By Greg Clark, April 4, 1936
“I wonder what it is,” said Jimmie Frise, “we are after?”
“Who?” I asked.
“All of us, the whole world,” said Jim. “Just stop a minute. Think. Think of the whole world, at this minute. Moving, rushing, hurrying. New York, Hong Kong, Moscow, Toronto. Rushing, racing, hasting. Millions, millions, millions, all bent forward, chasing something. In cities, towns, roads, ships, streets, trains, factories, stores, highways, hundreds of millions of us desperately hurrying.”
“The half on the other side of the world,” I pointed out, “are asleep.”
“Yes, fitfully sleeping,” admitted Jim, “snoring, snorting, muttering, turning, twitching, millions of them, in India, China, Russia, Siam, hastily sleeping till the dawn to wake them to another day of dreadful pursuit. What is it they are after?”
“Should I answer?” I asked
“No, don’t interrupt,” said Jim. “Sometimes I am terrified by just thinking of all the madly hastening life that is going on at this instant, at every instant we breathe. Think of all the humans, the millions, at this moment working, toiling, loving, playing, dancing, dying. The Niagara of tears right now flowing in Rio de Janeiro and Sweden, Japan and Paris. But on top of that, think of the sea. The sea filled with vast shoals of herring, of millions, billions of sharks and porpoises — stop! — at this instant, hissing, cutting, curving through the vast deep ocean, eating, grinning, chasing; think of all the slow legs of beetles, at this very split second, moving in Brazil and the Congo, the myriad flies of Mexico and the billions of butterflies hurrying in the south of France. The animals, which at this instant, as we think of them, are prowling in Canada, mink, fox, deer; in Tibet, the strange goats, sheep, fleeing up the mountains; in Chicago, the rats and mice, armies of them, deep down in the basements of all the rotting cities, seeking, sniffing; the flowers, rising, reaching, dying, in the Swiss plateaux, in the jungles of Borneo; the trees that lift, the grass — life!”
“Life,” I echoed weakly. “It is an awful spectacle.”
“Spectacle?” said Jim. “We can’t see even the fringe of it. It is a sensation. By sitting absolutely still for a second, and feeling it, we can get a quick, vanishing, frightening sense of it. Life, at this awful instant, racing all over the earth, in the sea and in the air, animal, vegetable, in a screaming, hungry, dreadful chase.”
“I don’t see why you harp on it,” I declared. “It’s nice and comfortable here.”
“But If we get up and so much as look out the window,” said Jim, “we see it. We see the city, all of a roar.”
“Then the great thing,” I said, “is not to look out any windows.”
“What was in my mind,” said Jim, putting his feet up on the desk, “was this: if we humans are so intelligent, why it is we have never paused long enough to figure out what we are after? Why do we go right on doing what the sharks are doing, right now, forever and ever, in the sea; and the bugs in Brazil? And so forth?”
“Some of us,” I pointed out, “take life pretty easy. You and me, for instance. And some farmers we know. And hotelkeepers in the country.”
For a National Festival
“Yes,” said Jim, “but the whole tendency, nowadays, is away violently from that. A hundred years ago, even, man could spend his life away in perfect peace and ease, with no sense whatever of that awful urgency of life. But now, wherever a man may hide, motor cars will cover him with dust, aeroplanes will yell across his skies, and if he comes in for a plug of tobacco to a poor country crossroads store, some radio will burst his quiet forever by telling him a play by play account of a wreck or a battle or seductive voice will sing unforgettable sweetness into his rest. He cannot hide to-day from the exciting, gesturing, beckoning figure of action.”
“It is pretty nice in the country,” I said, “on a June afternoon. I have spent whole afternoons lying on a river bank, not even thinking, not even sleeping, but just lying there, motionless even in my mind.”
“What could we do,” demanded Jim, “to cause people to stop and think what they are doing? What they are after? What it’s all about?”
“It ought to be easy with Canadians,” I said. “Canadians have such interesting things to do, like driving in cutters in winter and going on canoe trips in summer. That would be a straight case of doing now what we used to do when things were gentler. That’s what the pioneers did.
“We might try to popularize canoe trips,” said Jim, “and walking in the country. We might agitate against good roads.”
“That’s a real idea,” I enthused.
“I bet we could get a big following,” said Jim, “of people who don’t want this modernizing of the world to go any farther.”
“Nudists, kind of?” I suggested. “Intellectual nudists, like?”
“For example,” said Jim, sitting up excitedly, “take maple syrup making. That’s going on all over the country right now. The greatest fun in the world. A true Canadian institution, of which everybody in cities and towns know nothing. A festival. A true, national, essential festival, and it is ignored. Why shouldn’t it be a feature of our life that at maple sugar time, everybody heads for the country to partake of the festival of the maple.”
“The maple is our national emblem,” I cried.
“In bright overalls of all colors,” went on Jim, excitedly, “men and women, children, everybody, greeting the rising of the sap, the return of life to the earth, by toiling in the beautiful sun-bathed maple forests, carrying sap, burning the fragrant fires, making the huge sap kettles to boil and bubble. And at night, dancing about the leaping fires while they sugar off.”
“It would be in the news reels,” I cried, “like those Swiss yodelers and the African witch doctors and the Apache sacred snake dance!”
“We have no national festival,” declared Jim, “except July first, which is the day everybody moves to the summer cottage.”
“The first of July, my friend,” I reminded Jim, “is, to a very large section of the country, the opening of the bass season, don’t forget.”
“That’s it,” agreed Jim. “It’s just a day off. It’s no festival. But the Festival of the Maple, lasting a whole week, from coast to coast, would be something. Did you ever attend a sugaring off?”
“I regret to admit I haven’t,” I said.
“Then,” said Jim, coldly, “you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You aren’t a Canadian at all. After five generations, you are just some sort of an immigrant. I suppose you wear a rose on St. George’s Day?”
“No, but I wear a sprig of heather on St. Andrew’s Day,” I confessed.
“Paugh,” said Jim.
And at two p.m. we were headed out of town to find a sugar camp.
“The sap,” explained Jim, sitting at the steering wheel, “dribbles down the little metal spout into a bucket suspended to the spout. In olden days, the spout was wood. The sap carriers bring the sap to the big cauldron or sap kettle hung over the fire. Most farmers have what they call a sugar house in the midst of their maple bush, where all this is done and where the equipment is kept from spring to spring.”
“Is the sap sweet?” I inquired.
“Yes, but it is also a laxative,” warned Jim. “If anybody offers you a drink of sap. just smile and say something farmery. Don’t let them suspect you are a city slicker. There are a lot of tricks can happen at a sugaring off.”
“So the sap boils?” I reminded him.
“It boils for several hours,” said Jim, “getting thicker and sweeter. The fragrant wood smoke helps give the syrup a flavor. The demand for syrup is nowadays greater than the demand for sugar, but every farmer makes some sugar. Years ago, the only sugar the farmers had was maple sugar.”
“Is there any better?” I asked.
“Not this side of heaven,” said Jim.
We drove to a certain town and turned then into the west, seeking at each little village the directions to where we might find a sugar bush in action. But at the gas stations, the young men seemed surprised at the mention of maple sugar and smiled sweetly at the very remembrance our question brought up. Some of them thought John P. Parker had just finished his maple syrup, and others thought Andrew J. McPhedran was not quite ready to do his yet. And it was away the other side of the next town that we came upon a wayside general store and gas pump where a grizzled and active little old man directed us down a side road with advice as to where we might find a sugar bush in full flood.
Three Men and a Gun
“P’s place,” said our informant. “Just ask your way to P’s place, it’s two concessions in and one to your right, and you’ll see a deserted house there. Painted white it was. Follow the cow path straight back of that house, and there you are.”
And down cedar-sheltered narrow country roads we crawled in second gear, because the spring was coming out of these side roads, and any day they would go to pieces. We slithered and slid and ground and growled down two concessions and one to the right and in due time came to an abandoned farm house where lilac bushes big with bud showed somebody had here once lived and loved.
Leaving the car, we followed a soft and muddy path over hill and dale, past old and fallen snake fences and across log bridges over rushing brooks, until on the slope ahead we beheld the bright figure of a hardwood bush. And into this bush, the path, pocked with footsteps, led.
“Smoke,” said Jim. “Smell the hardwood smoke?”
And in amidst the trees at last, we descried a little gray shanty, from the chimney of which a wisp of smoke rose.
“Not many maples here,” said Jim, scrutinizing the trees as we passed.
“Hello,” I sang out, in loud Canadian greeting.
But when we drew near the shanty, no bright figures in blue overalls strode forth to greet us heartily.
“I see no buckets,” said Jim. “But there’s a kettle in there.”
And we politely intruded. Around the inside of the sugar house, which was largely open to the elements, there were stacked grain bags and cardboard cartons. Under a large black kettle, a slow bright fire of hardwood coals glowed hotly, and the kettle made a soft purring sound.
But above the kettle there rose a large dull copper spiral of pipe almost as thick as a garden hose. And it coiled and rose and passed along the ceiling and then descended into another large pot which stood against an open side of the shanty.
“They didn’t make syrup this way,” said Jim, staring at the machinery, “when I lived in the country.”
“Some new-fangled way of making it,” I suggested. “More sanitary. Maybe this is the way they can get bigger production.”
“Why,” said Jim, backing slowly out of the shanty, “this looks like a still.”
“It is a still,” I said. “A maple syrup still.”
“Stand steady, you two!” said a loud nasal voice.
And Jim and I turned to see three gentlemen in rubber boots, one of them pointing a double-barrelled shotgun at us.
“Put up your hands, boys,” said the nasal gentleman, advancing. “City operators, eh?”
“We were just looking,” I explained.
“So were we,” said the nasal one. “We’ve been watching this outfit for nearly a week now. And it never occurred to us to expect city fellers. I’m the constable. You’re under arrest.”
In Pursuit of Something
But Jim and I were able to produce letters, pictures of our children, assignments, unpaid bills and the things newspapermen always carry about with them, and proved to the constable that we were innocent journalists out looking for a sugar maple camp.
“How’d you find this whisky still?” asked the constable.
“Why,” said Jim, “we were just driving along in here looking for a sugar bush, when I smelt wood smoke and we walked back the path.”
“Well, on your way,” said the constable. “And don’t mention to anybody about meeting us here.”
And we walked back out the path, while the three gentlemen with the gun went back into the underbrush and hid again.
When we got back to the main road, we pulled in to the gas pump and the grizzled little cricket of a man came hopping out eagerly.
“Did you find it?” he asked.
“Yep,” said Jim.
“Anybody there?” asked the little man.
“Yep. Three men with a gun,” said Jim.
“H’m,” said the little man. “Still hanging around, are they?”
“You might have got us shot,” I declared.
“Them fellers never shoot,” said the little man. “I was kinder anxious to know if they was still there.”
“Well, they are.”
“Makes it kind of difficult,” said the little man, “to keep the fire fed. But the half-owner of the business lives out on the other road where they park their car. He telephones me an order for groceries every time they arrive. And then telephones and cancels the order as soon as they leave.”
“Any sugar bushes in this neighborhood?” I asked.
“I can’t say,” said the little man. “I haven’t been interested in maple sugar for some years. Doesn’t pay.”
“Well,” we said, “so long.”
So we drove out to the big highway and got in line with the rest of the traffic whizzing madly along in pursuit of something.