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In Defense of Seasonal Disorders

Writer Joe McFarland claims a very specific seasonal disorder for every season of the year.

For every season of the year, I develop a very specific seasonal disorder. Right now, it’s maple sugar season, which means every bowl, cup, pitcher, jar, pot, sauce pan, washed-out mayonnaise jar and kettle in the house is in a state of disorder. My kitchen is a total mess. Nothing has been in its proper place since mid January, when the first of the sweet maple sap began to flow. 

During the annual run of sap, which began a few weeks ago in southern Illinois, chaos and disorder rule my house. I love boiling it down to make my own maple syrup. My friends and family remain well-stocked. It’s one of those seasonal treats that happens but once a year.

But it’s also a descent into housekeeping anarchy. Everything I own that can hold fresh maple sap is now sitting on counters, shelves, tables, chairs and in and on top of the refrigerator. The yard is filled with colonies of buckets and jugs. Every cup in the cupboard is being used. Morning coffee is being poured into wine glasses, the only available option beyond cupped hands.

In a few weeks, maple sugar season will finally have ended. When it does, I’ll have just a few days to tidy things up before moving on to my next seasonal disorder, which also fills every bowl, cup, pitcher, jar, pot, sauce pan and kettle in the house that can hold fresh morel mushrooms. Morel season lasts for a few weeks in Illinois, and when it’s over, I’ll move on to my summer disorders, which include using the previously listed buckets, cups, bowls, pitchers, jars and sauce pans to hold my harvest of wild blackberries and huckleberries.

Everything in my house is out of order for much of the year, but I savor every bit of the disorder. For all of my life I’ve taken deep satisfaction in doing things that can only be done at that specific time of the year. Maple syrup, for example, cannot be made in July. The sap is no good. Once a year is all we get. And while it might be a pleasant enough novelty to be able to make syrup whenever it’s convenient, nature cannot offer us everything we want at all times. It’s just how nature works. One also cannot pick blackberries in February. Or morels in October. These are the rules, and we must accept the fact nature provides its bounty only when the time is right.

There was a time, not so long ago, when all of us understood these rules and rituals that follow the seasons. Many of us still do. Spring fishermen, for example, know precisely when the bluegills have moved onto their spawning beds. Anglers who pay attention know it and head to the lake as reflexively as those bears that stand in cold rivers once a year to swat at salmon. We are all creatures of natural habit, or should be.

Last summer I decided I needed yet another seasonal disorder after a neighbor stopped by with some blackberry wine. Making wine is about as old as anything we do, and I live among many winemakers in Illinois wine country. But I’ve always let others carry on the tradition.

Things change after a glass of homemade blackberry wine, and I soon realized I’d been missing out on one of the greatest rewards of the wild harvest. Homemade wine always tastes better, even if it’s not, just like our own garden tomatoes always taste better than any other tomato.

Soon I vowed to resurrect the winemaking skills my father once taught me. 

Being too late in the season for the best blackberries, I focused my attention on the elderberries blossoming along fencerows between my house and the office where I work. I made a mental note of their exact locations (once the blossoms disappear, the tiny elderberries themselves appear to vanish among the green leaves).

Here’s where I met the old resistance movement. I mentioned my elderberry memorization to a technology-smart friend, who suggested I use a GPS to mark the spots.

“Here,” Rodney said to me one day, scrolling through a menu of options on his GPS. “First you select your way point…” He sensed I really wasn’t paying attention. It seemed to defeat the point. Although he carries a GPS, Rodney realizes one does not uphold an old tradition while being guided by a satellite.  

A few weeks later, assisted only by memory and a keen eye, I harvested 5 pounds of elderberries after work one day, the precise day they were perfectly ripe. I’d been paying close attention to their daily progress until one day I noticed birds behaving suspiciously around my berries. They knew. And so I made my move and soon had filled up the usual bowls, pots and pans with my latest harvest. It was a victory for the old-fashioned way of doing things.

Some might suspect I am a Luddite, an anti-technolgy throwback to primitive times. Honestly, I have no natural aversion to doing things the easy way. I accept the incredible electronics that guide us everywhere and think virtually for us today. Computers are nice. I have no opposition to the digital camera. My email is convenient. I am just worried we all might eventually lose our way in nature because of our willingness to rely on a memory that isn’t our own.

My seasonal disorders make the same point: My kitchen is cluttered throughout the year with bowls and pots and jugs on no predictable date—because nature is a liquid interaction of unpredictable occurrences. I am often asked when maple syrup season begins, exactly, or when morel mushrooms can be found, as if the date were established on a calendar. People ask me while holding their electronic devices expectantly, anxious to begin pushing buttons.

With maple sap, I tell them to watch for certain gall wasps that emerge in late winter.

“You’ll see them outside your door at night,” I say. “When you see them, it’s maple syrup time.”

With morels, I tell them to start looking for the early arrivals about two weeks after the fresh maple sap loses its sweet flavor. Nobody taught me these things. I just noticed. And if it weren’t for my annual, seasonal disorders, I wouldn’t know much about what really matters in my world and I wouldn’t understand why it’s mattered for ages. Even as I descend into my chaos of maple-sap disarray right now, boiling away, sealing jars and waiting for the next arrival, I know I am preserving more than a year’s supply of something that can only be found once a year. I’m saving what really must be saved.
By: Joe McFarland