Why I ditched my to-do list in favour of getting outside

There’s liquid gold (aka maple sap) in those buckets… [Photo: Marlene Wandel]

It would’ve been easy to stay at home on Sunday, easy to catch up on errands and house stuff, laundry and shopping lists, to attempt to cull the relentless accumulation of domestic clutter that builds up over the course of days and weeks.

It would’ve been easy to stay home and try to tame my kitchen, but I also had an invitation to drive to the woods and hike half an hour uphill through hardwood trees to a friend’s sugar bush. The maple sap was running hard, and they were making syrup.

I could feel the familiar flutter of anxiety rise in my chest as I contemplated my errands and the state of the house, the feeling that I should get out in nature competing with the should of my to-do list.

This time, nature won.

So my son and I, along with a friend, set out with our backpacks, boots, snacks, water, and an ancient Prince CD on the car stereo. We found the trailhead and set off on the path, my 10-year-old wading happily through melting rivers of snow. We saw wolf scat, bits of rabbit fur, and grass. We took a wrong turn and were redirected by some amused neighbours. And we arrived, eventually, at the right place. “Don’t come any further!” shouted one friend — chainsaw in hand — as he saw us approach.

We stopped in our tracks, just in time to witness an enormous ash tree crack and fall to the ground. My son was thrilled, and even more thrilled to be absorbed into the gaggle of kids running around, swinging on a hammock slung up between a couple of trees, splitting wood with hatchets and feeding it to the campfire, and jousting with sticks. My friends — two families with five young children between them — bought the property together on a lark a few years ago, and have become utterly absorbed in figuring out all things maple syrup. It’s a labour of love, entirely impractical : all that work, all that walking, all that hauling of water and supplies uphill and back down, all for a few gallons of syrup.

And it’s so utterly worthwhile.

“You know those times when you make a decision and then you think, ‘What on earth did I just do?’” said my friend Marlene, one of the owners, as she took a break from stacking wood. “I have never felt like that about this place.”

I offloaded my backpack and made my way into the sugar shack itself, where sap was boiling literally full steam ahead, the fire beneath it fuelled by wood from the property. Olivier, Marlene’s partner, was watching over the boil, pouring gallon buckets of clear, sweet sap into the first tank, straining off the scum, watching it become thicker and darker as it progressed through each tank to the end.

My son and I grabbed empty pails and set off through a section of the property, stopping at each aluminum bucket and collecting its contents — liquid gold. There’s something primal, for me, about foraging, of scanning the environment for bounty and collecting it. I’ve heard that that our skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, general malaise, might have something to do with being separated from these basic, seasonal tasks of human survival. I can relate. What I do know is that collecting sap, wild raspberries or blueberries, finding a cache of hazelnuts on a trail, is always profoundly thrilling, absorbing; it satisfies me like little else. It’s almost impossible to stop picking once I start. And as I watched my child, happily intent on his task, I recognized the same absorption, the same delight.

The afternoon sped by, a blur of sap collecting and conversation, stacking wood and snacking, and just enjoying the first truly warm spring day, out in the woods, too early in the season for mosquito bites. As dinnertime approached, we began to pack up, gathering stray clothes and tools and empties to recycle. Snow was shovelled on the fire. Gallon jugs of maple syrup were loaded onto sleds for the trek to the cars, and we made the wet and muddy return to the parking lot, my son reaching constantly for my hand.

That fluttery feeling in my chest — the anxiety of should — had melted away, replaced by the happy fatigue that comes from moving your body — outside, with friends — in nature.

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.


The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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