This time last year I was busy making maple syrup out at Five Oaks Farm. It’s funny how I really miss it even though I remember being painfully cold during most of the process. We tapped about sixty trees and installed a tubing system so all the sap would flow down into a big holding tank. Then we pumped it up in batches and boiled it down using an old sorghum pan over a wood fire. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
I don’t know that I’ll ever get involved in a “sugar bush” operation again but I’d love to do a little home sugaring or maybe help out with a program like Rent-A-Sap-Bucket at a local park. I do love the fact that I got to do it once from start to finish. There’s something powerful about being involved in the process of making your own food, whether it’s growing your own vegetables or learning how to butcher a cow. (Warning: the cow butchering link contains graphic pictures of dead animals, although I must confess I found them fascinating and I really love the idea of taking a class about butchering.)
The maple syrup operation I worked with was relatively modernized but syruping seems like a pioneer tradition to me. Lately I’ve been thinking about pioneer skills and how learning from our ancestors (or other people’s ancestors) could inspire us to live more sustainably. There are several places in Indiana like Spring Mill State Park and Conner Prairie that are dedicated to historical reenactment and offer classes in everything from spinning to candle-making to blacksmithing. How many of those skills are really useful today? Probably most of us will never be called upon to run a grist mill or shoe a horse but I believe there’s something powerful in studying the old ways of life. For one thing, it’s great to be reminded of all the things we can do with our own two hands. At the same time, it’s very humbling to think about the work that goes into making anything by hand. Consider the process of making a sweater from scratch – shear the sheep, card the wool, dye the wool, spin the wool, weave the yarn, and two hundred man-hours later you have a lumpy looking garment that will probably keep you warm if you don’t accidentally shrink it in the wash. Suddenly $60 for an eco-sweater seems almost reasonable.
I am also amazed when I think about all the knowledge a typical pioneer had about his or her environment. Which wild plants are edible? How do you find deer (or avoid wolves)? What do you do when your cows eat herbs that make their milk poisonous? Granted, we know lots of other things they never dreamed of but I still am impressed by anyone who can live off the land.
I don’t really aspire to become a pioneer woman. Well, sometimes it sounds really cool to be able to be entirely self-sufficient and know everything from how to help a ewe give birth to how to construct a log cabin, but I know it would take me years to learn it all and that most of the knowledge is only appropriate for a lifestyle that is totally foreign to me. So I dabble here and there, and I think the greatest benefit for me is reconnecting with my body and my environment. There is just nothing like getting hands-on with natural materials and natural settings. So, anybody know where I can find a good “Sheep to Sweater” course?