Since I don’t climb the hill to tap or check for squirrel chew I am free to follow impulses. On a recent cold day I snowshoed in the Old Bush, visiting my favorite places. The Old Bush is the terrain directly uphill from the sugarhouse; it’s the original 40 acres.
At once I think of Eric Newby’s travel writing classic from 1958, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, which I first read at about the same time we first tapped the Old Bush. Newby recounts in typically British understatement a trip he and a friend embarked on in the mountains of pre-Soviet-invasion Afghanistan. I can’t reconcile my joy in reading his hilarious account of their misadventures with my distress in thinking of Afghanistan’s plight today. I do appreciate good writing wherever I find it – and Newby’s endures.
From the sugarhouse I start up Dome Road, a backwards-C-shaped woods road that steeply wraps around the hill past Porcupine Ledge and The Hemlock Forest to Dome Site, the only patch of level ground in the Old Bush.
Dome Site is named for the modified geodesic dome that Chief of Operations, inspired by Buckminster Fuller, designed in the ’70’s and planned to build here. (The working model of this dream house hangs in the sugarhouse.) In 1980 we clear-cut this site, sparing the maples. I recall a forester exclaiming that we may have sunburned those trees. Happily, they adapted and grew. From Dome Site you look across the Stowe valley to the the Worcester Mountain range. Directly below are patches of field and a hint of Nebraska Valley Road.
I’m on Nebraska Knoll proper, but as it is set into the ridge, it’s not the top: I’ve just begun to climb. Shortly, Dome Road joins Sugar Road at a clump of hemlocks. Here you turn the terrain page: steeply down to the left murmurs Falls Brook.
I swing right under a main line and angle up to a lane between ledge outcroppings and a ledgy mound where a sole hemlock grows. Under the snow is a campfire ring I built with young children in the early ’80’s when a neighbor Mary Batchelder and I ran a day camp. Mary spun stories from the summer air. We built our own miniature dome by lashing together branches we pulled off the forest floor. Its remnants decay under the snow. There’s comfort in this lane but no view.
Turning left and climbing for a few yards, the view blossoms at The Plaza. At last I feel on top. Off to the north Nebraska Valley narrows down to its notch. Across the valley is Skytop Ridge. Sylvia Plath’s poem “Above the Oxbow” comes to mind. “To people who live in the bottom of valleys, a rise in the landscape, hummock or hogback, looks to be made for climbing….”
When you’re tapping, the lines shape your perception of the terrain. Drill in hand, I may not have noticed The Plaza as I traveled from tree to tree along the tap lines. The maples grow sparsely here. Saplings have grown thicker since Chief of Operations christened this knobby lookout. Still, it’s a place inviting rest, a place to bench my fidgety thoughts.
Shall I turn down toward Maresan, the area most hidden from the sugarhouse, blessed with deep soil, named in part for Mary the storyteller, the subconscious of the Old Bush? No, I’ll stay high.
I cross a patch where no trees grow, skirt a low ledge, and here is The Gulch. It’s more a tongue, curling at the edges the way a tongue can when you stick it out. As wide as five sturdy maples spread comfortably, it’s bordered by ledge on my side and sloping hill on the other. I worry about the maples here and I’m not sure why. They are not experiencing more dieback than other regions. They seem neglected, but how ridiculous. If anything, they are sheltered from the wind.
Wouldn’t this be just the place to lie down and read a book, I think. Next to my childhood home a patch of shade under a maple tree elicited the same fantasy. One summer I laid a blanket there and settled myself down with a book, but after ten minutes I needed to move – to run, skip, dig in the dirt. Nothing has changed.
Traveling gently up and out of The Gulch, the view of trees opens wide. It’s no longer the Old Bush. When I first walked into this area, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of tapping all these trees. The majesty of the ashes impressed me, too, and still does. Unthinkably, they are doomed trees unlikely to evade the Emerald Ash Borer. But, today, here is the full forest.
I exit past The Cache, a wooden box for caching tubing and tools, and head down Sugar Road. I’m back on a work route. At Herbie’s Crossing I drop beech prayer leaves into Falls Brook and then clomp down Herbie’s Road to Base Camp, the sugarhouse.
Are these Old Bush landmarks – places on the hill where the fewest taps are – like the lesser-known w0rks of major composers or the major works of lesser-known composers? The latter, I conclude.