Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Amish & the Mennonite Carry the Muskegon Farmers Market Through the Winter.

I was happy to find a new vendor at the market, Amish Bob, and Amish Bob and his wife had brought a stack of fresh baked apple and blueberry pies. I blinked when I spotted the four dollar price and bought. Two men from different sides of the county came up to the table and Amish Bob quickly pointed out what was obviously only to him. "Hey! How did you two men happen to chose the same coat"? Indeed, the men had chosen black down jackets from a popular brand, and not Triple Fat Goose. The two laughed and started filling up sacks with baked goods and jams. The man from Colorado asked Amish Bob, "What's the difference between a man from Holland and a canoe"? "What?" asks Amish Bob. "A Canoe will tip once in a while". Amish Bob protested, "But I love folks from Holland" and he grinned like a leprechaun as he made a bit of change for a fifty.

I decided to leave the midget jokes I heard on Chelsea Lately's show out of the conversation.

Flabbergasted, the stall to the right was empty, the one usually occupied by Aldea Coffee. My Saturday at the market doesn't begin until the Aldea partners concoct a pour-over for me, and I saw a man with a paper cup of coffee walking over to buy pie from Amish Bob. "Where did you find the coffee," I buttonholed the nice man, hoping that Aldea coffee had taken a stall somewhere in the place I couldn't see. "I bought this at the gas station. It's not as good as Wesco coffee. It's the worst cup of coffee I've had all this short year". I thanked him for his answer and made a mental note to go over to Drip Drop Drink and see if Todd and son and girlfriend would take me back and make me a pour-over at the Russell Block.

Happily, Kasza Sugar Bush had set up a table laden with bottles of maple syrup, maple candy and nuts glazed in maple sugar and I looked around for the man who had sold me a package of candies shaped in a maple leaf last week. The first Saturday in 2015 and I'm rubber necking looking for my farmers and merchants? I became aware, hidden by three shelves of maple syrup, of two young and quiet women sitting on impossibly low wooden seats, handmade surely. I noticed the light woven headscarves. I peered over the shelves, smiled in a neighborly way and said hello. The older of the two left and walked towards the exit. The younger had to be little more than ten years old.

I held up a package of six maple leaf candies and held out a fiver to pay. She gave me back two dollars and two quarters, all without saying a word to me. I had written lines for a character in November who had noticed a tap hole dripping sap in May of 1927. It had yet to heal over and I surmised that the tap hole might leak a drop or two of bitter sugar sap, enough to darken the maple bark around the void with moisture. I wanted to know if I had written true to maple sugar lore. 

I was pretty sure I had seen tap holes still bleeding like stigmata on the maple trees lining the dirt roads back home in Bancroft, Michigan, many of them dying slowly, rotting beautifully in place, hollowing, becoming perfect wood with splalting discoloration for a sculpture. I know two sculptors in West Michigan who will watch a tree for a decade, waiting for the right season to harvest and truck it back to the studio, Brown and Farr. Farr hawked a cherry tree in a field near an oversized bayou called Spring Lake for two decades before it was ready for his chisels.

At sixteen, I had yet to notice the maple trees lining dirt roads in Shiawassee County until my social studies teacher pointed them out one day when I had loaned him my metal detector. The trees have no chance of being replanted; perhaps no one lives in the farm houses has that much patience, farmhouses once occupied by farmers from Ohio who purchased the land after 1840, when the Chippewas were evicted at the land platted. After Larry Fisher got me to notice the maple trees in their side by side pattern, the land began mumbling history to me, talking Chief Owosso and Pontiac to me, even muttering Oliver Curwood and his hunting cabins too.

She hesitantly and cheerfully filled me in on the basics of their sugar bush in Shelby and Hart Michigan, now tapping almost four thousand sugar maples last season and more planned for this February. The sap runs sweet when thaw by day is followed by freeze at night. January now promises freeze by day and freeze by night and no running sap rising up the inner bark of dormant trees. Thaw by day followed by thaw by night harkens the budding, and budding sours the sap. Usually, the best sap flow happens in late February, early March. Last year's polar vortexes had delayed tapping until March, and her brother had scheduled his wedding ceremony in Ludington for April Fifth, when the trees just gushed with sap, the most productive day ever since two brothers tapped two maples in their front yard in 1999. The sugar bush should have wrapped well before that. So her brother had to leave his own wedding reception, drive from Ludington to Shelby, change out of his wedding best into his work clothes and check taps and pumps and wood-fired boilers. Then, change back into his wedding best, drive from Shelby to Ludington, and rejoin his bride and their celebration. My guess has it that the woman who had exited and had yet to return was the brother's wife.

The wedding party didn't drag late into the evening. At Midnight, the Sabbath began and the brothers extinguished the fire in the boilers and turned off the pumps. Only gravity was allowed to accumulate sap in their tanks on Sunday. At Midnight as Monday began, pumps were awakened and the fire restored, boil down set simmering. In all, a young Mennonite girl lighting up an entire culture reaching from Ludington to Shelby, a spiritual woman in a head scarf speaking her truth quietly, a diffident Karen Blixen who will might one day think, "I had a sugar bush in Oceana. I had a sugar bush in Oceana. I had a sugar bush in Oceana". Right. Her family and her husband surely to be might be the ones to replant the ditches of dirt roads with sugar maples for children to tap. This might sound like a business forecast; it might be a prophesy.

She shared about her head scarf. A Mennonite woman wears her scarf in accordance to a bible verse, maybe in Corinthians. A Mennonite woman wears the scarf when she prays or prophesies. I had found the two at prayer earlier.

Jeremy Church had returned from carrying three framed, original photographs he had captured of the Lake Michigan shoreline last week to the car of a happy collector. I took him to task. "We you not responsible for the Aldea coffee people? You drink their pour-over coffee every Sunday and chat with the couple across the aisle." He wasn't abashed. "Hey, I had to go without too. The dad is over at the Visser Farms booth right now. In red cap. Go talk to him".

The father looked panicked when I buttonholed him with, "Everyone is whining that Aldea Coffee missed the market this Saturday". Our conversation began and I learned that he had a law office on Apple Boulevard, where anyone can walk in and buy a bag of freshly roasted Aldea Coffee. Poor lawyer guy was approached by an unfamiliar man at the Muskegon Farmer's Market and must have freaked, thinking, "Process Server? Who could be suing me today"? Approach any known lawyers with care for this reason. Aldea Coffee has a burgeoning following and today's absence sounded caused by a supply issue. He always keeps the offices at Williams and Hughes stocked, and he offered me his card. 

As for myself, the story harvest this week at the Muskegon Farmer's Market is a bumper crop.

Will Juntunen

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