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03/16/07 12:00AM
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(HOST) Every year about this time, you can find one of commentator Janisse Ray's neighbors in his sugar house, and every year she pays him a visit in celebration of this sweet tradition.

(RAY) When I slide open the heavy wooden door of the sugarhouse, Jerry looks up through thick steam. Every time I see him above boiling syrup I think he's the essence of Vermont. This afternoon he's wearing an old tan hand-knitted sweater, couple of shirttails hanging out, old blue jeans tucked into snow boots.

Today's his birthday. Every year he celebrates it in the sugarhouse. When the sap's running he won't leave, and the sap is almost always running on his birthday.

"Where'd you come from?" he says. He sees the chocolate cake in my hands. He looks back down, into the boiling sap. I push aside some fittings and tubing to make room for the cake.

"Happy Birthday," I say.

Someone told me that this is the thirteenth straight day of sugaring, but I think Jerry started before everyone else.

"How long since you slept?" I ask.

"Last night," he says.

"You don't look like you slept last night."

In response Jerry picks up a heat-resistant mitt, opens the furnace and starts throwing in wood. I've never seen him complain about anything. In fact, if he can't make a joke out of it, he isn't much interested.

"I've come to help," I say. I pick up gloves and go outside to the woodpile. At the beginning of the season, there are stacks and stacks of wood, forty cords. The furnace has to be fed every three or four minutes. In this part of the pile the wood needs splitting and I get to work.

The sugarhouse is small, built into the side of the hill, its back wall stone. The dirt floor is covered with pallets, except for the area in front of the furnace. The place burned down once, and this is the one Jerry rebuilt.

Ed, Jerry's father-in-law, comes back from gathering sap. The buckets are left to do, he tells me. He could use help.

When we get to the sugarbush, the bucket nearest me is brimming. I lift it off its tap, then lift another from the same tree. I walk to the truck and pour them in the tank, then bring them back. Around us the woods fill with a sound like little pinging drums. In a couple hours, back at the sugarhouse, evening turns to night; in the woods, the sap slows. A full moon climbs out of the east and hangs overhead, blurred by mist. In a paddock nearby, three horses are standing, one of them completely white, like a ghost-horse. Steam pours out every crack in the sugarhouse. And fireworks of sparks burst from the chimney, within a mane of smoke, and disappear into the bare limbs of trees.

It's a beautiful night, a chocolate-cake night, the kind that makes you want to stay awake until dawn. But I don't dare say that to Jerry, who is inside bent sleepily over the syrup, where I think he'll be every spring until the end of time.

Janisse Ray is a naturalist and writer from Georgia, now living in Vermont.


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