« Previous  
 Next »

Frog Run

04/03/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton

We're getting close to this year's Frog Run . And no, it's not a race; the term actually refers to the season's final "run" of maple sap, when spring peepers -- miniscule tree frogs -- can be heard noisily saluting the new season.

It's also the title of John Elder's latest book, a delightful collection of essays on his family's maple sugaring project that encompasses Elder's broad-ranging interests and ties them to traditional Vermont.

The early spring ritual of maple sugaring has been celebrated by several important Vermont writers, among them Scott and Helen Nearing and Noel Perrin. The Frog Run is John Elder's contribution to the genre, but Elder does not hesitate to range far from the sugarhouse to address a variety of environmental and cultural issues, including the currently controversial notion of wilderness in the Vermont woods.

There's an inherent tension in even the application of the term wilderness, with its implications of environments that are pristine and untouched, to the forests of Vermont, almost all of which have been heavily influenced by human beings . Most of those forests have, after all, been cut over, farmed, subdivided, sold, or in Elder's case, tapped for maple syrup.

In Frog Run, John Elder purposefully steers clear of any confining orthodoxy. He wisely takes a middle course, advocating some untouched preserves, careful use of other areas of forest and field, and a recognition of the human heritage that is part of all of Vermont's wild lands. "The most beautiful and motivating vision," he declares, "is an inclusive community of life, not wilderness apart from that."

In his final essay, Elder describes how he and his sons built, fitted out, and used their sugarhouse, both to produce some fine syrup, and to strengthen their own bonds as a family.He also shows how his sugarhouse project helped bring him, a college intellectual, into closer connection with traditional hands-on Vermont, through his informal apprenticeship to Sam Cutting Sr., maple sugaring guru and patriarch of Dakin Farms.

The themes of apprenticeship and learning are woven through this piece, in which Elder quietly comes to terms with his beginner's status as a sugarmaker, his desire to learn a hands-on, practical work-based tradition, and his encroaching age.

Ultimately, the author learns by doing, both from the traditional master Sam Cutting, and later on from his own sons, as they progress faster than he in sugarmaking lore and self-confidence. "Maybe there's a dynamic of this sort in the transmission of any rooted culture," he writes, "The older generation relies on the younger, as well as the other way around."

It is insights like these in which the writer both honors and explores Vermont tradition through his clear, graceful prose, that make reading John Elder such a consistently rewarding experience. His latest book,The Frog Run, recently published by Milkweed Editions, is a sweet distillation of his sugartime experience and wisdom.

--Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.
comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter