family trees

view of maple sugar bush at Mill Pond Conservation Area


John’s voice comes over the telephone line in whispering hesitation. Would I like an orphan lamb to raise on extra milk from my dairy goats? Within the hour, I’m driving along icy dirt tracks leading to a stone house atop a sweeping ridge. To each side, open fields slope away to meet fence-rows of leafless chokecherry bushes twined with wild grape. Through the receding blanket of snow, patches of winter-bleached pasture grass rattle in the ever-present winds that comb these hills. Overhead, the interlaced limbs of sugar maples clash wildly like antlers, a restless canopy above the drive, sheltering and guiding the way to the lone man’s home. These trees are the ancient ancestors of forests long ago sawn and ploughed under on neighbouring farms.

My journey is made in early spring, in the season of newborn lambs and running maple sap. These visits have become a form of ritual and certain customs must be observed. Each visit begins with a quest for the reclusive inhabitant of this land. I scan the trees along the edge of the great maple forest beyond the barns. But no, this last year, John has been forced to confine his sap collecting to the double row of trees along the lane. He is now too frail to conquer the snowdrifts that keep him isolated from his forest — one of the last great stands of sugar maple to be found on this patch of highlands.

Scenting woodsmoke, I turn toward the house of warm-hued sandstone. The back-kitchen door hangs cracked open slightly. Wispy tendrils of steam escape, inviting further investigation. I give the door a slight push and peer inside. The room is filled with thick, sweet fog roiling up from deep pools of sap boiling in make-shift troughs over a massive Findley wood cookstove. Along three walls of the room, a line of wooden pegs is burdened with the mouldering garments of successive generations — a testament to the many layers of humanity that have passed through the doors of this dwelling. Here, time drifts past as slowly as the dust motes suspended in the amber light shed by the single window looking out onto the open fields. I close the door softly. John will be found elsewhere this day.

I circle around the spring-house half-buried into the rocky knoll upon which these buildings stand. Its walls are crafted of the same meticulously squared blocks from which the main house was built, the work of Scottish stonemasons in the mid-1800s. John is not here, but not far off either. A few freshly split maple blocks lie tossed upon the near side of the woodpile — honey-pale against blocks turned bronze by the light rain falling through the leafless fingers of the maple limbs above.

Crossing to the barnyard, I unlatch the drooping wooden gate and pull it in a scraping arc across the frozen muddy earth. The barn is old… a post-and-beam quite in character with its own century. With a clapping whir of wings, a small flock of pigeons bursts forth through a gaping crack between boards under the eaves of a steeply-pitched roof. I watch them soar upwards to roost on the decapitated remains of an ancient wood-stave silo at the north end of the jumbled mass of moss-encrusted barns and drive-sheds.

I enter the main barn through the cedar shake-clad toadstool of a milk-house that grows out of the planks of the older stable wall. Along its cobwebbed shelves, rows of rusted tobacco cans sit in disarray, their painted sides displaying forgotten trademarks half a century old. They are filled with bent nails, bits of hardware and machinery parts once deemed too valuable to discard. Atop a worm-eaten beam, curiously-shaped bottles hold the last sticky dregs of patent livestock medicines. Here lie the accumlated remains of a lifetime of repairs and remedies — reminders of an earlier age when peddlars plied their wares from farm to farm along this rural byway.

With a dull thud, the door between the shed and the stable drops hard on its hinges. My entrance is noted by the dozen red-roan shorthorns lying in the crisp golden staw of the nearby aisle. They suspend bovine rumination in mid-grind to stare in unblinking silence at the unexpected apparition in their midst. Believing that my appearance might herald the commencement of evening chores, a few stand and shake their heads and rattle the chains of their stanchions in eager anticipation. I pause to consider the complex odour of the barn… the fragrant sweetness of clover hay, the sharp pungency of fermented silage, and the familiar animalness of dampened sheep fleece intermingled with the soft breathings of cattle.

In the dim light shed by a scattering of fly-specked light bulbs, I recognize John’s outline. He’s down on his knees in the packed and steaming bedding of a sheep pen, guiding the frantic lips of a new-born lamb in its quest for the oily teat of its dam’s engorged udder. I mark the tension in his shoulders as he prepares to rise, now suddenly aware of the altered barn sounds which signal the encroachment of a stranger. Slowly he stands, but does not straighten noticeably, his back bowed from decades of hoisting buckets heavy with sap, milk and water. He is a compact man, sharing an economy of bone with his thrifty shorthorns and low-set Dorset sheep. But he is withered even smaller now, by his great age and a life spent stooped in arduous labour. He wears his ancient uniform of dark green farmer pants and brown plaid woolen jacket over unseen layers of vests and underclothes. These are his frail body’s only defence against a world growing steadily beyond his strength and understanding.

Seeing me, he climbs over a hurdle and stoops to grasp the orphan lamb coiled in sleep beneath a manger. With the spider-legged creature draped over one arm, he shuffles slowly forward through the straw.

Our spring ritual has undergone subtle changes since my first visit three years ago. On that day, John deftly avoided the burden of speech until he had placed the lamb in a box on the seat of my truck shortly before my departure. Out of necessity, he was driven to whisper, shyly, that seven dollars might not be too much for his little lamb. Today, conversation comes to him more easily for it is rooted in our common experience. I praise the size and vigor of the lamb cradled in his arms. He asks how past lambs have grown. We talk of his sheep and cattle. He directs my attention to a well-marked heifer calf born yesterday morning. Unaccustomed to speech, his lips form faltering words, but soon they find strength and speed. He hands the lamb to me, finding it too heavy to hold for long. Freed of their burden, his hands join with his voice in relating the major events of the year that has elapsed since I last saw him. He moves to a nearby bench and reaches for an unidentifiable object, a little “invention” — a cattle “pill-pusher” made out of salvaged pieces of black PVC waterline following a pattern seen in an agricultural newspaper. My interest inspires him to bring forth other creations to be proudly displayed and described.

After a time, we move outside and walk slowly in the direction of the house. This year our pace is impeded by the uncooperative dragging of John’s left foot. We stand together by my car, surveying the low fields to the south. The air tastes sharp and bitter after the warmth and heaviness of the barn. He talks of the trees in the lane as I casually regard his weather-grained face and milky, grey-blue eyes. I notice one errant strand of silvered hair twining down to his shoulders, escaping the confines of the winter cap with its quilted ear-flaps, a cap that encases his head like a tattered helmet. As he continues to speak, I flick away a shiny black tick that has risen out of the densely curled fleece of the lamb’s back.

John talks of his trees with a fondness born out of deep familiarity. He possesses an intimate knowledge of their health and habits. The large maple midway down the lane, the one with its crown twisting slightly to the west, was a great tree for more than the eighty years that John can recall. But the ice storms of January have broken away the largest limb on its east side. In unconscious empathy, John clutches at his own arm which, damaged by a recent stroke, now mimics the condition of his old friend. The third tree along the lane is now the rival of the once-great tree. Its south-side vein is running so quickly that its sap pail must be emptied more than twice a day, a matter of shy pride mixed with mock annoyance. Now boastfully, John speaks of even greater trees growing in the forest on the ridge, long-time companions that are now beyond the scope of his daily forays. Aloud, he ponders the possibility of doing a little tapping from those trees if the remaining snowdrifts melt down before the sap ceases to flow this season. Perhaps next year he will reopen the sugar-shack in the bush, his favourite refuge from the puzzling world which has invaded the countryside beyond his fencelines. He mentions
possible plans for taking on a partner in the bush – an occasional topic of discussion – but I sense how strongly he recoils from the idea of losing his solitude and independence.

I continue to listen to John’s proud recital of the respective qualities of each noteworthy tree. But part of me is occupied, considering this man’s place within this landscape. John has lived on this land for more than eighty years, the sole beneficiary of this property to which he belongs. Beneath the shelter of these great maples, this man once played the games of childhood. Later, the trees would become his protectors and providers through hard times, sustaining his livelihood with their firewood and sap, giving him their very lifeblood. Now the trees were his faithful companions during these final, lingering years. John’s intimate knowledge of the trees rivals the knowledge he has of his own scarred and gnarled hands. It surpasses any knowledge which he has of the ways of mankind. It is an intimacy which evades those who have not grown up on the land. There is a connection which is not felt or understood by many — one which cannot be taught, but may only be earned through the bonding which occurs over a lifetime spent within the margins of two hundred acres of field and forest.

The rain begins to fall a little harder now. The lamb shivers slightly and curls its upper lip in a bored yawn. I must go, but John is reluctant to allow this moment to end. Having now regained his power of speech, he is eager to continue his arboreal litany. He insists that I must stop at the third tree down the lane to see how quickly the sap is running from the spigot on the south side. I must do it now, today, because it may never run like this again. There may be another destroying storm before I return to the farm next spring.

At last, I depart with the lamb nestled in its cardboard box beside me on the seat of the truck. I stop at the third tree to regard the sap which flows in a rapid trickle from its southern vein. Knowing that John’s eyes are upon me, I nod my head in approval. He is waiting at the porch railing, waiting for me to share his pride in this great
tree. He raises his good arm in a slow farewell salute as I get back into my truck. I drive down the lane, watching him grow smaller in my rear-view mirror, his wavering image reflected between the rows of great maples. Watching as he enters that room with its sweet fog and dusty amber light – that place where time awaits.

© Bev Wigney – 2007

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15 Responses to “family trees”

  1. Mark Says:

    Very nice.

    This post and the death of Kurt Vonnegut are getting me thinking about my late father, who was of about the same age when he died. My mother said to me a few years ago that it was strange for her to think of being at the end of her life. Strange for me, too.

  2. Richard Wiley Says:

    Very well written! This brought back many memories of my mom & dad showing my sisters and I how to tap maple trees and make syrup during the spring in Michigan. During the war we traded syrup and honey, dad had bee hives, for dairy products and eggs. I still have some of my ration stamps.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog and numerous links to other good stuff.

    Richard Wiley

  3. Robert Ballantyne Says:

    Bev, you are a master story teller! The depth of your knowledge and the brilliance of your observations illuminate every paragraph. Thank you for sharing this moving story of life in your special part of the world.

  4. robin andrea Says:

    This is so beautiful, bev. A story rich with observations that bring me inside those 200 acres, the house, the barn, and into an old man’s life. Your desciption of the cows stopping in mid-grind to stare is absolutely perfect. You are a fantastic story-teller, and you bring your wealth of knowledge to this warm and lovely memory. I’m so glad you posted this story.

  5. burning silo Says:

    Mark – Thanks. I believe I know just what you mean about that strange feeling of being at the end of a life. As a kid, I was probably a bit unusual in that I had a number of good friends who were in their 70s or older. I was just thinking about that today and may try to write about it very soon.

    Richard – Thanks, and I’m glad to hear that this story may have brought back some memories. This is a way of life that we don’t hear much about anymore and that is, perhaps, coming to an end. I think it’s good to get these stories written down while we remember them.

    Robert – Thank you very much!

    Robin – Thanks! I wrote this story awhile back and recently thought, I should just post it here for everyone to enjoy. It felt good to share a memory of one of the wonderful people I’ve met during my years living in this region.

  6. Larry Ayers Says:

    A very touching and masterfully-related story! I’ve known some men very similar to your friend. Thanks, Bev!

  7. Ruth Says:

    I enjoyed reading your beautifully written story. No pictures were required as your descriptions were so artful.

  8. Cathy Says:

    I’m speechless – just speechless. The complex layers here . . the sense of place, the beauty of the setting, the poignant respectful portrait of John. And then the heart wrenching contrast of the lamb and a frail old man. But the lamb is in your arms beneath your watchful eyes.

  9. Laura Says:

    Wonderful story, Bev! Left me wanting more and to know what happened next. Thanks.

  10. burning silo Says:

    Larry – I too have known several other men who were a lot like John. I don’t think they make them quite the way they used to in the good old days! (-:

    Ruth – I didn’t know if I should try to include some photos, but then decided against anything beyond the sap bucket shot.

    Cathy – Thanks! It was and is a very beautiful setting, although John did pass away awhile ago.

    Laura – Thank you! Well, there wasn’t much that happened after that. Unfortunately, that was the last year that I got lambs from John – I think I got one or two more than spring, but he passed away not too long after that. Fortunately, at least for now, the farm is still intact and the maple syrup operation is being maintained. I hope that will continue well into the future.

  11. John Says:

    Bev, this is a beautiful story, rich in emotion and in ideas. You are a spectacular story-teller. I enjoyed it immensely and it really caught my imagination and my attention.

  12. Larry Says:

    That was great story. It covers a lot of ideas in one post.-I can appreciate the memories and history people carry with them over the years.-Sometimes I think about the history a tree has lived through.-Too bad they can’t talk.

  13. cyndy Says:

    I was just blogrolling and landed here by way of a link, and have to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this story. It grabbed my attention from the first sentence, and now I’m sorry to read that John has already passed.
    I too, have know men like him, and as I was reading your story, I found myself thinking that I was glad there are a few left out there…alas…
    Your story is a beautiful tribute.

  14. Mortis Says:

    Thank you, your story brought back a flood of memories of my grandfather who passed away in the mid 80’s. He was in his 70’s and would walk the 10 or so miles every week from the city to visit his farm. A wonderful strong man who is missed by many. Reflecting on my life compared to his, I will never be able to get close to the man he was. Education does not only arrive to one from books, education arrives from the land and from life. Once again thank you.

  15. burning silo Says:

    John – Thanks!

    Larry – I very much agree about the trees. I always think of them as one of the living links to the past.

    Cyndy – Thanks for stopping by my blog, and I’m very glad you enjoyed the story. But yes, there are getting to be very few of these men left around the countryside now. I remember when there were many.

    Mortis – It sounds as though your grandfather was one of these special men. It’s so true about their knowledge and wisdom being learned from the land and life. Except in a few places, it seems like the circumstances just don’t produce men and women like those who grew up in the early 20th century.