The end of February and beginning of March signal the annual arrival of two important institutions in Vermont – the start of sugaring season and Town Meeting Day.

Everybody who’s ever eaten a pancake knows something about maple syrup, even if you’ve decided – for reason(s) unfathomable to those who get enough of it on pancakes, waffles or anything else you might pour that sweet stuff over – that maple syrup isn’t your thing. Earlier than usual, this year, we’re seeing sugar houses gathering and boiling sap, smoke billowing from the chimneys, summoning visions of delights to come. Vermont’s maple syrup industry is a big deal in these parts. Vermont is the number one producer of it in the U.S. Quebec, sadly, claims the title of largest producer, but they also have a few more square miles to work with than we do.

We may go into maple syrup in more depth next time, including noting that among the new inventory arrivals of Old World Christmas- – ornament glass ornaments was one of a sap bucket.

Today, we note the coming of one of Vermont’s sacred political institutions — town meeting. Every community in Vermont has this on the first Tuesday in March. Well, that’s when some, usually smaller, rural communities have the traditional version, which usually starts around 10 a.m., stretches through lunch, and continues into the afternoon, with elections for town officials, town budgets and collective decisions on other local issues decided after discussion and debate. Other communities opt to hold a “floor” meeting the Monday night before, for discussion and some voting, followed by paper ballot – called “Australian” ballot voting on Tuesday. Why is it called Australian balloting? Apparently voters on the island of Tasmania in the 1850s were among the vote to regularly use secret ballots. Voting before then, even in the U.S., where we probably think we blazed the way on this sort of thing, was a more public affair. A few others juggle it up in other ways.

Some years town meetings get hotter than others, and you never know until you’re there. The institution has come under criticism in recent years because attendance at these meetings often represents a small fraction of the community population and the issue becomes how representative is this? That’s what led the widespread practice of separate voting, to give more working folks the flexibility to at least vote, because not everyone – not even most people – have 4-5 hours of free time to give to this, important as it may be. Town meeting is where the ordinary citizen has a chance to make their voice heard, act as a legislator, and have an influence. It’s the closest thing we have going to genuine grassroots democracy. At a time when political polarization and intolerance for differing points of view seem more pronounced than before, town meeting is more important than ever. The entire country, it sometimes seems today, could use a collective town meeting. There’s something about open discourse face-to-face that makes it possible to at least understand, if not necessarily agree with, someone else’s differing opinion.

Hopefully many will turn out next week for their local town meetings, which  for those of you who have never seen one, is almost worth the time (even though you can’t vote). Another excellent reason to travel to Vermont.