News from Vermont #395 Mothers’ Nature

March 15, 2018

Hello again Maple People,
Well here it is again, another maple sugaring season, the time of year when we, Vermont’s sugarmakers, hope for a good outcome but end up taking what we can get. Yup, with exception of a good vacuum system and well-maintained tubing lines, there are strict limits, set by Mother Nature, to what we can do to insure the quantity of our sap runs. As I’ve said many times, we need nights freezing but not too cold, days thawing but not too warm and the proper wind direction. And if we don’t get that, our maple trees stand seemingly thumbing their noses at us as if to say “No way. I ain’t going to perform for you today!”
There are, of course, years when we have won this weather crapshoot and our trees, as my grandpa would have said, ran “like stuck pigs”. Folks often ask us in January how good our upcoming sugaring season will be. That, my friends, is a question, put to every sugarmaker at some point. At that point, our only winter wish in regard to the maple trees is for cold temperatures. Maple trees, like humans, require rest and their rest only occurs during a long, cold winter when they are frozen tight.
I recently heard about another winter-dependent Vermont business, the fracturing of slate. Slate stone used to be very important around here. In fact, on a short walk out through our Morse Farm woods, one will see multiple small, abandoned slate mines. My son recently took me on a walk to a nearby abandoned slate quarry where the shear face of quarried slate rose seventy-five feet above us. “Must have taken a powerful lot of dynamite” he said. I, senior citizen that I am, was able to set the record straight. “No”, I said. “Those old guys used nature’s dynamite.”. I went on to explain that slate, one of the softest rocks we have around here, is full of fissures. Its natural layers can be split, similar to splitting wood, into separate flat stones, or “flagstones”. To mine it in the volume they needed back then, they would simply rely on nature’s freezing and thawing by pouring water either into the fissures or holes they drilled. When it froze in winter temperatures, the ice would expand and separate those layers into flagstones. They also used splitting hammers with ample “bull strength and ignorance” (again, using one of Grandpa’s terms).
With the relatively few stone walls we see around our countryside, the question begs, why all those slate quarries? This writer speculates the answer lies underground…back to earth, so to speak. In those days, most every structure was built on stone foundations. Massive amounts of slate stone were used in places we don’t ever see. Then in the mid 1800s, concrete became a faster, better way to build foundations for structures and, all of a sudden, slate quarrying succumbed to the times.
Yup, economy always has a way of presenting a “better plan”. These days more than ever, we see recently thriving businesses being displaced by technology that is moving faster’n the speed of light. We’d better watch it, though, because nature can’t be ignored. Whether it’s getting sap from our maple trees or putting winter’s frigid edge to work in other ways, Mother Nature remains a force we cannot control. We just have to be ready to use what she offers when she offers.

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