Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Maple Birthday

My daughter was born at the tail end of winter, spring just weeks away, and as I sat for hours holding and nursing her, my firstborn, I was acutely attuned to the time of year, the slant of the low winter sun, the gradual lengthening of the days, the changing angle of light coming in through the window onto the pair of us in the rocking chair. I followed that shifting rectangle of anemic light across the floor of the nursery to treat her mild jaundice, holding my baby up like an offering to the sun. How carefully I tracked the sun in my daughter’s first weeks, how slowly the time eked by as I longed for spring and for sleep, sensing that I would wake from my post-partum daze as the natural world erupted in bloom. But for those first weeks, everything seemed dormant, in stasis, and yet so much was already beginning to happen: the bulbs stirring underground, the birds already winging our way, the grasses preparing to green, the latent shoots waiting to emerge, and the sap flowing vigorously, secretly in the still leafless trees.

Now I tell my daughter that she was born during one of the most special times of the year, when the world is secretly preparing for rebirth, when the trees are great columns of moving sap, when the maple sugaring season is in full swing here in New England where we now live.

On my daughter’s seventh birthday, we invited about eighteen boys and girls, most of them first graders, to a local 4-H farm for a maple sugaring party. The day started with an indoor lesson about how to identify different types of maple trees based on their leaves, bark, and buds. The children sat in a half-circle on the floor listening to the naturalist and passing around maple samaras, pressed leaves, and bits of bark. Next they took turns practicing drilling a hole into a log with a hand brace and fitting the spile—or spout—into the taphole. They learned about different types of maples—sugar, black, red, even silver—all suitable for tapping, though the sugar maple is preferred for commercial production due to its higher sugar content and longer season.

Running out into the sunny, chilly March morning, the children headed for the sugar bush where they gathered around the maples, examining the spiles, lifting the lids and peering into the aluminum buckets collecting sap. At the naturalist’s invitation, they dipped their fingers into the buckets and sucked the sweet sugar water or let the slow drips off the spiles accrue in small puddles in their palms, which they licked away with relish.  

Next they headed for the sugarhouse, gasping at the intense heat and smoke from the wood-burning evaporator boiling down the sap. Standing in a safe perimeter around the fire, they listened to the naturalist tell them about the process of evaporation. Every forty gallons of sap, she told them, makes just one gallon of maple syrup. As the children’s cheeks began to glow red from the heat, she told them Native American legends about the genesis of the maple’s sweet sap and how people first learned of its deliciousness.

Of course it didn’t begin there. The year before, when my daughter was turning six, I took her to a maple sugaring class at another local farm. “There’s nothing quite like it in my experience,” said the naturalist who led that class. “You put a hole in a tree and you get water. Then you boil it down and get syrup.” We learned that maple syrup production is unique to North America, that the first accounts of Native Americans consuming the sap of maple trees date to the 1500s. We learned the ideal conditions for tapping the trees—temperatures in the forties during the day, in the twenties at night—and that the sugaring season typically lasts around six weeks, sometimes four, sometimes even eight. The season comes to an end when the temperatures stay above freezing or the buds on the trees begin to open. The sugar of this season, the naturalist told us, is what the tree built up last summer and stored as starch, so the production of this winter is determined by the conditions of the summer before.

To be tapped, a tree has to be a minimum of ten inches in diameter, usually thirty to fifty years old. A tree between eighteen and twenty-four inches in diameter can have two buckets; a tree over twenty-inches can have three. A good day’s flow fills a gallon bucket. Taking sap from a tree, the naturalist told us, is like donating blood. As long as you don’t overdo it, it doesn’t harm the tree. Some trees have been tapped every year for a century.

“And just think that this happens right on my birthday,” my daughter told me at the end of the class. That was the genesis of the maple birthday. She planned the party for a whole year.

Hungry from their time in the outdoors, the children headed back inside to eat. There was no cake at this party. Instead, the children were offered all-you-can-eat pancakes with maple syrup from the farm’s trees, poured out of mason jars. My daughter ate six, but my daughter’s friend who had also just turned seven, who was also a child of maple season, ate a record seven. Their stomachs full, the children headed back outside to roll down the hill and visit the 4-H animals in the barn. Near the end of the party, my daughter stationed herself by a box of the goody bags she had assembled herself. As the children prepared to leave, she handed each of her friends a brown paper bag hand-stamped with a maple leaf containing homemade maple cookies and a slip of paper with a maple-themed joke she had written and signed herself.

The maple birthday was really a series of lessons disguised as a party. Our goals were lofty: We wanted the children become more aware of the cycle of the seasons, to understand that they live on a planet where every day is not the same. We wanted them to think about how the natural world depends on these cycles—that there is a time when animals sleep the deep slumber of winter, a time when the leaves redden and then crisp, a time when nestlings fledge, and a time when the sap begins to course through trees. We wanted them to be aware of consequences—that what the trees did last summer affects them now, in late winter. We wanted them to appraise trees with an expert’s eye: “That’s a maple,” my daughter will say. “And I’m pretty sure it’s a three-bucket tree.” And we wanted them to know the sources of their food, to understand that maple sugaring is unique to this continent, that is has a long history and folklore. We wanted them to see the inherent worth of the local, the homemade, and to participate in the production of something valuable and delicious.

But really, it came down to sheer enjoyment. What seven-year-old can resist a big fire, a good story, and a puddle of syrup on a plate? What child wouldn’t want to run outside among the maples in the late winter days suddenly brimming over with light?

The party over, the children spilled into the arms of their parents, sticky-fingered, sated, the scent of wood smoke in their hair.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fresh Cuts

November, 2011

After the storm, after power was restored, after the children were back in school and the husbands back at work, still the chainsaws droned for weeks, the air laced with a sawdust haze, as the work of removing thousands of fallen trees continued. Daily I was dazzled by the sight of so many trees rent apart, so many raw trunks, oozing sap, the exposed wood the hues of mushroom and egg yolk with streaks of charcoal, rust, chocolate, the demarcations of earlywood and latewood, the cornmeal sapwood, the burnt umber heartwood, the punctuating pith in the centers, and the centuries-old trees hiding for so long the secrets of their hollowed centers where for decades caverns quietly opened, supplanting the rotted heartwood—so many narratives of lives laid bare in rings and cavities, so much grain glaring, asking to be read, so much suddenly revealed to the eye that is normally hidden, internal.

On one such grain-filled post-storm morning I take my son to preschool, my mind so full of wood that I begin to read the grain of that day, trying to catch, in the weak autumn sunlight, the contours of its rings, but the cut is so fresh, the wood so commonplace and unremarkable, that it seems indistinguishable from all the other preschool mornings. Over time I know that the grain will grow more pronounced, darker, with a patina on the surface from the rubbing of hands, the rubbing of memory. What is merely today will then seem quaint, a relic, history: what we talked about, what we wore, what technologies we carried on our bodies, what crusades we were on, what toys we offered our children, what cars we drove, which five-point harnesses we secured our babies with, who we thought we were, what we made of our world. And also: how our minds were narrow and ignorant, what qualities we had in abundance, what qualities we lacked, which parts of our lives will become outdated, antediluvian, what kinds of new whorls and knots and kinks of structure hindsight will bring out, what kinds of innocence we brimmed with back before X and Y calamity occurred in the world, back then when we were all still living, back before the children, born and unborn, became the adults and usurped us and looked back at us with pity or disdain or envy or nostalgia. This is the raw wood of this day, my mind just wide enough to glimpse the surface of this new cut, and to see that every dawn is freshly cut wood exposed for the first time to light.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

How (Not) to Fly a Toy Helicopter

First, due to your four-year-old’s latest object of fascination, acquire a remote control helicopter. Though the package indicates “age 14+,” and though your son is a whole decade shy of the age requirement, figure that 4-year-old + dad = successful helicopter flight. Unfortunately, as you will soon discover, the package fails to mention that in addition to being 14+, one needs also to be in possession of a helicopter pilot’s license with 500+ hours of flight time logged. Thus, you will learn that 14 + several decades + a college education and innumerable talents – helicopter flying experience does not = successful helicopter operation.

But don’t get ahead of yourself. Flying a helicopter is a serious undertaking. Take this one step at a time. And whatever you do, do not read the instructions. I repeat: do not read the instructions. They will not help you. They will only terrify you. Or baffle you. Or astonish you. But already you’re peeking at the cover. You note that your “R/C Helicopter Using Instruction” warns: “To avoid copter’s damage and player’s injury, please read this instruction before flying!” Yes, the exclamation point seems emphatic, but don’t do it!!

I know: you can’t resist. You open the Using Instruction. Just remember: I warned you. As the four-year-old and his dad begin to disentomb the helicopter from its Styrofoam sarcophagus, you read out loud with the seven-year-old looking over your shoulder. “Safety regulations,” you begin. “One: Placed in small parts of the reach of children, to avoid accidents.”

“Mom, I think that says to put small parts in the reach of children to avoid accidents,” the seven-year-old observes.

“Hmm, yes, that’s how I would read it,” you comment.

“Well luckily,” the seven-year-old says wryly, “Dad already did that.” She points at the baggies of various miniscule parts clutched in the four-year-old’s hands.

“Great, so we’re safe,” you say and keep reading. “Two: The blades of this helicopter is used activities blades, don’t screw up.”

“You got that, Dad?” says the seven-year-old. “Don’t screw up.”

You notice that the four-year-old is beginning to look nervous, but you plod on. “Three: The helicopter was powerful, should be gradually pushed up the remote control shift lever on the left for first flight, to avoid the surge caused the helicopter crash damage.”

“Crash damage,” echoes the seven-year-old. “That sounds bad.”

You decide to skip ahead. “Six: Note that when the helicopter to keep the user or other persons from 2-3 m to avoid the helicopter flight, landing crashed into another person’s head, face and body and so on.”

The four-year-old’s face takes on a blanched, stricken expression. “Maybe I should stop reading this out loud,” you say.

With the helicopter finally free of its plastic fetters, the four-year-old and his dad begin to examine the remote control. “We’ll have to charge it,” your husband observes. “What does it say about charging?”

Against your better judgment, you begin reading again. “Don’t soak the toys in the water, or the electronic parts will be destructed,” you offer. “Do not use the battery slam or beating hard surface.”

“I should have clarified,” your husband interrupts. “What useful information is there about charging?”

“Iron core device charging time: can be 240~250 minutes flying about 7~8 minutes!” you say. “In case my voice didn’t carry the inflection, there’s an exclamation point at the end of that sentence.”

“That’s because that’s over half an hour of charging time for every minute of flight time,” your husband observes. “The writers of the Using Instruction were expressing their shock and outrage.”

When the four-year-old learns that you have to charge the helicopter for an inordinately long time, he seems oddly relieved. He becomes jovial, talkative.

“Mom, what did people use for batteries in the olden days?”

“People didn’t use batteries in the olden days,” you reply. “Those lucky ducks.”

“So everything was kid-powered?” he clarifies.

“Kid-powered, grownup-powered, sometimes horse-powered. Maybe mule-powered.”

“Maybe frog-powered,” the four-year-old offers. “Snake-powered. Worm-powered.”

This desultory conversation will go on for awhile; if possible, prolong it for 240~250 minutes. Otherwise, bake blueberry muffins, draw construction equipment with chalk on the sidewalk, take a nap, and trap some sow bugs in a jar and bombard them with crumbs from the aforementioned muffins for their afternoon snack.

Finally, when the helicopter is charged, follow your family into the backyard. You might as well bring along the Using Instruction even though it will be of absolutely no use. Still, it may give you comfort to have something to grip in your sweaty hands. Watch as your husband sets the helicopter in the center of the yard and moves back holding the remote control. You see that the children are clutching one another’s hands on the patio, staying as near to the house as possible. Note that their instincts are good.

Due to your nervous habit of reading anything at hand during moments of great tension, you open the Using Instruction. “Maybe we should read the ‘Ready to fly’ section,” you offer. “One: Please recheck the ground, keep away from the crowds, animals and other barriers.”

“Animals are barriers?” the seven-year-old asks.

“To a helicopter,” you reply. “Two: Push the motive handle must be pushed to the maximum control route of travel first, then adjust it to the lowest.”

But you husband is no longer listening. He’s pushing levers on the remote control, and something is happening to the helicopter. It seems to be jumping back and forth, lifting its front up and then its rear, front and rear, like a person rocking from his toes to his heels.

“The spinners are going,” you observe.

“Those are rotors,” the four-year-old corrects you as he clings to his sister for dear life.

“I have a trim problem,” your husband mutters. “I can’t seem to control the pitch and yaw.”

“There’s nothing in here about pitching and yawing,” you observe. “There’s a section called ‘Helicopter control ways.’” You study the diagram. “Is your spinner going clockwise or anticlockwise?”

“Rotor,” says the four-year-old.

“Shouldn’t it be counterclockwise?” says the seven-year-old.

“I think anticlockwise might be British,” you reply.

“Did the British write those instructions?” she asks.

“I most certainly hope not,” you say. “OK. Does this help? ‘When the helicopter tail presents the clockwise rotation, you may the counterclockwise rotation you in the hand the remote control vernier adjustment knob until balanced.’”

“Yes, well, the vernier adjustment knob seems to be too sensitive,” your husband replies, and suddenly the helicopter launches into the air, ascending at an astonishing rate to twenty feet, thirty, where it begins to careen crazily, as if dodging imaginary fire. Without warning, it heads towards the neighbor’s yard and, as if on a suicide mission, crashes into an oak tree.

“DADDY, IS MY HELICOPTER BROKEN?” shrieks the four-year-old.

“Your dad’s going to go get it,” you tell your son while his dad goes tromping off into the vegetation at the property line where the helicopter has crash landed.

Surprisingly, the helicopter is unscathed, and your husband decides to give it another try. The children wrap their arms around one another in a full-on embrace. Again, the helicopter does its heel-to-toe Irish dance in preparation for its sudden ascent. This time, it begins to fly toward the house and the patio while your husband is frantically jamming the levers on the control. The kids watch it, wide eyed, and at the last minute it seems to plummet from the sky and fly straight for them just a couple of feet above their heads, as though intending to strafe them. They skitter away and take cover under the table while the helicopter zooms past them and clatters onto the patio.

“DADDY, THAT’S ENOUGH FLYING MY HELICOPTER!” screeches the four-year-old.

Your husband comes over and sets down the remote control. “I think I need to fly it into the wind,” he observes. “But we can take a break.”

Presently, the four-year-old comes out from under the table. He looks pale, shaken.

“How did people fly in the olden days?” he asks you.

“Not well at all,” you tell him.

The four-year-old nods, perhaps wishing he had lived in that simpler time, a time without batteries or human flight, a time when the world was powered by worms.

“Let’s go play in the sandbox,” the seven-year-old suggests. She takes her brother’s hand and leads him to the wooden sandbox that your husband built.

“I think if I took it to an open field,” you husband is saying, examining the rotors on the helicopter. “I think I could get the hang of it.” He picks up the Using Instruction that you’ve put on the table and begins to leaf through it with a determined glint in his eye. You can see that he and the helicopter have embarked on a long, contentious relationship. Don’t bother to say anything; it won’t do any good. Just allow the man-versus-helicopter plot to play itself out to the bitter end. Hope for the best. A few more crashes into trees just might do the helicopter in. Don’t consider the alternative.

“Mom!” the four-year-old calls from the sandbox. “What were wood and sand made of in the olden days?”

“Wood and sand,” you call back, “have always been made of wood and sand! They can never be improved on!”

And fortunately, they require no Using Instruction.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Walnut Box

He scrutinized the boards, choosing from half-inch-thick walnut planks. He was looking for interesting figure, for something beautiful, though it’s difficult to see wood’s full potential when it’s rough cut. His selection made, he fed the boards into a planer, passing them through three of four times per side, making minor adjustments between each pass. Then he finished one edge, passing the board through a jointer two or three times. He measured and marked his cuts with chalk, avoiding a loose knothole, inspecting the grain and anticipating the ways the wood might change, the cupping or bowing, the potential warping. Then he waited to give the wood time to move.

The following week, he planed and jointed the board again to attain the final thickness of 3/8”. Using a table saw, he cut the wood into five pieces. Securing each of the pieces on a workbench with bench dogs, he used a scraper to smooth the surface of the wood, shaving tiny curls all the way across the board in one continuous motion, producing a silky finished surface.

Next, he traced two arcs, large and small, onto a piece of pine. Using a router, he cut the curves onto the pine board, creating a template. He transferred the curves from the template to the walnut side pieces, creating gentle elliptical curves at the bottom of the box. Then he drew a curve on the lid of the box and shaped it with the router. In the corners of the lid he cut four knock-outs where the legs would fit. Using a small plane, he chamfered the edges of the lid. On the inside of the box’s sides, he made a slot with the table saw where the bottom of the box would be inset. On the two shorter sides, he added another slot for a small piece of wood that would support the tray.  

For the legs, he took a piece of 1x1” walnut stock, finished it, and cut it in half. Using a table saw with the blade set to 45 degrees, he chamfered all four ends of the two pieces. With a plunge router he made grooves on two adjacent sides of the leg pieces. Then he cut the two pieces in half, making four legs. Using a chisel, he made tongues in the edges of the side pieces that matched the grooves in the legs. In the rear legs he drilled small holes that would hold the lid pins. The bottom of the box he cut from a piece of aspen plywood, making small knock-outs for the legs.

Once the pieces were ready, he built the box dry, without glue, to see how it would fit together. The finished dimensions were approximately 20x8x4”. When the pieces fit well, he began gluing the case together, putting glue in the grooves and carefully working in the tongues. After attaching the short sides to the legs, he waited a week for the glue to dry. Then he glued the long sides to the legs, fit the bottom into its slot, and assembled the case.

While the case dried, he built the tray. Again, he selected and milled the wood. After cutting it into five pieces for the tray’s bottom and four sides, he cut a groove in the side pieces into which the bottom would fit securely. Then he made half-lap joints on the corners of the box, using contrasting birch-wood the diameter of a toothpick to pin the corners together. He glued the tray and let it dry.

He applied three coats of polyurethane to the case, lid, and tray, sanding between each application. To the lid and the inside of the drawer, he applied two extra coats. When the finish was dry, he secured the lid with brass pins, attached the brass chain, and inserted the tray. The box was finished.

And then he gave it to me for twelve years of marriage.