Adding wood to the boiler turning sap to syrup. File photo

Even though I truly do love winters – and I do -- I think it is safe to say that most everyone, including me, looks forward to longer days, the sun higher in the sky, and the many trustworthy signs of another approaching spring. My mother would have kept her eyes out for the first robin to appear at her bird feeders. There would be talk of muddy roads and dad would put out planks in the dooryard so we could walk on them and not track mud onto my mother’s kitchen floor. Just yesterday I was in the pharmacy and seed packets were displayed right beside the aisle loaded with a long array of Easter candies. Recently, I also noticed other clear signs of impending change with other certain rhythms. Especially so, with the subtle rhythms of our climate. You just need to take notice.




As a kid growing up on a farm in Waitsfield, Town Meeting Day first and foremost meant a day off from school. For many wonderful years, that generally meant a day of skiing the deep and softening bumps on the Chute with a pack of friends. Generally speaking, it also was the unofficial start of sugaring season, which is not to say that on the rare occasion the buckets may have been hung a little earlier. But, of course, that depended on a couple of factors. First you needed a few warmer days and those colder nights (below freezing); a sure signal to the maple trees that, yes, spring has arrived and it’s time for the sap to flow. Second there was the depth of the snow to consider. Many farmers sugared to make ends meet. Whether getting the teams of horses hitched up or the farm tractor rigged with chains, gearing up to head out into the sugarbush to tap trees and collect sap was hard work; often made even harder if the snowpack was well over your knees. We did not sugar on our farm, so my dad helped Ward Joslin for several years. Some years he needed wooden snowshoes in order to tap and to gather. He’d always say, “wallowing in the snow up to your _ _ _ _.” It made for long hard days of physical labor, regardless. Milking in the morning, gather sap bucketful by bucketful, milking in the afternoon, boil in the evening. If the sap was really “running” you could boil all night. But I am told that this season that some in the modern sugaring business had already boiled two or three times already when March 7 came around. Even boiling in February. That made me take notice.


We’ve lived in our current home for 35-plus years and we have always supplemented our central heat with a woodstove or fireplace. There really is nothing like a good fire going in the fireplace when the snow is coming down. During that 35-year period we have mostly planned on having three cords of wood ready; split, stacked, and ready to go by late October or so. More recently, though, we have noticed that in the spring we have more wood left over than the previous year. Last fall we bought only two cords as we had a little over one cord still in the shed. Clearly, over past few winters we have not burned as much wood as we used to.  We’ve taken notice.


I am a four-season person. To each their own for sure but I like the changing seasons. I like the different smells and the changing light. I enjoy putting our vegetable and flower gardens to bed in the fall as much as I like the smell of moist brown soil in the spring when planting seeds. The smell of a lilac bush in full bloom, or the pungent perfume of apple blossoms can take me instantly back to my childhood; the same goes for a pile of smoldering leaves in September or October. The snowfall of January has a distinctly different smell and feel than the grander more substantial snows of March. A cold rainy grey drizzle in October has a completely different ethereal and earthy essence -- deep in your nose -- than that rapidly passing steamy thundershower in July. I wonder. How often do we all take notice?


I think that living with four seasons makes you appreciate our daily lives here on this our planet even more. Honestly, I enjoy below-zero days simply because they make you feel alive. Yes, call me crazy. Really cold air smacks you hard in the face when you walk out the door. You learn to appreciate that nature can be both beautiful and dangerous if not taken seriously. For these reasons, if you grow up in an area like central Vermont you learn early on not only to dress for the weather but to respect the weather. It was for me, probably my first realization as a child, that there were things in life much, much bigger than me. Such as it was on a dairy farm in the 1950s and early 60s that we had “summer clothes,” “fall clothes,” “winter clothes,” and “spring clothes.” Boots and shoes too for the barn, school, and Sunday school. That makes it sound like we had a lot of clothes. We did not. Not in the least. But what we had was functional. It needed to be. Some were hand-me-downs. I learned early in life that if you live and work and seek to play here in Vermont, clothing serves a real purpose. So, this week after Town Meeting when I went to put away some winter clothes, I took notice of something odd. As I went to pack away a particular winter jacket, I realized that I had for maybe the first time this winter, not worn my heavy-duty winter down parka. You know the ones. The ones that see January or February weather and can be pretty safely packed away after that. But there it sat, still folded and un-used this past winter. Not once. As I began to think about this, I also realized that some of my heavy wool sweaters never made it out of the cedar chest either this winter. Or those down mittens or the leather mittens with wool liners. Or those wool scarves. Why hadn’t I noticed this before today?


So yes, aside from the mountain of scientific facts and indisputable evidence of a changing climate, I have certainly noticed the change in our micro-climate right here in our own little corner of central Vermont. I have noticed it firsthand. When I think back and when I am occasionally asked to “take me back” I’ll reflect on and actually insist that the winters of my childhood were different. And I miss those years of heavy snowfall and the two or three week spans of below-zero temps. In graduate school (yes, a ways back now, but not in the Pleistocene) I was able to contribute just a tiny bit of research to the then emerging body of evidence assessing the impact of the so-called greenhouse gasses on the planet’s fragile and intricately entwined systems of weather, water, and air. Entropy lives, as I like to say. The scientific community was concerned then that humans could, through our activities, eventually change the very patterns of our climate. And, eventually, our own survivability as a species.

Then is now. I have noticed. Do others notice too? Because if we all did, and we all noticed that we actually could help, then we will have, by now, all decided to actually come together to affect change. Because if we all start to do the little things, those same little things will add up to reversing climate change. It is true.

We just all have to take notice.

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