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Sweet Days Almost Upon Us
by Stephen Morris
Burr Morse is the real deal, what others in Vermont might call "a piece of work," "a piece of gear," or even "quite the riggin'." (Pronounced "quoyte.")
Burr is part of an eight generation Vermont farm family that owns and operates the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks on County Road in Montpelier. A dairy farm until 1966, the Morses sold their herd and put their faith in the sugar bush, gambling that sap would be a more reliable source of cash than milk. The farm today is a patchwork quilt of resourcefulness that testifies to the ingenuity of a hardscrabble entrepreneur.
At Morse Farm you can bring your cross-country skis and enjoy the trails. You can buy the maple products that are shipped to all 50 states. (You can even order'em on the web from morsefarm.com.) You can sample Burr's trademark Kettle Corn which combines just the right blend of salt and sweet. If you are lucky you will encounter Burr.
Come to think of it, he combines equal parts salt and sweet, too. In addition to his skills as a farmer, sugar maker, entrepreneur, and raconteur Burr has just written a book that is destined to become a Vermont classic, Sweet Days & Beyond. This book belongs in every deer camp and summer cottage in the state.
Burr, like Johnny Cash, starts his story "Hello, my name is Burr." There, the resemblance ends. He was born during one of those mid-March days when the rest of the world is thinking daffodils, and Vermonters are struggling to keep the car out of a ditch. "If it's spring in Vermont," says Burr, "you take what you get."
His Father heroically navigated the family's 1946 Hudson to Heaton Hospital. Upon arrival, his Mother, feeling the stir of life within her, looked out the window, and said "Bur-r-r-r."
Or, did she? A paragraph or two later Burr tells us the name came from his sister, Susie, and derives from his inability to pronounce "baby brother?" What's the truth? What does it matter? This is the stuff of local legend.
What follows is a collection of Burr Morse's recollections, reminisces, observations, and pearls of wisdom, loosely tied to the maple sugaring process. There's no great drama here, no great triumphs over adversity, no tragic falls from grace. Instead there is the soothing womb of the steamy sugar house where people gather to share a reprieve from winter. Conversation is kindled like the fire. Words bubble, like the sap, and the end result is sweet, but not sickeningly so.
Burr captures the flavors of the sugar house perfectly on the printed page. The intense sweetness is countered by the doughy fullness of the unsweetened doughnut and the wincing acidity of the dill pickle, an unlikely combination that shouldn't work, but does.
The writing is filled with colorful characters, critters, and anecdotes that couldn't happen in New Jersey, or Florida, or Texas. There's the playful weasel who ends up face down in the pickle barrel; the goat farmer who tries to use his muzzle loader to cover up his impending flatulence, only to have it misfire; and the hired hand who gets drunk and "fries" the front pan.
This is the gentle face of a state you have to love. These aren't the breathtaking, flawless pictures of Vermont Life or the gritty, forlorn faces of Peter Miller's photographs. This is about well-intentioned, entirely human characters who retain a sense of humor and perspective even as the ground has turned to goo and unidentifiable frozen crud falls from the sky.
In typical Vermont farmer tradition, Burr opted to manage the publication of this book independently (with the help of his friends). The result is charmingly quirky, yet another description that fits the author. There are an ample black and white photos that come directly from the Morse family album. Within in these, too, is the characteristic nudge, twinkle, and wink. On page 17 we see a David Aiken photo of a whitetail in mid-flight over a fence. Doggone if that same deer ain't jumpin' over the fence from the opposite direction on page 82. It's all part of the homespun charm.
How many books begin with a testimonial from the state's governor? Governor Douglas has this to say about Burr: "A trip through the pages of this book will be as close to getting to know someone as you can come without actually meeting him. However, once you have read this book, you will want to 'see the movie' and meet Burr in person." (Even more impressive is the cordial note the Governor sent Burr after he actually read the book.)
I catch up with Burr on a snowy January day. I call his cell phone (Burr Morse on a cell phone?), and we talk as he cans syrup, explaining that the website (the website?) was busy this past weekend and depleted their inventory.
Publishing the book, says Burr, was "hard work, every bit as grueling as farming." We joke that it pays about the same, too.
Despite the warmth of his writing, he admits to having a few worries on his mind. With acid rain, tent caterpillars, pear thrips, and now lecanium scale, the maple is besieged on many fronts. Add to this the vagaries of weather, and he has reason to fret. "Sugaring is the most weather dependent of any agricultural crop," he says. "It takes 20 degree nights, 40 degree days, and a west wind." Some years, such as last, Mother Nature just doesn't cooperate.
It takes more than Mother Nature, however, to get Burr Morse down. His farm has survived the loss of cows, and if the sap doesn't flow like it should, there's always kettle corn, the website, cross-country skiers, and busloads of leaf peepers. Now there's a new arrow in the quiver, Burr Morse, famous author. (And don't tell anyone, but there's a second book well in the works.)
You will come away from Sweet Dreams & Beyond with the same aftertaste as from a bagful of Burr's Kettle Corn followed by a maple creemee. You will want to drive to the Morse Farm. You will want to hang out in the sugar house on a blustery March day, enveloped by the steamy warmth of Burr's stories.
As we say in Vermont, he's "quoyte the riggin'."
Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer who lives in Randolph. He is the founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com).
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