There is something inexpressibly sad in the thought of the children who crossed the ocean with the Pilgrims and the fathers of Jamestown, New Amsterdam, and Boston, and the infancy of those born in the first years of colonial life in this strange new world. It was hard for grown folk to live; conditions and surroundings offered even to strong men constant and many obstacles to the continuance of existence; how difficult was it then to rear children!
A few years back I read Alice Morse Earle’s Child Life in Colonial Days as research for a project currently on the back burner. Here’s my favorite passage, which I kept forgetting to post at the appropriate time of year (until now!):
The first thought of spring brought to the men of the New England household a hard work—maple-sugar making—which meant vast labor in preparation and in execution—all of which was cheerfully hailed, for it gave men and boys a chance to be as Charles Kingsley said, “a savage for a while.” It meant several nights spent in the sugar-camp in the woods, a-gypsying. Think of the delight of that scene: the air clear but mild enough to make the sap run; patches of snow still shining pure in the moonlight and starlight; all the mystery of the voices of the night, when a startled rabbit or squirrel made a crackling sound in its stealthy retreat; the distant hoot of a wakeful owl; the snapping of pendent icicles and crackling of blazing brush, yet over all a great stillness, “all silence and all glisten.” An exaltation of the spirit and senses came to the country boy which was transformed at midnight into keen thrills of imaginative fright at recollection of the stories told by his elders with rude acting and vivid wording during the early evening round the fire; of hunting and trapping, of Indians and bears, and those delights of country story-tellers in New England, catamounts, wolverines, and cats—this latter ever meaning in hunter’s phrasing wild-cats. Think of “a wolverine with eyes like blazing coals, and every hair whistling like a bell,” as he sprung with outspread claws from a high tree on the passing hunter—do you think the boy sat by the fire throughout the night without looking a score of times for the blazing eyeballs, and listening for the whistling fur, and hearing steps like that of the lion in Pilgrim’s Progress, “a great soft padding paw.”
What forest lore the boys learned, too: that more and sweeter sap came from a maple which stood alone than from any in a grove; that the shallow gouge flowed more freely, but the deep gouge was richest in sweet; and that many other forest trees besides the maple ran a sweet sap.