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Vermont’s Spring, Sugaring And ‘Sense of Hope’ (In Images & Words)

A person kneeling in a face mask next to a garden and wheelbarrow
Shanta Lee Gander
Lisa Ricci on South Main Street in White River Junction, cleaning the flowerbeds outside of COVER Home Repair, Inc. in April.

I couldn’t write about this particular spring without thinking of it within the context of mythic proportions. In Greek mythology, we know the season as a moment of renewal and regrowth, because Persephone is able to travel back to visit her mother. Within other traditions, spring connects with Ostara, what we call Easter.

However, we don’t need to turn to the mythic to understand the fertility of this moment: we are all making a transition away from COVID-19. With more people receiving the vaccine, the newness of the season is attached to the hope of reconnecting with people and community.

Every Vermont spring is filled with reversing the sugaring process through taking down lines from the maple trees at the end of a sugaring season. And whether one is waiting for five 50-degree nights to start a garden (the wisdom of Steven Pomige of White River Junction), or participating in Vermont’s Green Up Day, there is no question that this unique spring includes an additional layer of shifting, transitioning, adjusting, and coming out of a thaw on the road to re-opening.

Given all of this, I wanted to find out what a transition into spring meant within 2021, one year after the onset of the pandemic. More specifically: What were individuals looking forward to?

Consider the images and words from some of the individuals I’ve talked to as the songs of spring in Vermont, across a range of perspectives within Bennington, Windham, and Windsor counties.

More from VPR: Rooms Of Their Own: Working, Playing, And Creating During A Pandemic

"We are eternal optimists"

“People don’t realize that the processes we build up to for January and February, we have to reverse it all,” says Doug Zecher, owner and operator of Havoc Hill Sugar House in East Dorset. Throughout the sugaring season, Doug works with his son, Kyle Zecher.

“All sugar makers will tell you, we spend a lot of time cleaning, fixing, and repairing,” Doug says. “All for a season that lasts maybe six weeks. Whether you have had a good year or bad year, the effort to clean up is still the same. I am basically out there cleaning knowing I’ve had a miserable season. The price of syrup has gone down in bulk. I used to get $2.85 a pound — I now get about $2 a pound.”

A person holding a tube attached to a tree
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / For VPR
Doug removes sap lines from maple trees in April.

For Vermont sugar makers, the early days of spring are usually marked with Maple Open House Weekend at the end of March. But the Vermont Maple Sugar Markers’ Association had to cancel the event for the second year in a row due to COVID-19.

The first week of April, I called Havoc Hill and shared a laugh with Doug’s wife, Melissa Zecher, over being late, given that this marked the point in the season for the break-down of operations.

I bumped into an odd kind of luck with my phone call: I was secretly hoping to finally attend my first visit to a sugar house! Over the course of an hour, Doug Zecher educated me about the details behind what I call Vermont’s liquid gold – maple syrup. Along with taking down the lines from all of the trees, it also involves the process of cleaning offniter (also known as sugar sand) — what comes out of the process of boiling the sap. Doug describes it as “thick, about the thickness of an egg shell,” and said it can inhibit the heat, causing a poor boil in the process.

Two images. On left, a person standing next to sap boiling equipment. On right, a silver bucket with a spout on top
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / For VPR
A 10-year-old unit used in Doug's sugaring operation, which needs to have the niter cleaned out. While explaining all the details, which are well known to sugar makers who have studied maple science, Doug joked that most people don't know what he does. Another part of the process involves using a special acid soap for his equipment that requires heat of 115 degrees before the machine is shut off to sit for 30 days. This was day two of that process.

Doug started making maple syrup 40 years ago.

“I started out in a tiny backyard pan a neighbor gave me,” he said. “First year I made 15 or 17 gallons…and it just grew and grew. At our largest, we had about 5,000 taps here a couple of years ago.”

A few weeks after my visit to Havoc Hill, I called Doug to ask him what he was looking forward to most.

Bottles with amber liquid inside lined up along a window
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / For VPR
Each one of these bottles holds a sample from a 40-gallon drum of syrup, and is used to help check the quality. Each is labeled to coordinate with the respective drum it comes from. In the background are what Doug originally used for tapping his maples when beginning this operation.

“A return to normalcy,” he said. “In the sugaring industry, we are eternal optimists: We are farmers, and we are always hoping that Mother Nature will cooperate. And if we can get rid of COVID and Mother Nature cooperates, that’s all I can ask for. Of course, this year was a big disappointment in many ways, it has to be better. I am sure it will be, and I am optimistic about things on many fronts: No pandemic to worry about, and a good sugaring year. Hopefully the trees will have a good growing year, and provide ample sap for a better season.”

More from VPR: Saving The Stories of Vermont's Sugarhouses

"There is a sense of hope"

For some, the new path forward starts with getting vaccinated.

On Saturday, April 10, the day looked and felt like spring on the School for International Training Graduate Institute (SIT) campus. As I turned into a parking spot, I looked up for a few minutes, enjoying the clear blue sky -- I could not help but notice how green the grass was, without a spot of snow.

Cars of individuals and families came to campus in the morning and afternoon hours. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Windham County partnered with the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) to provide morning and afternoon appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Three people sitting in chairs in masks, with a fourth person standing in the middle of them, administering a shot to the person on the right
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / For VPR
From left: Kyanny Collazo, Aaralyn Veleze and Aracelis Gonzalez getting their Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

“Being with family” was the first thing that Aracelis González said when asked about what she was looking forward to this spring. Gonzálezas, her daughter Kyanny Collazo, and her granddaughter Aaralyn Veleze awaited their turn for their vaccination in a big rooms within one of the main buildings on Fleisher Lane. They expressed being nervous, but stayed the course of waiting to get their shot.

Also receiving COVID-19 shots that day were Aaron Robert Dall, Anna Gail Llwag Caunca, and their two children.

For Anna, this moment is a mix of many things, including a chance for regaining a semblance of the normal.

Two people with young children holding clipboards
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / VPR
Anna Gail Llwag Caunca and Aaron Robert Dall, with their two children, complete paperwork for their first vaccines on April 10.

“I don’t even know what to say about the pandemic,” she said. “ I feel like it’s been stressful. I am feeling tired and exhausted. With the vaccine, there is a sense of hope. But there is still that uncertainty too, because this isn’t necessarily going to fix everything. However, there is a sense that there’s going to be a shift and a change, just like a change in the season.”

Aaron agreed, adding, “I think it’s a progression. We’re all moving forward, and I hope as we do that, we can solidify our larger sense of community with this big international event. Hopefully there is some silver lining to all this struggle. Hope is the underlying thing, right?”

Seeing people on the streets again in White River Junction

Communities, like individuals, are also looking at this spring as a possibility for reconnection.

My search for spring in Vermont brought me to White River Junction. While live Bluegrass tunes could be heard from the deck of South Main Street at Big Fatty’s BBQ, Lisa Ricci caught my attention as she was cleaning the flowerbeds outside of COVER Home Repair, Inc.

Lisa Ricci manages volunteers for COVER Home Repair. For more than 20 years, the nonprofit has focused on serving and repairing local homes: installing ADA access ramps, eliminating safety hazards, building new roofs.

In 2020, COVER Home Repair was planning for a large event that had to be canceled.

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“When COVID came, we’d spent months and months planning a spring event,” Lisa said. “We’d just sent out all the postcards, because we wanted to start planning early for this June event, and realized that this pandemic was going to be around for a while. Our summer was super weird. Our fall and winter were totally different.”

This year, Lisa explains that before the home repair team had projects on the calendar for the spring, they were going out to food pantries and building high quality and custom shelves to help meet those pantries’ higher-than-usual demand.

“The home repair team is not going out as much as they normally would, so what’s a new way we can safely provide something for the community?” Lisa said. “It will be really nice to start going out to these projects in the community, not having to wear masks anymore, and it would be nice to have events here. In the near future, I am hoping we can look forward to a social event.”

Three people on a sidewalk in a small downtown
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / VPR
From left, Bradley Mehr, Steven Pomige and Lisa Ricci on South Main Street in White River Junction. Steven shared that he brought some wisteria from Minnesota, which he planted in his garden nearby.

While I talked with Lisa and in between snapping photos, Steven Pomige and Bradley Mehr, residents of White River Junction, joined the conversation on their way to a cocktail party that night. This moment reminded me of prior to the pandemic and impromptu sidewalk conversations on spring and summer days.

Steven and Bradley moved to White River Junction two and half years ago from Boston. “I am looking forward to seeing everybody back out on the streets,” Steven said. “It’s been so quiet because of COVID. We have restaurants, people are going to be able to hear music over at Big Fatty’s.”

Greening up in Putney

Vermont has a history of coming together to prepare for spring. Green Up Day, an event particular to Vermont, was started in 1970 and takes place annually on the first Saturday in May. As we all faced the pandemic in 2020, it was also the 50th anniversary of Green Up in Vermont, which at that point reported the success of having cleaned up24 million pounds of litter and 450,000 tires, thanks to volunteers all over the state.

Two people toss green bags into a dumpster
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / VPR
From left, Becky Howard and Len Howard of Putney come back from cleaning up a site during Green Up Day.

I met Putney resident Greenough Nowakoski and Magdaline Volaitis of Dummerston on Saturday, May 1, as they pulled into the Putney town office parking lot to get their bags for Green Up Day. The ritual here is that an individual grabs a bag provided by the town — in other places, they may be other locations that are announced — and then pick a spot in Putney where they want to clean. Then they bring back their trash to discard.

I followed Magdaline and Greenough along Route 5, the entrance to Interstate 91 on our right. Their main focus was on the expanse of green to our left, a spot easy to ignore as one is leaving the Putney Food Coop.

Two people holding up green bags on a roadside
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / For VPR
Putney resident Greenough Nowakoski, left, and Magdaline Volaitis of Dummerston, right, stand for a portrait on May 1. Magdaline has been participating in Green Up Day in Vermont for 15 years. For Greenough, picking up trash was something she learned to do as a child, from her grandmother who lived in Manhattan.

For Magdaline, this is an annual family ritual that she has done for about 15 years.

“Every year, round up the kids and a couple of families, do it together and just have a good time — that’s what we do,” she said. “We pick up for all the people who either can’t, or the wind blows stuff around, or whatever reason. A lot of times, it’s people just throwing garbage out. Who wants to look at it?”

Magdaline interrupted herself when she saw a bottle shining nearby, walked over and picked it up.

More from VPR: 'At The Forefront': 51 Years Later, Vermont's Green Up Day Still Inspires Community

She said Green Up Day is just one marker of spring — she also enjoys the rhythm of growth and seeing the leaves return to the trees.

Greenough, too, said birds nesting and having babies is something to look forward to at this time of year. As for Green Up Day, that’s not seasonal, but a daily practice.

“I pick up trash all year round,” Greenough said. “If I am on the sides of the road, and I have a bag — I always put a bag in my car. Vermont is noticeably cleaner thanks to Green Up Day than some of our neighboring states, where I’ve walked on roads too. Green Up Day really does a good job.”

Music at the farmers market

May 1 also happened to be the opening of the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market. Last year when the pandemic hit, the farmers market had to learn a new way of navigating this landscape with COVID-19.

As the sounds of Amy Cann, Andy Davis and Laurie Indenbaum playing violins and an accordion floated across the space, I thought of the famous line often quoted by playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht: “Will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”

However, Vermonters in the midst of blooming and becoming within the season of renewal, against the backdrop of still dealing with the pandemic, have their own twist on this quote, something more like: “Yes, there will be doing, singing, communing, and maybe some sugaring, too, because we must.”

Three people sitting and playing instruments in an outdoor market
Credit Shanta Lee Gander / For VPR
From left, Westminster resident Amy Cann, Brattleboro resident Andy Davis and Athens resident Laurie Indenbaum. On May 1, Amy, Andy, and Laurie played music for the first Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market of the season.

For the three musicians, I asked what they looked forward to this spring. It was one simple answer: “Doing this.”

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Shanta Lee is a multidisciplinary artist working in the mediums of writing and photography with a range of published work and books including GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak in Woke Tongues (Diode Editions, 2020) and author of a forthcoming collection, Black Metamorphoses (Etruscan Press, 2023).
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