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Maple syrup v. arsenic

By Nancy Myers If the grandchildren of my granddaughter and her second cousins one day make maple syrup in a small patch of woods in northern Indiana, we will have carried on a family tradition for seven generations. It seems possible.

If you have done a thing you love for five generations, then you can surely do it for seven, or more, if someone in every generation takes responsibility. Someone must be the perpetrator. Someone must be the caretaker, the guardian.

In my family the maple syrup tradition started with my Amish grandfather, Tobias T. Eash. The patch of woods belonged to him, then to our father, and now to my brother Loren. My older brothers remember how Grandpa Eash used to boil sap in a crude setup in an outbuilding on his farm a short distance from the wooded acreage. All I remember is Grandma Eash’s maple taffy, so sweet it almost made your teeth fall out just to bite into it. This is where the love began.

We all remember coming over to the sap shack our dad built in the woods itself when we were children. He installed a proper wood-fired evaporator but it was also a crude setup, the dirt-floored shack. We would come over after school to help empty the sap buckets into the tank pulled by a small tractor over increasingly muddy tracks. Then Mom, who always tended the fire, would open the fire door and roast hot dogs in the inferno. Or we would make a bonfire outside. The hunger, the chill, the burned salty dogs, the mud, and, wafting through it all, the maple-scented steam: these anchored the drab days of early March in our family year as firmly as Christmas and Easter.

Although we lived on a farm and worked a lot together, making maple syrup was the only thing we all really loved doing together. The rest of it was just work. Chores. Production—not fun. Perhaps we could have made it fun but that was not in our parents’ nature. But making maple syrup was entirely frivolous, unnecessary work. All it produced was way more maple syrup than we needed. I got tired of maple syrup when I was a kid but I never got tired of the spring ritual.

After the shack was destroyed in a fire the woods stood empty for many years. Mom and Dad passed away. And then, not long ago, Loren took possession of the stand of maples and built a sap shack in it. The setup was better than the old system, but not too much better. Crudeness is part of the flavor of real maple syrup. He enlisted brother Dale, who lives nearby, to help him renew the tradition. And there are usually members of the fourth and fifth generation on hand to get in on the fun.

And so it seems possible that we could carry on this tradition for seven generations. What would it take, though, for this legacy of sweetness to endure to the 10,000th generation? I do not pull this outlandish figure out of my hat. 250,000 years is the duration of certain radioactive elements and certain substances like arsenic, which are concentrated, perpetrated, and left behind by human activities like power generation and mining.

Maple syrup and arsenic. As forthright a representation of good and evil as you can imagine. One is carried on by love and the other is a legacy of a whole collection of love’s opposites—heedlessness, ignorance, greed.

To reclaim, restore, and protect the earth; to prevent more 10,000-generation legacies of poison seems like a huge task. Perhaps the only way to take it on is to break it down into small acts. Designate the guardians and the caretakers.  Make it fun. Pass it down, and down, and down. Pass the love down, too, because the love will multiply the deeds.