Before moving to Jamestown, I moved quite a bit to work seasonal outdoor education jobs and to enjoy the adventures that new places and new people bring. The downside to moving to a new area where I didn't know anyone is, well, I didn't know anyone. In looking for things to do, I found a beginner's pottery class. After the first time on the wheel, I was hooked. Since then, I've been making pottery, as a hobby. Some of it functional, some of it not. Some of it good, some of it not.
The idea that I could make something functional from mud, fire and my own hands was a revelation. I am still amazed when pieces come out of the kiln able to hold coffee, cereal or a casserole. I made that.
Potters were once a necessary industry, making functional vessels out of earth's clay. That is before the coming of plastic, glass and tin. Today, we can purchase inexpensive containers to hold almost anything. Some could argue, the time and money it takes to create something by hand may not be worth it just for the product. It took me several years to make a pleasing coffee mug. However, it is what I gain in the doing that makes this often messy hobby a worthwhile pursuit.
Turning clay into a bowl.
Rick in his sugar house.
Buckets hang from maple trees collecting sap.
In preparing the clay, kneading it like dough, I force out the frustrations of the day. When I am centering the clay, I first must center myself. I must let go of all the worries and imaginary dialogues running through my head. I must focus, but not too much. I have a form I strive for but it is not perfection. I want the lines from my knuckles, the small fingerprints that say, "This is made by a human's hand, not from a machine."
If you have a hobby, you may know what I mean. Yes, there are affordable things in our world. But a plastic cup has no soul. There are no fingerprints to indicate a maker.
Tis the season to be dreaming of spring. And for some people, to be planning for it. I know a man who is awaiting the first warm days but cool nights to pursue his hobby. Rick makes maple syrup. Not in a big operation, not to sell but enough to share with family and friends. While I can't assume he shares all my motivations for pursuing his hobby, I do think that like many of us hobbyists, it is not just about the final product.
I've had the privilege of seeing Rick's operation. I've followed him as he checks his trees in neighbor's yards, sharing a hello, a story, an invitation. I've carried full buckets of sap, stopping to look at a winter insect. I've stood near the warmth of the evaporator, while admiring the beauty of snow on the hemlocks. I've tasted freshly filtered syrup off a spoon, marveling at the fact that this was once inside a tree. I've left there smelling of sugar and wood smoke, knowing that this was a worthwhile way to spend time.
As for Rick's final product, his maple syrup is my favorite, the best I've ever had. Packaged in a smorgasbord of different shaped bottles, the amber syrup seems to glow with the warmth of the very fire used to make it. And the slightly smoky taste is the fingerprint that says, "I was made by hand."
Aldo Leopold is known for his work in conservation and wildlife management the first half of the 20th century. A man of many insights, he also wrote about hobbies in Sand County Almanac. He explains, "A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary."
Making pottery, maple syrup or many other hobbies is not the cheapest, the most efficient way to arrive at a product. Certainly syrup made with corn and caramel coloring costs less. And I could never make a pitcher as cheap as the plastic one it comes in. But I make pottery for that very reason. It is my small rebellion against our fast moving, convenient, get it now then throw it away culture.
Leopold goes on to write, "This, however, is serious: Becoming serious is a grievous fault in hobbyists. It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry lowers it at once to the ignominious category of an 'exercise' undertaken for health, power or profit." Don't forget that hobbies should be fun.
If you are looking for a new hobby to pursue, consider making maple syrup. Audubon is offering a class, taught by Rick, that will cover the basics of starting a maple syrup operation - not a business operation, but a hobby. On Saturday, Feb. 15, Rick will show participants what it takes to make maple syrup through a slideshow, samples of the equipment and tree identification.
Each participant will receive a certificate good for one visit in March to Uncle Rick's Sugar House: The Home of the Happy Pancakes, in Ashville, N.Y. Your visit will include one small bottle of Rick's syrup. You too can sip syrup under the snow hemlocks. Call Audubon at (716) 569-2345 or visit our website for details.
Jamestown Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown, New York and Warren, Pennsylvania. Learn more about the Center & Sanctuary and the many programs and events by visiting jamestownaudubon.org.
Katie Finch is a naturalist
at Jamestown Audubon.