Just over a year ago I began work on a project in the woods at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec. I was inspired by an exhibition I saw at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in western Massachusetts. One piece in particular caught my eye, a collection of oddly shaped pieces of wood that contrasted in an interesting way with the straight vertical tree trunks around them.
I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do something similar and it took me only a few minutes of thought to decide where I wanted to do it. Home again at Glen Villa, I photographed the forested site I had chosen and considered the sort of shapes I would make.
But while poking around in the woods, I came across the remains of a low stone wall.
Finding that wall changed my mind.
My husband grew up at Glen Villa and knows the woods well. When I mentioned the stone wall, he told me that a sugarhouse used to be there. He remembered working occasionally with Orin Gardner, the farmer who worked for his father, helping to collect the sap and watching Orin boil it to make maple syrup.
I knew Orin when he was an older man — and a very fine man he was. So I knew straight away that my project in the forest would not consist of randomly shaped pieces of wood. Somehow maple leaves would be involved, and maybe other things connected with making maple syrup as well. But most clearly I knew that the project would honour Orin and his connection to the land.
I started collecting the rusty bits and pieces of the former syrup-making operation that I found on site. There were many of them — cans, pipes and bits and pieces I couldn’t identify.
Searching in the leaf litter, I found more.
But the luckiest find was the base of the pan where sap was boiled to transform it from a watery liquid to a thick sweet syrup. I wasn’t sure how I would use this remnant from the past, but I knew it would feature prominently.
What intrigued me more than the remnants, though, was the site itself. It was magical. My friend John Hay said he could see what had gone on there as clearly as if it were happening in front of his eyes. The challenge, we agreed, was to enhance the magic without destroying it. Something more was needed — the moss-covered stones, the only sign of what once had been there, were easy to miss. And I didn’t want people to do that. I wanted them to experience the magic as John and I had, as my sister Nancie had, as everyone who stopped and noticed seemed to do.
That meant adding something. But what? John suggested putting tree trunks where the corners of the building had been. I tried that, but they didn’t ‘read’ well, simply disappearing into the forest around them.
What instead? A side wall? A door?
No, a roof. A tin roof like every sugarhouse has, but rusted and falling apart. The triangular peak would stand out from the tree trunks around it, sunlight would reflect on the metal and the tin might even produce a sound when the wind blew, something hollow and ghostly.
It took two attempts to get the angle of the roof right — suspending twisted pieces of rusty metal from unevenly placed tree branches takes some fiddling. Once the roof was in place, the role of the pan where sap was boiled became obvious. It would sit squarely at working height beneath the roof, the focal point of Orin’s Sugarcamp. It would become the reason for the roof being there, a table that people would approach almost reverentially.
Last fall we started to clean up the surrounding woods, chipping dead branches and removing the occasional tree. As the space became clearer, so did my ideas. I sketched maple leaves, deliberately distorting the shape to suggest how a real leaf changes shape in the fall. I gave the sketches to a local metal worker and he cut several different sizes out of tin. As real leaves were falling, we added the tin ones, suspending them in mid-air as if they too were floating to earth.
Over the winter as the leaves weathered I watched them move in the wind. Or not move. We used wire to hang the leaves and it was too stiff. The leaves didn’t turn and twist as I wanted. The shape was wrong as well and the way they were hanging didn’t look natural.
So this fall, when I ordered more leaves, I used the shape of a real maple leaf, undistorted. I ordered three different sizes of leaves, some two feet across, some 3 feet, some 4, in a heavier gauge of tin. For safety, I decided to hang the leaves from rods inserted into the trunks of trees instead of hanging them from rotting branches. And instead of wire I decided to use cable that would allow the leaves to move more freely.
For the last few weeks, off and on, we’ve been hanging the leaves. This job is tricky and time-consuming. Each metal rod needs to be drilled, and there are 60 of them. Each leaf is drilled, and in a slightly different place so that each one hangs differently.
The actual installation is trickier still. Walking back and forth in the woods, looking from every direction, I decide where each leaf is to go, where on the tree it should hang, and at which angle. Jacques Gosselin and Ken Kelso, the ‘we-can-do-anything’ men who make my work at Glen Villa a joy, drill a hole in the trunk and hammer the rod into place. They thread the wire cable through the hole in the rod and the hole in the leaf, then crimp the wire to hold the leaf in place. And this is the trickiest part. The cable between the rod and the leaf needs to be as long as possible so that the leaves look natural, twisting and turning as they fall. So Jacques and Ken do all this 12-15 feet above ground, standing in the bucket of a tractor that is extended as high as it will go.
So far we’ve hung about thirty leaves and the site is beginning to look the way I imagined.
Building Orin’s Sugarcamp has not been a rush job. At each step of the way I’ve stopped — for a day, a week, a month or two — to let a new element settle into place. I’m waiting now for one final piece. At the doorway of the sugarhouse, or where the entry would have been, I’m installing a slab of granite 10 feet long and 8 inches wide. It will be almost flat on the ground, but like a real threshold, you will have to step up onto it to enter. On the upward face of the stone will be a quotation that suggests how I feel about the site, the people connected to it and the work they did there.
It’s an unusual quotation that I came across at Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in Scotland, And while I don’t mean to be coy, I’m keeping the quotation to myself until the stone is safely in place.
Once the granite has been installed and all the tin leaves are hanging, I may decide to add something more — another section or two of the tin roof, perhaps. Or I may decide to take something away. I have to wait and see. But I’m certain that the site will work its magic, clearly pointing the way.