Monday, March 8, 2010

A Perennial Spring Ritual Maple Sugaring... A Story of a Gentle Steward

For a few weeks now the Maple trees have been awake and the sap has been flowing. I have noticed birds along the limbs of my large trees where broken branches leave openings for sap to run out of. Blue birds and Chickadees are enjoying a sweet treat. Those that harvest the sap for maple syrup have been busy in their sugar bush and sugar houses. Last year I did a detailed post on this delicious subject and I hope you will forgive me for posting it again here, as most of you would not have seen it. I do not know how I might improve on it and since I am still on recovery mode ... I am glad to be able to copy it for you to see. Last year at this time I was only a month old as a blogger and did not even know how to post properly. I hope you enjoy this account of one man's sugaring experience since a child. 

There are numerous announcements of spring... sprouting green shoots, tiny drips of snowdrops, clocks set ahead into warmer longer days and returning woodcocks to open fields, and fields of dried up old stalks of hay. There is another stirring within the trees... especially ones I hold dear for they are so near to my old house and wherein live a hive of wild honeybees. I speak of the rock maple also known as sugar maple, and as I walk up a close by neighboring hillside, passing neatly cut and stacked wood and buckets hanging from many rock maples, my eyes follow the sugar steam trailing from the cupola of a country gentleman's sugarhouse.

Spring is nearly here and maple sugaring season is upon us.

Roger is the 'gentle'man's name and as a child he would tag along with his father, while he used a bit brace to drill holes into rock maples about hip height up the tree, and then place a tap into the drilled hole, hang a bucket and move on to the next tree. In the old days after chores were finished his father and uncles would hook up sleighs to their horses and load storage tanks onto them then drive the horses into the sugar orchards. They would walk up to the farthermost trees wearing a hand carved, basswood sap yoke fitted over their shoulders, with ropes and hooks that held gathering pails. Emptying buckets into pails and then carrying them to the storage tanks was very labor intensive. After all the buckets had been emptied, they would ride back down to the sugarhouse and boil the sap in an old iron kettle hanging from a beam that Roger and his siblings helped push back and forth over the fire via the holding chains. They would do the final refined boil in the house and then bottle the syrup. In those days there could be two runs, the second being gathered in the afternoon. Nowadays, gathering the sap is mostly done only once around tea time and the boiling continues into the early evening.

Roger's wife Anne did help him out in the past, but today Roger sugars alone and with the help of modern tubing he is able to harvest from about 400 taps and 36 buckets. One hardly notices the plastic lines in Roger's sugar orchard nearest the sugarhouse, for there is just one very long solid tube visible out back that runs very neatly deep into his sugar wood from a small storage tank room. The tubing run from the sugar orchard to the storage tanks and into the evaporator. Everything is clean, orderly and aesthetically pleasing. All around his sugarhouse buckets hang from spigots... a joy to see the old fashion authentic way of gathering sap. The dripping sap from each tree creates a different tone and tempo when falling into the individual buckets, creating a musical sugar orchard for anyone who cares to bend over and listen... that is if one happens to be visiting soon after the buckets have been emptied.

In his tidy sugarhouse that has been expanded slightly since his father's and uncle's days, Roger is busy keeping the fire stoked and just at the right temperature to bring the sap to a boil. It takes a great amount of wood to get through the boiling season and Roger has plenty perfectly stacked around to get the job done.

Sugarhouses dot the New England country landscape but I think my friend Roger's is a particularly charming and instructive one. It is not a place to join others... to stand in line for a yummy pancake breakfast... it is very cozy and only meant for the art of creating maple syrup. If visiting at the right time one might be offered a tiny cup of fresh hot syrup and a look about the small sugarhouse and sugar woods that surround it. Roger's sugarhouse is a bit of a museum showing a collection of relics from years past that in part tell the history of sugaring, an art he has taken part in most of his life.

The small main room feels like a warm steam bath and lusciously sweet to inhale. The boiling bubbles make their own music and nearly spill over the edge of the large evaporator Roger uses for boiling. Just when the bubbles are about to burst over Roger tosses a drop of cream into the foam and it instantly recedes into submission. The bubble beast is tamed by a tiny bit of fat within the drop of cream. Each time it is quite startling to witness how rapidly the change takes place simply from a dash ... a dot of cream.

Roger controls the movement of the sap through the different compartments of the evaporator, allowing it to flow in from the storage tanks and moving it through a refining process. In the last evaporator compartment he holds up a flat metal ladle to see how thick the syrup is. If the syrup forms little beads on the edge of the ladle and hangs down like a sheet, it is ready to be released into a stainless steel pail and immediately poured into the final syrup filtering tank. Roger pulls a lever and it flows out into containers that will end up in our refrigerators. This is the time when the tiny cup of hot syrup is offered to a guest with seconds encouraged. The warm rich sweet drink is like a tonic... delicious. The earlier runs offer a lighter amber color and flavor, where as later on in the season, the color is more dark amber and richer in flavor.

The sugar season will last as long as the days warm to about 45 to 50 degrees and chill at night to around 20 degrees. We can enjoy the sweet syrup for months to follow.

As I leave Roger to his labor of love, for it truly is a great deal of work, I chance to see him thru a window gently moving the ladle through his sap. I feel grateful for knowing this kind native New Englander and for the honor of being able to saunter through his handsomely maintained sugar orchard. I walk down the hillside stopping at several elegant trees to hear the sap tunes and notice a gurgling brook and a blue bird's soft call. We are kindred spirits Roger and I in our shared sense of reverence towards the land... towards nature.

Spring's call to the rock maples to - 'let it flow' - is a welcome seasonal ritual and the beginning of fresh new stirrings in songs and growth.

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