At the end of our dirt road was a 40-or-so acre property that, though as a child it wouldn't have occurred to me, was a wormhole between the agrarian, self-sufficient past and the city-dwelling, import-dependent future. An old couple lived there. The Van Aken's land was a perfect mix of field and forest. They had dairy cows that browsed the pastures and fought the pull of gravity as they grazed along the steep, rocky slope that led down to a thin stream. My mom asked the Van Akens to our housewarming party and they declined since the party was right at milking time.
In the summer, Mr. Van Aken grew corn on the fields that dipped up and down like deep sea waves. A white-washed country home sat partially hidden by tall evergreens and behind it sat a red barn that dwarfed the house. Somewhere deep in the hardwood forest lived a maple sugar house. Except for the high power lines that crossed the property, the corner on which the Van Aken’s land sat was a piece of early 20th century life.
Ohio is paradise for big trees. It’s the amount of moisture, I guess, but the maples, oaks and beeches grow massive trunks and their branches spread out, touching their neighbors’ branches, providing a vast, green, shady canopy for the undergrowth below. Mr. Van Aken had buckets on all the big sugar maples on his property and come early spring it was time to harvest the sap and boil it down. Vermont seems to get most of the maple syrup credit in the U.S., but northeastern Ohio is no syrup slouch. Down the road from the Van Aken’s is a small town that has some of the richest maple syrup around and it’s harvested and sold there. I love it so much I order it to be shipped to me in Oklahoma.
One winter Mr. Van Aken invited us kids to come into the sugarbush and watch while they boiled down the syrup. If my memory serves we journeyed to the house on a wagon led by a couple of his horses. It hardly seems possible, but I think it’s true. The smell of woodsmoke met us before we even came up upon the cabin – rich and thick – gray-white clouds drifting up through the trees. Once inside the house the heavy, sweet smell of maple surrounded us and we watched the amber syrup bubble in large vats. It was hot in the cabin, the fragrance and warmth nearly overwhelming us. Mrs. Van Aken was there wearing her bonnet, stirring the syrup with a long stick.
After the elder Van Akens died, the developers came sniffing around. They’d already eaten up vast acres of open land along our road. The corner lot and all of that land were ideal for cookie-cutter suburban homes built too close together. For a couple of years we worried that one day we’d see bulldozers knocking down the trees and leveling the fields. But their daughter has held on to the property somehow and now it sits quiet and unused, the old house gone, the past living on undisturbed. The grass grows tall in the former corn rows with no dairy cows or tractors to keep it shorn. The sugar maples go untapped. I wonder if the dull silver buckets still hang from the trees and if the old sugar house still stands.