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OLD MAN OF THE WOODS GIVES THE COLD SHOULDER TO GROUNDHOG DAY

Groundhog Day is not a big holiday by any standard of measurement. They don't count shopping days before it. No one cooks a big meal. Families don't usually gather. It's just a day in the doldrums of February when people have something to talk about at lunch. Will there be six more weeks of winter? There always is, though some years it's mild between the days of snowfall.

The groundhog may have retreated to his cozy den, but these melting days have me leaving mine. I have made a good-size dent in the pile of slabs left from our last lumber making. There is enough fuel wood in the cellar to keep us warm until March. We've been hearing that people are paying more this year to heat their homes, so I suppose we should feel that our firewood labor is worth more than usual. But cutting your own wood always costs the same when the bill is itemized in tired arms and stiff backs.

To loosen up, I decided to walk up to the fox field. I found that Barry's Brook was almost narrow enough to jump across and sloshed up the hill with a wet right foot. Why do "waterproof" leather boots always let you down after the honeymoon of a week's wear, despite applications of oils and sprays?

I stood in the brushy perimeter of the field, just listening and wondering what my nose could tell me. Neither sense told me much. My ears aren't very good, and it hadn't thawed long enough to give the air that tangy, earthy smell of early spring.

Then I heard old Lem laughing and after a few seconds located him in his ragged clothes camouflaged between some rough-barked willows. "You're snortin' like a winded horse, boy" served for his greeting.

"Seeing if I could sniff spring, Lem. Can you?" If Lem is 200 years old, as he claims to be, he ought to have a nose educated to the seasons.

"Nose agrees with the rest of the signs -- wet weather, no deep cold till fall."

"Been watching the groundhogs?"

"That sign's not worth nothin'. Seen five. Not scared by no shadows, though the sun was bright of mornin'. Groundhog sleeps so deep they don't know nothin' even when they act wakeful."

I opened my pocketknife, cut a small flap in the bark of a maple sapling and waited to see if a tear of sap would appear. It did, and Lem bent down and sucked at the cut. "Sweetness" was all he said.

"It's early, but maybe I should be tapping trees rather than standing here."

"Next moon, that'll be sugar time startin'."

"Lem, did you sugar back in the 1800s?"

The old woodsman leaned back against the willows and closed his eyes. "You don't know how them with no sweetnin' crave it, boy. And fer salt the same way."

"Lem, what did you eat in your log cabin days?"

"This time of year, about anythin'. Snares would give us rabbit meat. Mathilde had the stew pot always hangin' near the fire. Never eat it clean, just keep puttin' in and takin' out. The woman would pound meal of corn and them leek bulbs and swamp root. I made a trap for foolin' hawks an' owls -- it looked like a fat old mouse but catched their foot. Owl meat's tough as jerky. Fat's good, though."

Lem grinned and stared off over my shoulder toward the setting sun. "We had one hungry time. 'Twas that year the summer didn't come, just after the British war. We was so hungry that winter that we hacked off basswood bark and stewed the inner part. Cooked up berry leaf tea to ease the empty gut. That was one hard year. But when the sap juice ran, we filled up on sugar. Old boots be tasty if you slop 'em good with maple syrup."

"Maybe more waterproof, too," I added, bouncing on my wet foot so the boot squished. Lem scowled. "That's fool talk. Burnt goose grease'll keep leather dry. Every child know that. But say, did I ever tell you about Old Sugarfoot?"

For the next hour he did, leaving me with an odd story -- for another time.

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