“A sap-run is the sweet good-by of winter, the fruit of an equal marriage of sun and
frost,” declared the writer/naturalist John Burroughs. I think back several decades to my introduction to this home place and to my first taste of maple syrup production… The sun was shining higher, well above the southern ridge. The wild geese flew in noisy, undulating arrows on their northward route. I was helping a neighbor hang buckets from iron spiles tapped into sugar maple trees. All along the roadway and from the depths of a modest sugar bush, it was time for sap collection and for boiling of the sweetened liquid into syrup.
I wrote a long poem from that period of introduction to the hills. “Rootwork” started out with these few lines: By frost, by night, the water enters wood./ In brilliant morning Equinox, the sun pulls/ Maple water skyward from the roots,/ A sweetness of the hills released through fifty/ Taps to boil for syrup. Simple tools/ Preserve tradition and uphold the place:/ Barrel-stove, evaporating pan,/ A sap-flow fixed by spigot, hanging tank,/ The rootwork: drawing water, maple spirit,/ Primitive soul regained through boiling day and/ Night, by breathing clouds of maple steam….
I believe it was the Iroquois who originated this annual practice that in New York State typically begins in March when daytime temperatures begin to fluctuate above the freezing point. Iroquois celebrations included a Maple Dance performed at the tapping of trees to welcome the return of spring with hopes of warmer weather and benevolence. The white pioneers and later settlers would refine the first sugaring techniques, but modern methods still rely on sugar maple trees and human care.
As cold nights and warming days begin a see-saw flow of sap inside the trees, the taps produce a liquid that is only two to three percent sugar. For the folks who tend the trees, however, that small percentage is fluid gold.
The methods of production have changed dramatically since those days when I first tended the sap. Compared to modern syrup production, my experience of tapping the wood and hanging metal buckets, followed by the boiling of sap above a barrel or a stove, seems pretty quaint. Nonetheless, the essence of this work remains the same. Production gets you to the heart of spring’s arrival.
One year I helped an older fellow whose name was Ken. As he worked his 182 maple taps, I helped him truck the sap from bush to the evaporator house. Ken’s small converted granary was as comfortable as a farm kitchen. One cool gray afternoon I helped Ken’s assistant stack up firewood. We’d already gathered about a hundred gallons of sap that day. After stacking, and during the final stages of the boiling process, Ken was using the hydrometer when he suddenly paused. He directed our attention to a picture he had tacked up on a wall. “What’s wrong with that picture?” he asked.
We inspected a romantic woodland scene that advertised a brand of maple-flavored cereal. After a minute or so, we saw it. Beside the image of a steaming sugar house were buckets hung from trees, but the trees looked like an orchard. Sure as hell, those trees were destined to sport white apple blossoms in a month or two.
At a farm near Whitesville, I came closer to the truth of this traditional labor. A thick, wet snow lay across the fields and hillsides of the Meunier farm. The sugar house environs made me think I was in rural Vermont or some other New England locale.
This farm had been producing maple syrup for at least a century. The Meuniers had 1200 taps spread out through several large groves. The family needed lots of help this late winter season, and assistance came from the sons and daughters, and from friends and neighbors.
The formidable team in charge of collecting and transporting the sap was lead by Ralph and Dolly, a pair of sturdy Belgian horses. Everyone worked together to keep the three by 12-foot evaporator fed and steaming as the sap boiled down to syrup.
The day I was there, 1600 gallons of sap had been collected from buckets and drawn to the evaporator in the time-honored fashion. As always, the process had involved long hours and intensive labor. Like most operators of the day, the Meuniers were leaning more and more toward installing a network of plastic tubes for sap collection. In retrospect, the maple sugar industry had once used lethal tapping tools and cauldrons hung from poles. Now it was using, or was about to use, new power tools, evaporators, tubing, and precision testing instruments. Each new generation has its tools for efficient production. Every now and then there’s a guy like me who comes in for the poetry of it, and the taste of maple syrup.
Whether we’re involved with a large syrup-producing business or simply dreaming of the pioneer past by setting up a fire barrel with a sap pan, we anticipate the change of season. Winter has been good for us, perhaps, but sitting down with fresh maple syrup and a stack of pancakes in the middle of March, we know it’s time to say farewell.