The Bird Carver’s Daughter Part 13: Daughter vs. Tractor

Bob Spear driving a red tractor at the Birds of Vermont Museum

Guest post by Kari Jo Spear, Photographer, Novelist, and Daughter of Bob Spear
This post appeared first in our Summer 2017  issue of
Chip Notes.
Reprinted by permission.

I had never been so terrified in my life.

I usually loved sugaring season and how maple permeated my life for those short, intense weeks between winter and spring. I loved the trees as they came to life, loved how the chickadees’ spring whistles would answer the gentle creak of my father’s hand awl as he tapped the trees. I loved the pinging of sap into metal buckets, loved the smell of the steam-filled sugar house, and loved the
quiet roar of the evaporator over the crackling wood fire. I even loved helping out at the famous sugar-on-snow parties at the Audubon Nature Center, endlessly explaining to tourists the route a drop of sap takes on its adventure from tree to metal can.

But I did NOT like the Nature Center’s tractor.

It was a huge, red behemoth with rear tires that were taller than I was. It had a seat on a spring that bounced up and down and a little pipe on the top where exhaust came out. I liked riding on the back of it just fine, standing behind my father and holding onto his shoulders. I also liked standing on the wooden runner boards of the gathering tank while my father towed it through the orchard. It was especially fun when my father drove through the muddy brook and the water gushed up over the boards. I had to pick my feet up and cling to the tank itself. He would always glance over his shoulder to make sure I hadn’t been swept downstream.

But the tractor itself was loud and scary.

One year on the first day of tapping, when I was about twelve, my father hitched on the wooden, flatbed trailer and loaded it with hundreds of stacked buckets. He would drive through the orchard, stopping at central locations, and we would carefully place the required number of buckets at the base of every maple. Then, over the next few days, he and volunteers would tap the trees and hang the buckets. But he was the one who made the all-important decision about how many buckets each tree would get. It was an instinct my father had—I never saw him measure a tree’s girth. After years of sugaring, each tree had become a personal friend of his.

But before we headed out that morning, he paused. “If someone drove the tractor slowly,” he said, looking right at me, “and I walked along beside it to scatter buckets, it wouldn’t take so long.”

Behind me, I felt the tractor getting taller by the second.

“You do know I’m twelve, right?” I asked. “And I can’t get my learner’s permit for three years?”

My father did that kind of shrugging thing he did. “Well, you’ve got long legs.”

I rolled my eyes and was glad he hadn’t pointed out that he had been driving tractors since he was six.

“I’ll show you how,” he said before I had agreed, and he swung himself up onto the seat. I climbed to my spot behind him. He fired up the engine and started pushing his feet on pedals I’d never really noticed before. And he did something with his right hand on some little sticky-up things near the steering wheel. All the time, he was talking very loudly over his shoulder at me.

I found myself nodding. It was kind of like when he explained my math homework. I understood it as he went, but by the time he got to the last step, the first few were long gone.

After a little while, he stopped. “Okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said.

He took that as an affirmative, and before I quite knew it, we’d traded spots.

Yes, the tractor was at least six times taller when I was in the bouncy seat.

“See, your feet reach,” he said from where he stood at my shoulder.

I looked ahead of me. We were on the side of a hill. The road was just a little wider than the tractor, and it was sunken down between banks on either side. Innocent maples grew close. I glanced over my shoulder. The trailer loaded with buckets was even wider than the
tractor.

“Stop before you get to the brook,” he said. “You probably don’t want to try that today.”

I shot him an incredulous glance, but he was already telling me what to do with my feet and the little sticky-up things. I drew a deep breath, held it, and tapped the thing he’d called a clutch very gently with the toe of my boot.

“Clomp on it,” he said.

I clomped.

Things happened fast. The red behemoth made a deeper-throated  growl than I’d ever heard before, a huge puff of dark smoke came out of the pipe, and then there was a lurch and a jolt and we blasted forward. I heard my normally unflappable father yell something in my ear that sounded like “Steer!” But the wind racing past me tore
his words away. I looked away from my feet and up the road, but it was gone and there wasn’t anything except maples in front of me.

I heard the word, “Brake!” but I had no clue which pedal that was, and the maples were picking up speed. So I slammed both my feet down on everything they could reach.

With the shriek of overstressed metal, the tractor flung itself to a halt and shut itself off, tilted to one side. Behind me, piles of neatly stacked buckets toppled into each other, flew off the trailer, crashed to the ground, and rolled down the hill. For a while, my father and I were silent, listening to buckets slam into trees. Then it was very quiet.

“Huh,” I said.

“Well…” my father said. “Guess that’s one way to scatter buckets.”

He kind of laughed, but I wasn’t feeling it. So he jumped down, and he had to give me a hand because my knees weren’t working any longer.

The tractor had one set of tires in the road and the other set up the bank. There was a maple about five inches in front of its nose. I thought the poor tree looked kind of pale. If it had had apples, I’m sure it would have thrown some at me.

“Did I kill it?” I asked, nodding at the tractor.

My father snorted. “It’s a Farmall.”

Still, I noticed he gave it an apologetic pat as he climbed up to the seat. While he backed onto the road, I started picking up buckets.

Hours later, when it was getting dark, we walked to the parking lot. But before we got into the car, my father stopped and looked at me. “Three years, you said?”

“Maybe longer,” I said.

He nodded fervently.

Bob Spear driving a red tractor at the Birds of Vermont Museum

 


Kari Jo Spear‘s young adult, urban fantasy/romance novels are available at Phoenix Books (in Essex and Burlington, Vermont), and on-line at Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1: The Early Years
Part 2: The Pre-teen Years (or, Why I’m Not a Carver)
Part 3: Something’s Going On Here
Part 4: The Summer of Pies
Part 5: My Addiction
Part 6: Habitat Shots
Part 7: Growing Up
Part 8: My Dead Arm
Part 9: Remembrance: Tales of My Father
Part 10: Canoe Lessons
Part 11: Battlefields
Part 12: My Father and the Speedboat

 

Art Review: ‘Birding by the Numbers,’ Birds of Vermont Museum

Most art shows can be viewed without particular attention to their settings, but ‘Birding by the Numbers’ is inseparable from its locale. The Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington organized the community art exhibit to celebrate its 30th anniversary. …Numbers are the key to ornithology… The artists’ responses to this intersection of ideas range from literal to literary.

Source: Art Review: ‘Birding by the Numbers,’ Birds of Vermont Museum

Read further: the original Call to Artists

The Bird Carver’s Daughter (Part 12: My Father and the Speedboat)

Infamous Speedboat-eating Rocks in Lake Champlain

Guest post by Kari Jo Spear, Photographer, Novelist, and Daughter of Bob Spear
This post appeared first in our Fall Spring 2016  issue of
Chip Notes.
Reprinted by permission.

One family story from before I was born has always haunted me. I could never get my head around the fact that my quiet, slow-moving father had once owned a speedboat and raced around Lake Champlain in it. But as to why he no longer owned it by the time I was old enough to remember has become part of the mists of the past.

When I asked him, all he would say was, “I hit a rock.” End of discussion. End, I assumed, of the speedboat. This helps explain why my father never had anything good to say about the smelly, gas-wasting, pollution-causing, noisemakers that went so fast you couldn’t tell a ring-billed from a herring gull.

My mother didn’t like to talk about the rock and boat incident much either, but her version was more detailed than his. According to her, it happened one summer evening in Malletts Bay, near my family’s camp. She, my father, my uncle Frank, my grandmother, and one of my great aunts were out in the boat, enjoying the sunset. The 1950’s style boat was made of dark wood and had two bench seats running across the middle with a steering wheel in the front. My father was operating it.

Suddenly, according to my mother, there was a jolt. The boat’s speed and direction didn’t change. The boat just no longer had a bottom. She could see the water rushing by below her feet, as if the floor had been peeled away by a giant can opener. She said my father looked down, killed the engine, and the boat promptly sank out from under them.

Yup, hit a rock.

Fortunately, no one was hurt. Someone rescued them from the water as it was getting dark and returned them, tired and wet, to camp. The waiting relatives had become frantic, knowing that something had happened, but not what.

Recently, I emailed my uncle Frank, who now lives in Nevada, to see what he remembered about the accident. He gave me the most detailed account I’d heard about what he called The Great Boat Wreck Caper. He described a late afternoon ride in the family’s new boat along the shore of the bay, where they had slowed down to look at the trees and cliffs. (I suspect there might have been “looking for cliff swallows” too, but that’s just speculation.) Then,he said,

“Bob, who was driving, picked up speed, and as we hit full speed we hit the submerged rock or ledge. After a few seconds of bewilderment, we looked down and saw the water pouring into the boat through a large gash in the bottom. It quickly became evident that we couldn’t stay in the boat, so we abandoned ship.”

The boat sank by the stern, looking “exactly like the pictures of ships that had been torpedoed.” But it didn’t, as the other stories had implied, go straight to the bottom. It remained floating with the bow just above the surface. The survivors weren’t picked up immediately by a rescue boat. They actually swam back and stood on the guilty iceberg (I mean, rock) while someone on shore launched a boat and came out to them. (I am sorely tempted to make a comment about a flock of gulls vying for positions, but I won’t.) Once they were aboard, the rescuer towed the disabled boat to the nearest beach, where they removed the motor. Then the rescuer returned the bedraggled shipwreck survivors, along with the motor, back to camp. My uncle stayed up late disassembling and drying it.

My uncle went on to write, “The next morning, Bob woke me up early so we could take his canoe back to where we had beached the boat. We hooked a line to it and towed it back to camp.” (I sense this might have been the moment when the canoe rose to the top of my father’s list of worthwhile boats.) Then he and my uncle returned (again by canoe) to the site of the disaster one last time to dive for loose articles that had fallen out of the boat, including my uncle’s wallet, which had gone spiraling down to the bottom of the lake like the Heart of the Ocean. (Yes, he found it, along with his car keys, still in the pocket of a pair of pants he’d thrown in the boat at the last minute.)

My uncle finished with, “Over the next few days Bob worked out that we could screw a plywood patch into the hole in the bottom and cover it with fiberglass. It didn’t look great but it worked fine so we were back in business.” (Add speedboat repair to my father’s resume.) Still, I infer that the family’s interest in speedboats had ebbed, and my uncle told me that the boat was sold a few years later.

But even though my father didn’t talk about those days much, I can remember him pointing to a marker on the map of the lake that hung on the camp wall. The mark denoted a dangerous shallow spot in the middle of otherwise deep water. My father smiled a little and said, “Yep, I found that one.”

Like my father, I have chosen quiet, reflective paddling over speed. A few weeks ago, I paddled my trusty kayak deeper into Malletts Bay than I’d ever gone before. The lake level was at a near record low. As I came around a point of land, I saw a dark ledge of rock breaking the surface. Next to it was a white buoy with the word “DANGER” in red on the side. And I realized what I must be looking at. The infamous rock ledge that had torpedoed my father’s boat was actually above surface for the first time in years.

I paddled around it and photographed it with my cell phone. Then I just drifted a while and listened to the gurgle of water and the cries of the gulls, and looked deep into the reflections on the water’s surface.

Infamous Speedboat-eating Rocks in Lake Champlain


Kari Jo Spear‘s young adult, urban fantasy/romance novels are available at Phoenix Books (in Essex and Burlington, Vermont), and on-line at Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1: The Early Years
Part 2: The Pre-teen Years (or, Why I’m Not a Carver)
Part 3: Something’s Going On Here
Part 4: The Summer of Pies
Part 5: My Addiction
Part 6: Habitat Shots
Part 7: Growing Up
Part 8: My Dead Arm
Part 9: Remembrance: Tales of My Father
Part 10: Canoe Lessons
Part 11: Battlefields

 

Our Annual Appeal for 2016

Thank you and Happy Holiday Season
from the Birds of Vermont Museum

There’s still time to make a tax-deductible donation to the Museum for 2016!
Please consider sending a contribution during our year-end appeal
—whether $1 or $5000— we happily accept donations online through JustGive, NetworkForGood, and PayPal. You can also call (802) 434-2167 with your credit card info, or send a check in any amount at any time to

Donate to the Birds of Vermont Museum! Your gift is tax-deductible.
 
Birds of Vermont Museum
900 Sherman Hollow Road
Huntington, Vermont 05462

Donate to the Birds of Vermont Museum with Network for Good! Your gift is tax-deductible.

We welcome your support in any and every form: Continue reading “Our Annual Appeal for 2016”

Call to Artists: Birding By the Numbers

Birding by the Numbers

A Call to Artists from the Birds of Vermont Museum in celebration of our 30th Anniversary

We at the Museum like to say we are “where natural history meets art.” But flip through the files of time while birding in the last 30 years… what would ornithology be without math? What new facts and figures about feathered phenomena do you most appreciate? Join us as we play with birds and numbers!

We seek bird-focused art that incorporates a feeling for number with artistic expression. We are open to any media. Let your art—from imaginary to irrational, with birds silly and significant—populate our creative space!

Here is a tiny fraction of funky factoids to tickle your fancy and perhaps illustrate what we mean: Continue reading “Call to Artists: Birding By the Numbers”

The Bird Carver’s Daughter (Part 11: Battlefields)

Guest post by Kari Jo Spear, Photographer, Novelist, and Daughter of Bob Spear
This post appeared first in our Spring 2016  issue of
Chip Notes.

Reprinted by permission. Links added by K Talmage, Museum blog editor.

If birds were my father’s first passion, the Civil War was his second. (Family, he pretty much took for granted.) He could fight every battle from memory, including all the skirmishes leading up to it as well as the aftermath, and discuss the finer points of each battle’s contribution to the overall picture and its enduring legacies. He focused on the Vermonters, especially his great-grand-father and hero, Alonzo Spear. Yet he always held Robert E. Lee in the highest regard. For a long time, I could never understand why my peace-loving, crowd-hating, and squeamish father had such a fascination for battlefields. When I asked him, all he would say was, “Well, they’re kind of interesting.”

One day, my father, Gale, and I visited the Hubbardton Battle Field, where Vermont’s only Revolutionary War battle had taken place. None of us had ever been there before. In the visitor center was a diorama depicting the various movements of the troops during the engagement. I remember standing there, feeling baffled. My father silently contemplated the scenario for a few moments and then launched into a full explanation. He waved his hands over the diorama like a conductor, commenting on the initial positions of both sides, the strategic fallbacks, the flanking attempts, and the outcome. (We lost. But we Vermonters achieved our goal of halting the British in their tracks long enough to allow the main American force to get away. See, I was listening.)

Unbeknownst to us, a member of the staff had been listening, too. “You must be a scholar of this aspect of the Revolution,” he said to my father.

My father shook his head. “Not really. But it’s kind of interesting.”

When we got outside, I said, “I thought you’d never been here before.”

“I haven’t. But these battles are really simple compared to the Civil War.” In other words, he’d figured the whole thing out in about a minute.

My father really was a scholar of the Civil War. I don’t think there is any book, article, or movie he hadn’t memorized. About the only reason he’d leave the museum for a vacation was to tour a battlefield. He visited all the major ones, figuring out exactly where Alonzo would have been standing. Poor Gale would often say with a sigh, “We’re off to fight the Civil War again.” So much for tropical vacations.

This year, one of the high school classes where I assist students did an in-depth study of the Civil War. We read, watched documentaries, and listened to speakers. During class reading time, I found myself researching the 2nd Vermont. When I watched the documentaries, I tried to figure out where my great-great grandfather had been standing. (Yes, he was in the thick of things at Gettysburg, one of the heroic Vermonters who had saved the day and perhaps even turned the tide of the war.) I kept reading more and more. It was addictive. And ancestral.

We spent a lot of time focusing on the military genius of Robert E. Lee. And finally, I began to understand why my father had been so fascinated. Like Lee, my father was a man who planned ahead in a logical way, who studied the lay of the land, who had an instinct for the weather, who knew how to use the sunlight to best advantage, and who had an intuitive sense of how much men and horses could take.

General Spear. It would have been … interesting.

One day, as I headed for my next class with my students, I hesitated for a moment. I almost thought I’d heard my father’s voice echoing down the halls. “Forward, march!”


Kari Jo Spear‘s young adult, urban fantasy novels, Under the Willow, and  Silent One, are available at Phoenix Books (in Essex and Burlington, Vermont), and on-line at Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1: The Early Years
Part 2: The Pre-teen Years (or, Why I’m Not a Carver)
Part 3: Something’s Going On Here
Part 4: The Summer of Pies
Part 5: My Addiction
Part 6: Habitat Shots
Part 7: Growing Up
Part 8: My Dead Arm
Part 9: Remembrance: Tales of My Father
Part 10: Canoe Lessons