Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review: The Sugar Season

The Sugar Season
Douglas Whynott
Biography, sociology

Next weekend I'll be going out to my ancestral homeland to visit the sugarhouse. We do this most years. I've been doing it for almost half a century now. It's been going on a lot longer than that; the first English settlers learned the art of maple sugaring from the Abenaki. It's fun--the kids are all excited; everyone's happy; you get to see the guys boiling down the sap, and breathe in great clouds of sweet steam--and in a way it's also deeply symbolic, almost ritualistic. It's the sign of the change of seasons, when the back of the winter has broken. It's an old tradition that's constantly reinventing itself. It's a Yankee thing.

It's also dying. In another half-century, maybe less, it'll probably be gone. There's the unending suburbanization of New England to contend with. There's the relentless march of the high-fructose-corn-syrup glop that everyone buys in the supermarket. And, most inexorably, there's climate change. Maples are cold-weather trees. When New England's climate is more like North Carolina's, there will be no more sugaring.

All these things make The Sugar Season a poignant as well as an interesting book. It'll appeal to fans of Tracy Kidder; it follows Kidder's model by taking a single protagonist and using him to draw a portrait of a whole sub-society. There's more to sugaring than tradition--it's big business--and it's not all Norman Rockwell redux. Douglass Whynott does a nice job bringing out the various, and sometimes contradictory, facets of the world of maple. I think he spends a bit too much time on the business end of things; but that is, perhaps, misplaced nostalgia on my part.

If you have kids, by all means take them to the sugarhouse. They may not get the chance to do the same.

An essential part of the great cycle of nature is the annual newspaper story. Every year, compelled by some mysterious urge, the Boston journalist rediscovers the sugarhouse. Though these shy creatures seldom venture far from their suburban habitat, their annual telephonic buglings reach even to the wild, untamed regions outside of Route 495.


  1. Did you go on Sunday? I heard from some of the guys when we were playing Eclipse on Saturday.

    I am so envious.

    1. Yep. Went out, stuffed ourselves silly, took a short hike in the woods, went to hear the U.S. Navy Brass Band at UMass, had dinner at a locavore burger place in Northampton. A very Pioneer Valley kind of day.

  2. I'm glad I was able to make it, but sorry that I wasn't able to join you for the rest of the day.

    1. That was pity, but there's always a next time.