
The toms spread their tails and wings and strutted to the fence. The boys ran for the house. He watched them. “We want to let them go right up to Thanksgiving,” he said. “As fresh as possible.”
“Compost bins,” he handed me a set of plans. “The old garden is fine, but we want to expand.” He gestured grandly at the fields outside the split rail fence and we paced off a couple of acres for me till and plant.
He pulled a long stem of timothy and leaned against the fence. “You can use a cover crop,” he nodded. “Buckwheat. They say it’s just the thing for a new field.”
All summer, I stocked the cellar. Jar after jar of honey and comb on the shelves along with pickles, jams and jellies. Loaded the freezer with stocky roasters. The three tom turkeys strutted bold and bronze in their pen.
They came in July because August was for the house in Maine. The first week, they were game-on. Salads every night. Pulled down the peas and rooted around in the potatoes because the books promised new potatoes and fresh peas for the Fourth of July.
“Do you think there’s time to replant?” he asked, looking over the trampled wreck.
“The honey is so dark!” she said. You could see the line in the comb from when the buckwheat flowered.
“The fresh chicken is, well, so fresh. And, they are so, big. Don’t you think?” she said after they ate the first one. “Maybe you should eat the rest.
Just before Thanksgiving, they sent for the turkey. I Fedex-ed it to San Francisco.
“We had to get turkeys at the market,” she told me. “The one you sent was too big. it wouldn’t fit in our oven.”
But the best was the maple syrup. Each spring when the days just began to warm I went out to the maple orchard and set taps in about 100 trees. They wanted it the old fashioned way so I hung buckets from every tap and slogged through the slush and ice for a month or so in March carrying the slopping full buckets of ice cold sap out to a collecting tank in the back of my beat up pick-up. The tank held 1,500 gallons. When it was full I’d run back to the house and hook it up to the wood-fired evaporator.
Sap boils down to syrup at a ratio of about 40 to 1. That is a lot of steam. And a lot of wood burned. And a lot of nights tending the fire to a constant roar and the sap to a rolling, roiling boil.
I filled an old chair with blankets and Carly cuddled in after helping as long as she could. As the night got later and colder only her eyes peeped out, sparkling like two stars come to earth.
Sometimes I read out loud. I picture books while she was awake and then Huck Finn with all the voices and dialects when she dozed. Reading to the night and a sleeping child.
Sometimes we watched shows on a tiny black and white TV.
Sometimes we just watched the fire through the cracks in the stove and the swirling steam and the tremendous glitter of stars above. We drank the ice cold sap and sipped hot mugs of watery syrup and watched the bubbles rise and fall.
Late, late in the night I’d carry her in, swaddled in the blankets and deposit her in her own bed. Then I’d finish off the syrup, drawing it off from the evaporator then running it through the cloth filter in a big stainless steel can.
The next day I’d test it for grade. Grade A or B, Light Amber or Dark Amber. Early in the year it was as clear and pale as water. Then, as the trees moved to bud, the syrup became as dark as old motor oil. I decanted it into the cute log cabin tins, capped them, and stacked them away down cellar.
They took home a few tins of the clearest, palest syrup.
“That older syrup is so, well, so, industrial,” she said. “It’s so….. crude,” she added.
We had it in yoghurt and on ice cream. In our coffee. Drank it straight out of the jug.
I gave away gallons of it.
When we left the farm, the cellar was still piled high with neatly stacked cans and jugs.
When the end comes, I’m sure they’ll still have have a little sweetness left down in the cellar.