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.

39 comments:

Di said...

Carol, thank you for re-posting this as it was most enjoyable to learn of Roger and the family history of maple sugaring.

I am so sorry to hear you have not been well, and only hope this finds you feeling better each day. Spring is here! and I'm looking forward to your beautiful photos and writing. Be well! Diana

Edith Hope said...

Dear Carol, It is such a privilege to read this posting and to share with you, and Roger, the intimacy of his maple wood, the collecting of the sap and the treating of it to produce the final product, the syrup.

As you will know, in Great Britain Maple Syrup is not used nearly as much as I believe to be the case in the USA and, until this moment, I had never considered where it came from. Oh, the ignorance, of which I feel deeply ashamed.

Like you, I am impressed with the tidiness and order with which Roger clearly surrounds himself and, thanks to your vivid commentary, I now have a clear idea of the whole process.

I assume that your farm and home are close by. The surroundings are idyllic and I am very happy for you to be there.

Noelle said...

That is absolutely fascinating. And to think that the birds are having a sweet treat as well. Your post is making me yearn for real maple syrup and pancakes to go along with it :^)

Kate said...

What a great post! So glad you shared this as I missed it first time around. :)

Trädgårdsmakare Hillevissan said...

Thank you for sharing, now I know what an enourmous effort goes into that bottle I buy at the local store.
Yes we have to have to import it here as well:-) We make syrup only from sugarbeets in this country.

Grace Peterson said...

Hi Carol~~ REAL maple syrup is so much tastier than the Aunt Jemima types. It costs three times as much which I can certainly understand with the time and labor involved in the process. I hope the real deal never goes away.

On my blog. I'm sorry some of the photos are cut off. With the full-screen version it is minimal but still happens. It was the tiny leafed tree that I lost. The photo only shows the bottom of the tree. Frankly I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did, given it's preference for warmer climates.

I hope you're on the mend. And I hope the sun is shining!

Thomas said...

Thank you for the photos Carol. Best wishes for a happy and healthy International Women's Day.

GardenJoy4Me said...

Carol girl ! I hope you are feeling better ? .. on the mend takes a little more time than it used to eh ? ;-)
Maple sugar time is something you never forget .. maple butter, maple sugar candies, fudge .. well I guess it shows that I am a real maple fanatic .. I think most of us northerners are ? LOL
Great post .. a lot of people don't know how this is done so Roger is a wonderful example of some one who truly loves this : )
PS .. now I am craving it like mad ! LOL

joey said...

Thank you for sharing this lovely post, Carol. Warmer temps have set maple sap flowing here in Michigan also. Aren't we lucky ... I love it! Do hope you are feeling better :)

Catherine@AGardenerinProgress said...

This was fascinating! I'm so glad you did re post it. I love that he has carried on the tradition. I wish I could smell that syrup boiling!

Tammie Lee said...

Carol,
This is wonderful to see. I am glad you posted this again. I love maple syrup and it is amazing to consider the process of making it! I am sorry to hear that you have not been feeling well. I send you healing vibes, wishing that your vitality returns now.

Gail said...

Hugs to you Carol and wishes for a speedy return to your vivacious self! Did you ever read Virginia Sorenson's
Miracles on Maple Hill~~Newberry Winner in 1957? It was were I first heard of maple sugaring. What a wonderful story it was. Roger's story is a good one, too and I love seeing the equipment and comparing it to my childhood imagination. Gail

Deborah at Kilbourne Grove said...

Carol, every year when I was a kid, we would have a class trip to the sugar bush. WE would help the farmer empty the sap buckets, and just generally get in the way. The best part was when the farmer pored a bit of steaming hot syrup in a (clean) snow bank. THat maple taffy was the best.

Meredith said...

I'm glad you reposted this, Carol, although of course I am sorry to hear that the reason is you're not feeling up to par yet. :( What a fascinating tradition this is! I'd visited orchards of sugar maples in Quebec (we even ate a candy made by drizzling the sap on fresh snow), but I'd never gotten anything close to that kind of detail on the process and the traditional method. Makes me appreciate my relatively expensive bottle of real New England syrup more. Thanks for sharing. :)

Mia said...

Vilken interessant berättelse. Jag satt fångad framför skärmen och läste. Tyvärr har jag aldrig smakat den sirapen. Tror jag ska köpa en flaska :)

jeansgarden said...

Carol, What a charming portrait; I'm so glad you reposted it. It's maple sugar season here, too. As I walk around the neighborhood, I can see many of those old-fashioned metal buckets hung on maple trees, as well as some more modern plastic systems with tubing running from one tree to the next. Every day in the winter, I put one tablespoon of pure local maple syrup on my hot breakfast cereal. Yum! -Jean

Dave@TheHomeGarden said...

Very neat! This is the second post on the sugaring precess I've read lately and I'm still fascinated by it. The ingenuity that goes into the process is amazing. The only better is the taste of real maple syrup!

Randy Emmitt said...

Carol,
Enjoyed this post! I can smell the air in the sugar house it must be heaven. I made a qt of maple syrup when I was young it was a lot of work.

sweet bay said...

It is an amazingly labor intensive process and yet so worthwhile. It is fascinating to see how the syrup is havested and processed. I was impressed by all of those cords of wood! Wonderful post. I wish I could be in that room and taste that warm syrup just after it was boiled down.

easygardener said...

That was a fascinating post and I love the idea of a musical sugar orchard. I shall look at my bottle of Maple Syrup in a whole new light from now on!

Melanie said...

Carol, I 've enjoyed reading your post pure Maple syrup is one of my absolute favourite foods.

Kiki said...

Hi Carol...What a beautiful post..such a lovely account of all that wonderful,effort and nature's liquid- treaure from the tree spirits! How beautiful! I loooove maple syrup! Aw..I can just picture the chickadee and bluebirds high on this sweet treat! Wonderful post!Great photos..fabulous!!

Hope you feel shiny and sparkly and full of new life ad all it's magic..real soon! Blessings
Kiki~

Phillip said...

What a great post!

Zuzu said...

Sights, sounds, and smells I've never experienced - but, oh, you share them so beautifully!

mothernaturesgarden said...

Umm! After reading your blog, I want pancakes. :)

leavesnbloom said...

I found this fascinating Carol. I sometimes drizzle maple syrup on my pancakes or on a piece of toast but I never realised the work there was in obtaining the sugary substance or how it was even done.

Gail said...

Carol, I thought I left a comment! I remember writing about one of my favorite Newberry Award Winning children's books~ Miracles on Maple Hill where I learned about maple sugaring. I loved it and hearing Roger's story and seeing the photos helps memory and reality come together. gail

Lillebeth said...

Fascinating and thank you for telling us all that. Hope you´ll soon feel totally recovered, dearest Carol. And soon we will have spring for real. Kram!

Liisa said...

Carol,
It is so wonderful seeing the sugarhouses alive once again with activity. The past couple years I have missed open house, and hope this year to enjoy the event. I was listening to NPR last night, and heard that the sweet treat Sugar on Snow has been around since the 1600's. The syrup is cooled to a taffy-like consistency on top of the icy snow. It sounds wonderful. I have not yet had the pleasure of indulging in this tradition. They went on to say that many cleanse the palate with pickles in between tastings. I'm not sure that pickles and maple syrup sound like the best combination... :)

Brian said...

Carol, Thank you for the repost. It brings back very pleasant memories. I wish you a complete recovery.

Joseph said...

This is amazing! I can almost smell the sweetness in the air! I really had no idea how this was done. It's funny that you said they would go gather the syrup after all of the chores were complete. My child would probably consider this just another chore! Ah, but what a sweet reward, huh? I bet "in the old days" it was a real treat - unlike today when there are a kazillion different candies out there and kids eat too much of it as is.

Seeing this process, it makes more sense why pure, organic maple syrup is so expensive.

Man, I'm in the mood for pancakes now. :)

Joseph said...

can I "pick" this five times?! darn, i can't!

Les said...

What a decent and honest profession. Thanks for shedding a littl light on the process.

Jean said...

Carol, that is so beautiful. I feel as if I were there. I've never experienced the sugaring experience before although I've seen it on television. You are lucky to live near such an extraordinary man and process in this day and age.

Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

What a great article! So interesting! I am not familiar with maple sugaring, but I used to see birch juicing (or what is the right term?) in Russia long ago.

Anja said...

Hi Carol!
I just love this kind of posts - interesting and instructive with incredibly fine images!
Yes! It is spring in the air!/Kram, Anja

Joanne said...

Carol I am so glad you posted this again what a really interesting post, thank you for sharing it with us.

Andrea said...

I am glad you're feeling better now. That is a post which deserves to be in a glossy farm magazine, maybe you should submit it to some of those. It will also be like a tribute to Roger, his family and the legacy of the traditional process. I am glad it is now considered a live museum, maybe the state is helping Roger now.

Actually i did not know that maple syrup actually came from the trunk, just like how the rubber trees produce their lates. Do you know what is the volume of sap produced per daly per tree? How is the drill done, is it thru the xylem vessels or the wood? I asked that because rubber is tapped via the phloem, so bark only. ..thank you for this great informative post.

ryan said...

This is great, well worth reposting. I'm a huge maple syrup fan, but I've never been into maple country or seen the process. It's fascinating to me to see the trees with a bucket on each trunk.

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