Friday, March 25, 2011

Spring... Just tricklin' in!

Spring is definitely in the air! Bird song of every sort is almost cacophonous in the early mornings and late evenings... as males seek out mates... and establish territorial rights before the nesting gets underway.

How joyous it is on my walk to hear familiar voices... absent over the winter months. Red
Winged Blackbirds... Robins... Canada Geese by the droves now ply the stubble of the now snowless corn fields in search of early sources of food. In one group of three adjoining cornfields , I encountered a resting and feeding group of migrating Canadas... in the thousands... likely preparing for their last long push to their spring breeding and summering destinations in the northern reaches around Hudson and James Bay.

I came back the next day in late afternoon... camera in hand... but really didn't expect to find them still there. They were! And when I got out of the car they lifted. The noise of their combined voices of alarm raised goose bumps on the back of my neck... as they lifted... and kept circling... wanting to return to their resting spot. I quickly snapped a couple of pictures, then quickly got into the car and headed off... not wanting to discourage their need to resume their fuelling and resting needs. What a privilege it was to view this spectacle! A once in a lifetime event for "Me"!

Yesterday, I experienced yet another once in my lifetime event! I conducted an oil painting demonstration... live on Rogers Television Daytime... a local cable programme. My work has made a television appearance on more than one occasion... but this was the first time that I either visited a studio... or took part in a broadcast. All exciting stuff!

I decided to keep the demo in the "Spring" mode... and commited to paint... yes... you guessed it - another maple syruping picture! I used a previously painted and posted 7x5 inch pochade piece.On this occasion I enlarged the format....painted it on a black toned canvas... and transformed it into a nocturne. Things went smoothly and comfortably in both the interviewing and the painting processes combined. The interviewers really knew their stuff! I came away with a fairly decent 28x22 inch canvas that I will "tune up" after our return in April. Here's what's there ... after one hour of talk n' paint!

Well... this will be my last post before leaving for the Barbados... so here's wishing everyone...

Good Painting!... and Happy Painting! See you in April!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring... Has indeed sprung!

"It isn't what you look at that's so important. It's what you see."

-David Thoreau

Spring does indeed seem to be gaining momentum... and Winter... now soiled and confined to irregular skeins in open spaces and fugitive pockets sheltered in wooded areas appears to be in retreat. Despite the cold wind... the stronger sun rises earlier to warm the morning and remains longer to encourage the spirits of both the human and animal worlds in the latter part of the day.

I saw... and heard my first American Robins today... a sure sign in this part of Ontario that Spring will continue to unfold... until the world is once again green and fully alive. Recently- returned, migrant Canada Geese have already paired at Rumble's Mill. Their constant... raucous bugling and head bobbing behaviours reveal their keen readiness to begin the ritual of creating life anew.

The sap is running well... but a little behind schedule at local sugar bushes. McCutcheon's operation of upwards of 6000+ taps was well under steam. Their bush had a steady flow of sap... and visitors to their shanty to taste the 2011 syrup... and to pick up their maple treasures... as I did. A large bottle of their 2011 syrup and a large batch of their scrumptious "to-kill-for" maple candy will be in my luggage headed south... for a Barbadian-Canadian breakfast during our stay with my daughter Lisa.

It was wonderful to spend time with the entire McCutcheon clan... all there to cover the bases in the family operation. I had met son Jesse a number of years ago... when on a cold, but sunny March day in 2005, I painted their home and shanty. That plein air foray initiated and forged my special friendship with Rene, Ken and their family. That painting now has a place of honour in their lovely and tastefully decorated brick home. And yes... a gallon of their maple syrup did figure into the price. HAHA! What a sweet deal!

Today... I finally got to meet daughter Carley... a friendly and attractive young woman. Actually... I first "met" Carley when we touched bases via my blog... and hers! I had absolutely no idea that she had been operating a blog since 2006 under . Neither did I realize or guess that we shared so much in common... in addition to our sugar maple roots and interests! Both she and I are involved in art.
We both had copied AY Jackson's "Scarlet Maples" at a very early age... and share a deep love of the Canadian Group of Seven painters. We both love and are addicted to Gordon Lightfoot's music... especially his song from his award-winning album "The Summer Side of Life" aptly entitled Maple Music. And did you know that Moxy Fruvous' hit... Maple Syrup Trees was written by Pete Seeger?.... And that Pete taps sugar maples himself?

"How sweet it is!.... This Universe of ours... and small too! It just goes to show you that everything isn't simply "black and white". There exists a" lot of grey"in Life... that we fail to see or understand. Life is about reaching out... risking... being open to share and to new learning opportunities. In this fashion... Life remains purposeful... exciting... challenging and rewarding... right up to the end of our time here.

Life is about choice. One should put the Past to rest... it's forever gone. Embrace the moment as "You" are able. Look to the Future... but only to set goals. It will arrive... and pass as well... despite worry... or whining complaint. Being with the McCutcheon family... even for just a few days in Spring puts life truly in the proper perspective for "Me". Each of us makes choices that offer possible Rewards.... or Consequences. Life does bring and Prosperity... and with it Joy. But also Adversity... and with that state... Depression and Sadness. Life is always about paradox. How we choose to lead our lives is our responsibility alone... even in partnerships. It is NEVER too late to be the person... or be in the place you always desired to visit... or live in.

Shakespeare said it ever so well in Hamlet:

To be... or not to be. That is the question."

And for each one of us... on our own terms and by our own will... it is!
Me thinks... that "I" be finished ... and need only end... by adding some "black and white" sketches to wrap things up in this post. The last two quick sketches represent a traditional bush operation and McCutcheon's modern gas fired operation. The first image is a pointillism study from 1977... the second a test linocut image... to match the poem below... inspired by the New Sugar Moon and of the Spring which we are just experiencing. It will soon become the subject of a larger painting. But that's another story... for another day... and post! Stay tuned...
I truly hope that I have infused some "Maple Magic" into each of your lives... and that you have a better understanding of where that sticky stuff on your pancakes comes from! Do drop by Carley's wonderful Sugar maple site as linked in the lines above. You'll find more facts and recipes... the list is long and interesting! Way to go Carley! If you're in the area per chance... drop by McCutcheons and tell them that Bruce sent you... and to treat you .... sweetly!

A Sugar Moon

Moonlight falls the length of the sugar maple stand
Guarding with silence until the return of Spring.
Somber silhouettes in the winter night,
Their arms reaching... thrusting into the inky blackness
In the vain hope of capturing the celestial disc.

The now deserted shanty waits patiently
The return of excited the voices of those...
Who pass the long nights
Sharing labour... and laughter.
Again this Spring perhaps?
Not likely.

Not again.
Paradise lost.
Sadly... forever.

Dec. 14th, 2006

Good Painting!... and Happy Spring to ALL!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What's on tap....locally? - Part Five

Nothing with a sudsy head for certain ! Just gallon upon gallon of clear... "sweet water" as the native tribes referred to it... dripping noisily into well-seasoned sap buckets slung either alone ... or in clusters on mature maples in every hard maple stand in the Oro-Medonte. Where the bucket brigade has given way to the plastic world... sap is sucked under pressure through miles of clear plastic piping or tubing that spiderwebs its way from the tapped trees throughout the bush... via plastic arteries. This plastic waterway transports the sap directly to stainless steel holding tubs in the main shanty. Here.. it is gathered and held until it is piped over to the gas fuelled stainless steel evaporator in specific increments for boiling.

While the newer process is obviously geared to a more efficient... volume-oriented result, both share the same result - Liquid Canadian Gold! Both produce the same various grades.... light ... medium and dark syrup that are bottled and sold. However, despite the method... it can be duly noted that the maple syrup made by every man and operation... will vary in taste and patina. Each year, there are World Championships held to bestow awards of excellence to producers across Canada and the US.

Making syrup that "has pedigree"... along with superb taste gives serious producers...."a leg up" in the marketing of their product either locally, nationally, or even internationally. So maple syrup production in high yields areas like our own... is BIG business!

Check out the creche of ribbons... trophies and awards earned by McCutcheon Maple Syrup... and note that at least two World Champion Ribbons are amongst the spoils! Check out that neat... zany... off-the-wall Maple Violin crafted by a local crafts person. And yes... it can be played !

Yesterday, I drove over for a visit with my maple-producing friends Rene and Ken McCutcheon at their farm and bush operation. They are "back-to-the-land"... conservationist folk who have "walked the talk." They and their two children have lived totally from the land they own and have had stewardship over. They also run a premier apiary business and are fine honey makers. They even combine the maple syrup and honey to make maple butter - a must on our spring time breakfast table! Great on hot cross buns! I am... Soooooooooo predictable! HAHA!!!

Rene also is an acclaimed potter and ceramicist. Her earthy, uniquely designed pieces... once again are cross-pollinated with her love of maple syruping and honey production. Her tableware, jars, pots and bees wax candles and molds quickly find their way out of their sugar house and their Saturday stall at the local farmer's market... and into the kitchens and homes of countless admiring customers such as ourselves .
Too quickly... she recounted yesterday. So she and Ken decided to take a winter hiatus to re-energize after the sugar house blitz and honey production last season. They spent six restful weeks in BC. The year after year... night after sleepless night ritual that has governed their adult lives... manning the ever-demanding boilers... boiling... sterilizing... bottling and vending tasks that make up the six week season made them come to a decision to take a break. Refreshed... they are back on duty with their family... their bush open to visitors from 1:00 thru 5:00 pm daily during these next six weeks.

Oh yes... and did I mention the snowshoeing "parties" around the bush in waist-deep snow to drill and attach tubing? And as well... flushing and cleaning the miles of plastic tubing joining over 6000 tapped trees... which must be cleaned when the season closes... but must be redone... before the new season begins? Oh... and yes the sterilizing... labeling and pouring of bottles by grade in preparation for sale? And as well... there's making the specialized products that are unique to their shanty. They create maple butter and maple candy poured formed into the delicious maple sugar in leaf-shaped candies that our family fight over!

I think that you must get the full picture at this point. This is a way of life... not a way to just make a living. They have dedicated their entire young and adult lives to their passion... and to the careful stewardship of their piece of Mother Earth. They have educated their children from the proceeds of fir trees that they and their children planted... nurtured and finally harvested to pay for the bulk of the their schooling costs. They no longer harvest trees... but when we first arrived in the Oro-Medonte... we annually cut our own first Christmas trees from their dwindling stand of spruce, balsam and Scotch pine.

I have very much enjoyed sharing this ritual with you... and am proud to introduce you to our uniquely Canadian rite of Spring activity here in the beautiful Oro-Medonte region. If you ever find yourself travellin' our way... look me up or call. I would be happy to act as your personal tour guide in the area ! It's worth the visit!

My "surprise" that I have alluded to ... but withheld... is that on March 28th thru' to April 13th... Deb and I will be heading to the Barbados to spend two weeks with my eldest daughter Lisa at her home there. YES! My (empty) trusty 55 year old paint box will be making the trip too! Lisa has many activities planned for us.... snorkeling... cricket match... polo game and touring. But... I will head out on my own from time to time... to make Barbadian landscapes... comin' yer way soon I hope... so stay tuned!

The Universe "speaks"... in mysterious ways. Some "conversations are hard to decipher at times... and are even frightening to contemplate. But my belief is... and has always been.... If you "stay the course! Keep the Faith! Work hard!... and BELIEVE! Good things come round!
Don't be fooled by the red mackinaw... and beard! It 's not me! It's Ken... in his "office" suit! The mackinaw is formal dress in this neck-o-the-woods! HAHA! The boys are ours.... photo circa 2009. Liam ... the tallest is now 16 and is momentarily holding at 6 foot 3 inches. Bryn will be 15 in May and is now looking me in the eye!
In my final Maple Syrup post Six, I hope to draw a comparison between the traditional and the more modern methods and the shanties to clarify how they differ in appearance and function using pen and ink sketches.
This will be the "final run"... for certain!Promise !
Good Painting and Happy Spring!... to All!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sap... is indeed runnin! - Part Four

Finally... the combination of sub-zero night time temperatures and sunny above zero conditions have nudged the sleeping sugar maples into Springtime awakening. The distinctive rat-a-tatting of sap falling into rusted and weathered galvanized sap buckets permeates the usual silence of these still snow bound hardwood stands.

The smell of wood smoke fills the air... blended with the sweet perfume of evaporated maple steam eminating from the overhead louvred ventilators atop most sugar shanties. Black-capped Chickadees, my own favourite bird friends... picking up the presence and new activity in the bush dart and dash all around the bush excitedly. Spring is suddenly... literally... in the air ... and everywhere!

Yesterday... I was offered an opportunity to man a shanty during the day time part of the operation at a local producer's bush. I knew very well what that meant. It would mean four to five weeks of gruelling... non-stop work in the shed... feeding the always-hungry hardwood fuelled firebox under the evaporating pan... maintaining a constant flow of new sap to the evaporating pan to replace the ready maple syrup which had to be transferred to an awaiting storage tank to be cooled before being bottled or canned.

When people complain about the exorbitant price of a gallon of maple syrup... I smugly smile... and say nothing that would honour such a statement of complete ignorance of the amount of labour ... and skill that goes into producing a single gallon of maple syrup. It is pure "liquid Canadian gold" - the coin of a realm where one's "work" has no guaranteed hourly wage... no union protection... no paid benefits... no "sick" day considerations... no severance packages... no paid holidays... no government subsidies... none of the side benefits of so many urban job settings.

However... what it does have... is an environment where one can set their own schedule... work from home... with their family members at their side. An environment free of laptop... cell phone and Blackberry interruption and annoyance... replaced by laughter and camaraderie in the company of people that you love and respect... and who conversely... feel the very same way about "You." In simplest terms... "work" to these folk is an avocation - a Life ... as well as a living! And "I" very deeply respect... and cling with them to their value system! Strange...EH?

I have much enjoyed writing these posts dedicated to our unique Canadian rite of Spring... and also sharing my knowledge... experiences and paintings in regards to the making of maple syrup. I have been encouraged... no thrilled to have comments and questions from followers of my blog who knew little of how this North American product was produced. Some have also added their own experiences... while others have set off on a search to find more information on this subject.

This was... and remains the ultimate goal for my creation of "Journaling With Paint". Having a personal forum where "I" can be in touch with other creative minds in a non-threatening and encouraging forum... is an essential part of my need to learn... and to share learning with "Others" who have a shared passion for making Art. One of my visitors and now a friend, Keith Tilley of Scotland asked me what the purpose the cupolas atop each shanty served. So I will respond to his very valid question in response making use of two additional posts.

I had fully intended close out my Maple Syruping series with one more post... Part Five... adding some photos and information to "fill in the blanks" about the actual shanty construction and operation... and a couple of AWBs thrown in! However... due to the considerable interest generated by all of the posts... from different parts of the world... I will extend my discussion and sharing by adding yet another post after the next one.

Being able to share this particularly unique Canadian activity... and the beauty of our seasons and landscape gives me great pleasure. Blogging is a powerful agent for sharing ideas... and for putting one in touch with other cultures and "Ideas" across vast distances. I hop e that my dwelling on this particular topic does not offend... or discourage anyone from visiting further. Be patient... and I'll ramble on to a new topic!

Sweet Dreams... Happy Spring... and Good Painting ... to ALL!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sweet Maple Memories! - Part Three

Winter gently laid down more 6cm of snow during the night. It was a beautiful sight to look out and find tree branches and village roofs decked out in fresh snow as the first light of daylight saving turned night into day. Yes... I did make all of our clocks "spring forward" that extra hour before heading off to bed last evening!

While many are angered by Winter's reluctance to depart... I am patient. In fact... I search for pockets of "fugitive" snow deep in the woods long after it has disappeared in fields or along side roads. I revel in finding it... and usually take time to paint it. But "I" am a lover of Winter!

I have decided not to ramble on... as I am accustomed to doing in my posts. For a change... I have decided... simply to let a few of the many paintings that I have made over thirty years "speak" on my behalf. I humbly hope that these express the deep and abiding love and respect that I have for those individuals and families who have "sweetened" my journey ... for so many Springs. I can't imagine a Spring's arrival without "Sugaring off"... the return of Canada Geese... the American Robins... or the Red Wing Blackbirds. These are the true measures of the return of Spring for "Me"!

"The land-holder who appropriates a few rods of land to the preservation or cultivation of the sugar tree not only increases the value of his land, but confers a benefit upon future generations."
-Superintendent of the United States Census, 1860

My deepest gratitude to the Smail, Sunderland, McCutcheon, Jones, Brown, Tackaberry Lalonde and Greenlaw families... and a host of other landowners who allowed me to visit and paint in their sugar bushes over the years! Thank you all!

Happy Spring! ...and Good Painting to ALL!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sap's Runnin'!... Well... not quite! Part Two

We are being held hostage... and in suspense here in our region as Winter and Spring continue to engage in a game of tug o' war. Winter seems to depart, yielding to the warm sun... and then comes steam rolling back with fierce winds... snow and sub-zero temperatures. A stale mate of sorts! We must all wait... for the "Maple Magic" to begin!

In order for the first sap run to get fully underway, there must be a series of sub-zero night time temperatures between -4 and -6C... along with above zero daytime temperatures of between 2 and 7C and sunshine. The warm days encourages the sap to rise, and the cool nights pump it back into the roots. The Ontario season usually begins in mid-March, lasting through to mid-April. If the buds open on the trees prematurely, the sap reduces its sweet taste drastically and the season is over. There is a critical balance in weather conditions here that will insure whether the season is good... or a bust.

Each tree, depending upon its size, can have more than one tap... typically with the spile/spigot being driven into the drill hole to a depth of about 7 cm. New holes are drilled each year and older holes heal over, so no damage or hurt is done to the tree. When trees are selected to be tapped they first have their girth measured about two feet above the ground. Trees under 25 cm are considered immature and not suitable for tapping. A tree between 25 and 35 cm can hold one tap. An ancient tree over 60cm can have up to four taps. While the flow of sap can occur slowly... or even not be present on other days.. it is possible when conditions are exactly right... to have a tree can yield as much as one-third of its annual output in a single day.

The early natives notched a gash low on a root or at the base of the tree and the gash fed the clear sap into waiting birch bark bucket-like baskets which were gathered and taken to a fire location. At this location, there was a hollowed out basswood log was filled with the sap. Stones were heated in the fire and were dropped into the trough to bring the sap to a boil. Needless to say... it was a tedious and difficult process. But this "sweet miracle" of Spring was a gift to hunting groups who festively gathered together after the long and harsh winter conditions in Ontario. In order to survive and to supply their game needs... the tribes broke down into smaller family hunting groups to work and simply survive together... sharing the rewards... or failure of the hunt. Many perished of hunger and disease... especially the elderly. This was truly a much awaited time to celebrate the return of Spring... Light... and tribal village life!

In pioneer times, the sap was boiled at first in single large iron kettles hung over constantly kept fires. But later... the single pot method gave way to "the three pot" method... where the sap was moved along from one pot to another and the heat intensity was reduced to alleviate the scorching or carmelization... that is disastrous to the quality of the maple syrup. This older method was improved upon with the advent of the "pan" method... where the syrup fed into a rectangular galvanized iron pan. The pan was heated from beneath by a constantly- fuelled hardwood fire contained in a brick-lined chamber directly beneath the sap. The bricks held the heat, decreasing the amount of wood required in the boiling off operation.
In today's bigger and more efficient shanties, this method has been replaced in these larger operations with gas fired burners below and stainless steel tanks... not unlike those in a dairy parlour. Everything is controlled to the nth degree... and obviously... thevolume and quality of the syrup can be better controlled and maintained to provide the greatest yield of product during the short and often erratic season.

I guess you could say that I might be biased... and perhaps lean towards the romantic... and I unabashedly do! But from my years of visiting various sugar shanties (even having sampled the "three pot" product)... I sincerely believe that there is an ambiance and patina given the syrup that is boiled the old way. Perhaps it is because of the smoke that infuses the interior of the shanty during the boiling off... and bits of ash that drop into the dark rich syrup. Perhaps ... it might just be the sweet aroma... the true "Maple Magic"... that fills that shanty constantly. "Nose candy"... I call it! Or perhaps... the notion lies only in my romantic and runaway imagination! For "Me"... and a host of many other Ontarians... Maple syruping is a gift that makes the tedium of helplessly waiting through long Winter months for Spring simply... evaporate!

I will post one more Maple Memory... Part Three... with photo jpegs that illustrate some of these details more clearly for those readers... "from away"! HAHA!! Today's jpegs are my plein air works from this week. Two painterly pochade pieces completed on a bitter Tuesday afternoon... and a sweet, loosely painted 10x 12 panel done yesterday on an uplifting and lovely warm Wednesday afternoon at The Lalonde Family Shanty that is located in the nearby Elmvale area in Springwater Township!

Sweet Dreams of Spring... and Good Painting to All!
PS Deb and I did indeed have our fill of Shrove Tuesday Pancakes, Maple Syrup and Old fashioned Ham.... Cooked by my Self... right here in our apartment above The Paint Box Gallery!
YUM!...YUM!... YUMMM!!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sap's Runnin!... "Sugarin' off " time! - Part One

Sugaring off is a Spring time expression very common to rural people across Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States... but is scarcely known ... if at all even understood in other parts of the world. It marks an annual ritual that has been part of rural culture dating back to earliest settlement in New France (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario)... and even before European contact by the First Nations tribes in these areas.

Sugaring off refers to the spring time cycle of sap being released from the safety from winter cold in the root system of the Sugar Maple. Other maple species also follow this cycle, but the sap of the Sugar Maple offers the highest sugar content. The flow of sap usually begins in late February... reaching its apex by mid March. This flow is brought on by the increasingly warmer sun and longer days of light which signals the trees to begin releasing the sap back up into the trunk of the tree. It is at this point that the tree is "tapped" by means of boring a hole with an auger or drill and a metal "spigot" is driven into the hole to act as a tap to carry the clear sap to a galvanized metal pail which is hung on a hook on the spigot.

In earliest times First Canadian Peoples simply hacked a wedge-shaped v on one of the root arms and set a birch bark container in this wedge to collect the precious spring nectar. The first settlers had augers and often whittled wooden spigots out of Stag Horn Sumac and forced a metal rod down through the soft pith core to hollow out a channel in the shaft of the spigot. They simply flattened the one side and notched the spigot end to hang wooden pails on each tree.

Maple stands existed in primary growth forests and were added to by early settlers. Many large Sugar Maples aged between 100 to 250 years can be found and along Line Roads which run north to south here in the Oro-Medonte region. These hardwood ancients were planted for their sap-bearing potential... but as well they serve as markers for these roads and were planted because of their longevity and resistance to insect infestation.

Early operations were small and limited to a few hundred trees depending upon the land grant size of each farm and of course the availability of labour to carry out the hours of hard labour in less than ideal deep snow or muddy spring conditions. Today, operations involve several thousands of trees all joined by plastic tubing and linked directly to the sugar house where the boiling takes place. In short, Maple syrup production has become big business and distribution of maple syrup and maple sugar candy now reaches out to all parts of the world.

I have been a part of this annual ritual for nearly forty years and have painted in many bushes.... many of them now vanished... as are the homesteads they sat on. Small family operations still carry on... many in the old tradition of pails... spigots... and horse-drawn sleds and wagons to gather. I am very fortunate to have several of these nearby... a couple of them friends who always welcome me ... and hundreds of annual buyers who also have befriended them and look forward to their spring return.

Over the next few posts and weeks... I will report my travels so that you too... can enjoy "Maple Magic".... as we here in Ontario are blessed to enjoy. I might even take in one of the many church pancake breakfasts that are prevalent as well. In nearby Elmvale... and in Warkworth to the east.... they have Maple Syrup Festivals which draw tens of thousands of visitors over a two day span to enjoy music... maple products and a farmers' market atmosphere!
Stay tuned... as the "flow" continues! HAHA!!

Spring... is indeed in the air!!

Good Painting to All !