Friday, February 24, 2023

Friday Ramble - How Sweet It is

This is one of my favorite intervals in the whole turning year - the cluster of sunny days and cold nights in late winter or early springtime when the eastern Ontario highlands gear up for the maple syrup season.

In the woods, the sugar bird (saw-whet owl) sings its courtship songs, and local lore says that when it does, the time has come to tap the maples. Clouds of smoke and steam rise from wooden sugar shacks tucked in among the old trees, and the enchanting fragrance of boiling maple sap is everywhere. Magic is afoot, and no mistake.

The sylvan alchemy in progress is wild and sweet, and the homely metaphor of the maple syrup cauldron has profound resonance for me. I still have the battered cast iron Dutch oven I carried when I rambled the continent many years ago, stirring soups, potions and stews by starlight and watching as sparks went spiraling into the inky sky over the rim of my old pot. The motes of light rising from its depths were stars too, perfect counterpoint to the constellations dancing over my head.

At home, there is usually a stockpot bubbling away on the stove in my kitchen. There are cast iron skillets and pots, bean crocks in assorted sizes and a slow cooker or two. Squirreled away in the cupboard are enameled cookware by Staub and Le Creuset in bright red and unglazed earthenware tagines. One can never have too many cooking vessels, and I can always be tempted into acquiring others. A small three-legged incense bowl rests on the table in my study, and I use it every day. 

Out in the Lanark woods, there are the sugar camps of friends with miles of collecting hose in confetti colors strung from maple to maple. Modern evaporators are used these days, but in some camps, antique syrup cauldrons boil over open fires to show how maple syrup was made in times past. Claudia Smith's book, When the Sugar Bird Sings: A History of Maple Syrup in Lanark County, is an excellent history of syrup craft in my favorite part of the great wide world, and it is a fine read. While no longer in print, it can often be found in used bookshops and online secondhand book sites.

The word cauldron comes from the Middle English cauderon, thence from the Anglo-Norman caudiere and the Latin caldāria, the latter meaning “cooking pot” and rooted in the adjective calidus meaning warm or “suitable for warming”. At the end of the trail is the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root kelə meaning simply “warm”. Calendar, calorie, chafe, chiaroscuro, claim, clamor, class, clear, council, hale, haul and lee are kin. So is caldera, the term geologists use to describe the massive crater formed when a volcano's magma chamber is emptied by a massive eruption or its roof collapses. The biggest caldera on earth is the Apolaki Caldera located in the Pacific ocean off the Philippine islands, and the most active is probably the La Garita Caldera in southwestern Colorado. Of course, Wyoming's magnificent Yellowstone Caldera is in a class all by itself.

The night that gifts us with stars and enfolds us gently when the sun goes down is a vast cauldron or bowl. Somewhere in the darkness up there, Cerridwen is stirring her heady cosmic brew of knowledge, creativity and rebirth, her magical kettle simmering over a mystic cook fire. From her vessel, the bard Taliesin once partook of a single drop and awakened into wisdom and song. We're all vessels, and one of the best motifs for this old life is surely a pot or cauldron, one battered, dented and well traveled, but useful and happy to be so, bubbling and crackling away in the background (sometimes in the foreground), making happy musics and occasionally sending bright motes up into the air.

And so it is with this old hen when her favorite wild places begin to awaken again. Notions of alchemy bubble away gently. Sparks fly upward; images of pots and cauldrons cosmic and domestic whirl about in her thoughts. She could not (and would not) be anywhere else in the great wide world. Is she a wild thing herself? Oh, yes.

A repeat performance (slightly edited, with a few additions and rewordings) but this remains one of my favorite bloggy offerings ever.


Gill said...


Barbara Rogers said...

And one of my favorites as well! Many thanks for repost!