Lisa Bondurant

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I spend my time raising kids, gathering eggs, cutting wood, scoping out trees for tapping, making syrup in the last days of winter, watching my garden NOT grow in the summer, writing, wishing that there were more hours on the clock for sleeping.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A warm rain

A warm rain fell on the layered winter just before dusk. So gently it was almost unseen. But then the warmth of rain touched cold snow and a great fog began to lift from the forest floor, like a ghost ascending from a frozen grave. The fog thickened and lifted in layers, like milky water. Layer upon layer of fading gray, paler and paler into the distance till the mountains were only soft silhouettes of the giants.I hesitated before my last step into the woods, unable to shake the uneasy feeling that fog can give. The question when fog hangs in the air before you was always the same, what is beyond?“Nothing”, I told myself, yet felt no better. “Just step into it.” I stood still another moment anyway, scanning the woods as best I could for movement. The woods, where I had heard the something in the night. For days I had been searching for sign of bear or large cat, but had found nothing more than an occational rock or log disturbed. That had been before the big snows. And sense then the forest had been almost too quiet. There was nothing moving now and I finally stepped forward and walked to the first tapped tree.
The buckets hung heavy and nearly full with the clear sap. Pulling the first bucket free, the tap began to drip steadily down into the snow. I was surprised, the temps were only now shifting and I had not expected such a good run. But once again the trees seemed to know what was to come, before I did.
I gathered from a row of trees along a large game trail, working my way back into the forest. The thrill of a good run had made the thought of an eerie fog leave my mind. With a good run, there were more trees that needed tapped. I placed the bit to bark and began cranking. As the bit bore in, tiny flakes of dark brown fell to scatter the white snow at my feet. Then light brown and finally the cream colored flakes of live wood. The wood grew wet before and I drew the bit back. The bit pulled free and a tiny gush of sap spit from the hole then trickled down the maples dark bark, towards the ground. I laughed; it was always a good feeling when a tap ran well. I hammered a tap into the hole and with the last hammer strike the sap splashed back into my face. I had read once that the old sugar makers said “… up north the sap drips, down south it runs…” Within a minute I had a milk jug hung and the quick tap, tap of sap dropping into the plastic seemed to be the only noise in the woods.
I scanned down the foggy trail for more trees to tap and wondered why it had seemed so spooky a few minutes before. “The something in the dark night’ was like a whispered answer that came as soon as the question had formed in my brain. Suddenly the tingling feeling of caution returned. Even if nothing could be seen now, the feeling that warned could not be ignored. There had been too many troubles with bears and to dismiss them would be foolish. And then there had been the neighbor who had seen the mountain lion in the late days of fall. It had sped across the trail before her and disappeared up the side of our mountain. The local forest rangers always dismissed reports of mountain lions with a mocking laugh. A laugh that was too practiced and the same line would follow, “There are no mountain lions around here, if there were then people would see them and there would be more reports” It was a line that might have worked the first time or two, but was now just foolish. People did see them and did report them and always got the same response. Those people who then talked among themselves about what the rangers had said, and shook their heads, laughing. It must have been a bob cat or dog, was the rangers follow up answer too those they suspected of not believing their cover story. As if we, the people that spent our live in the woods, not just worked there, could not possible tell a cougar from a dog or bob cat. It was widely suspected that a cover was all it was, to protect the big cats. For if the cats were seen by the wrong people than a wave of fear was soon to follow. The animals that were just beginning to come back to the Appalachians would soon be in mortal danger by trophy hunters and those easily spooked by stories of the big cats hunting hikers and bikers.
A cat was unlikely, but the chance was there. I had heard the hiss of the big cat, as a child. It had been near darkness of night in the summer and the stallion Rawley had gone crazy in the field, casting wild, fearful eyes towards the darker woods and shaking his main and head as he ran the fence line looking to escape his paddock. The hissing went on for some time, but nothing ever came out of the woods to pounce upon the stallion. I had often thought that perhaps the cat had only been doing it to amuse himself. So wild and beautiful had been the horse, running back and forth in the twilight, I had been unable to take my eyes from him. I had been with my father then, his hand, rough as sandstone holding mine as he whistled softly under his breath in amazement.
“Look at him go, Lisa. Look at him go.” There was nothing he loved more than a wild running horse and the danger of a big cat had meant nothing.
“What happens if the cat comes out”, I had asked?
“He won’t attach the horse while I am here”, my father had said.
“But what if he comes after us”, I asked at a whisper, looking up at him. My father had turned his gaze from the horse to me.
“He… Will ...Never… Attach ...Me”, he said the words slow and steady as if making sure I understood the confidence with which he said them. I already understood though, I could see it in his face. He had been fearless. Perhaps the cat had been as mesmerized as we had been by the stallion. This had happened several times over the years, always at the same time, early evening.
“Good thing they don’t hunt sugar makers”, I said out loud, looking at the dim light of early evening. I gathered my equipment to leave the woods. It was getting too dark too tap. As I left, I thought of how fearless my father had been and how being with him, a hand so powerful holding mine, I had been fearless also. But now caution would do, I did not know what was awake in these early spring woods.

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