Isherwood Column: The Relativity of Trees
By Justin Isherwood
By my calculation this day, April 23, is my family’s 163rd annual event, the reference to 1855 when my great-grandfather James tapped the maple trees of his then-new homestead. The scion of those trees still there.
James sugared as did his son, my grandfather. Sugaring was a natural thing in Central Wisconsin, maples being abundant, besides you could make do with elm, hickory, even birch. The site where my grandfather sugared is still called the Old Grove, still there on a sandy rise of ground above the Buena Vista marsh, if now more to white pine than maple.
It was from him, my grandfather, I learned of sugaring, he the lame old oracle I have described before. I believe he took his revenge in his story-telling, long, detailed and lusty, versions that varied with each telling and some of the kind our grandmother didn’t want him saying out loud. She such a spoil-sport. Saying we were too young for that version. As I remember she actually hissed. She was wrong, we were old enough for the adult version.
Every spring during that interlude called mud time, our grandfather set off across the field on horseback, to include a pack horse, sometimes aboard a sleigh called a cutter. His goal to spend a week at the maple grove, tap a couple dozen trees, and then spend the days and nights boiling the sap. The site less than a mile from the farm though it might as well have been in Zanzibar, such the ability of the Buena Vista Marsh to affect space and time. The marsh was then yet trafficked by Indians, vagabond bands whether Ho-Chunk or Potawatomi. Historically Central Wisconsin was something of an Indian intercession with its vast and variable marshes; Endeavor, Butte des Morts, Milladore, Bear Bluff, Shiocton, Seymour, City Point … a region of surplus back country where those so inclined might practice old ways, sugaring it seems was an old way kind of thing.
To the end there were Indians sugaring in these same woods, people my grandfather knew since his own childhood. Most had modernized their sugar gear to use pots and pans instead of the faithful method of hollow logs and hot rocks. If some awkward traditionalists were even then wont to believe maple sugar via hot rocks was the true stuff. They may even have been right.
Grandfather’s method was to use a hog boiler, this device a fairly ubiquitous and essential piece of farm equipment, particularly at hog time, if also useful for making slop, that culinary repast of skim milk, waste grain, potato peelings, dead chickens, the result much favored by pigs. Pigs it seems were quite the epicures. A hog kettle was also favored on wash day in a way the Maytag man probably couldn’t understand.
The Indians were duly fascinated by this superlative technology the hog boiler, about a hundred and fifty pounds worth of cast iron with a capacity running to 50 gallons, the kettle hung from poles over the fire. Batch method, all day, same for the night. My grandfather’s bivouac consisted of a hay wagon tarpaulin, a surplus of oat straw, hemlock boughs were nice but oat straw was better. The rest of his kit included hay for the horses, coffee, flour, bacon, 100 pounds of potatoes, over-wintered carrots, crate of eggs, maybe a ham, and if my instinct is correct, a touch of single malt.
And then came the part my grandmother didn’t want us to hear, how it was the Indians came by, bringing their kit and he and they sugared together for a week on the edge of that old marsh. Never mind it was the new 20th century, if for a week out on the marsh it wasn’t.
This how my grandfather said he learned and experienced the sweat lodge, the Ho-Chunk version, using that tarpaulin, and those same hot rocks of maple sugaring. This, what they called “medicine”. How they set up the lodge at the creek edge, formed over bent birch saplings, adding that hay wagon tarpaulin, those hot rocks. My grandfather said that by custom Indian women weren’t allowed to take “medicine”, seems the shaman wouldn’t approve. Women weren’t part of the vision quest, women had no warrior recipe. That is when the shamans were around, said grandfather, winking parenthetically. Said he never felt so clean, or so free. He said it was a religious sort of feeling. An intoxicant. This the part of his story our grandmother didn’t want us to hear.
Reference the image of him, our grandfather when he was tall and lithesome behaving in the woods like a heathen. As our grandmother said, rather disapproving. Never mind it was she who described him as tall and lithesome. I got the feeling, even as a kid, that “medicine” would have done grandmother some good too.
My sugar camp is a mile in the other direction from the farm, what we call Whitakers Woods after Ezra of Shiloh. I have occasionally thought to sugar at the Old Grove as did my grandfather. Even to take along a hay wagon tarpaulin and recreate the image in my head of that sweat lodge on the bank of the creek of the Buena Vista Marsh. As for the vagabond Indians I will have to import them, though I have friends who would qualify.
When grandfather told his sugaring stories his eyes would get that far-off look. He no longer looking out the window, he wasn’t seeing the barn or the line fence. He was seeing a log house homestead with 80 acres tillable, a litter of hogs, a horse corral and just beyond, at the edge of the great marsh those big sassy maples on the sand knoll above the creek. Where once was a medicine lodge powered by hot rocks. The Indian way. As for the rest; they say what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. The same is true for the Buena Vista Marsh.