Early spring, the redwing blackbirds are back here with us, calling. Sap is flowing. Break the twig of a box elder tree growing along the lane. Next morning on the walk out to get the cows, check the twig and see the frozen drop of sap hanging, calling to you, “tap the trees”.
Out to the woods with drill and hammer. Thirty - five maple trees accept a fresh hole to share their sap with the grateful humans. Trees are generous and resilient, the hole from last year’s harvest nearly healed over. Spiles tapped into trees, pails hung on spiles, lids placed on pails and hearts expectant for this season’s offering. What will we get? How much sugar will we make? We will take whatever is offered. There is still sugar available from last year’s harvest.
Weather plays along with this dance. Choose a day with wind from the South to boil sap in the woods. She takes the smoke and steam away into the trees, opening the mouth of the fire. Our eyes and lungs stay clear while feeding the fire. Sap flowed well the day before and was collected into five gallon cans and buckets, waiting for the south wind and skies with no rain. Sap pan set across fire pit, resting on rocks black with the fires of past boils. Fire created and sap poured into pans, it begins. Many glorious hours in the woods. Nothing else I would rather be doing. Humbled and awed at the abundance offered. Humbled again at the skills used to receive the harvest. This is the life that has called to me from ancient places. I have come home.
As fire grows, consuming dry wood offered by this amazing place, sap accepts the heat and begins to dance in the pans, bubbles rolling and popping, foam sliding around to the rhythm of the flames. Add more sap and the dance slows to catch her breath, add more wood and the bubbling dance returns, refreshed and alive. Boil one hundred gallons of sap on this day. Each boil amount depends entirely on what the trees offer and on what the humans collect. Feel the affirming human experience of listening to the earth and allowing her to dictate the day’s activity. Walk to each maple tree that holds a pail and empty her gift into a bucket. Carry two buckets around in the woods, growing heavier with sap from each tree. Feet are bare and tender, first time to touch their mother after a long winter spent inside socks and boots. Walk slowly and savor each crunch of leaves and snap of twig. Again, I have returned home.
Clear sap boils down to darker and darker, sweeter and sweeter syrup. Sun moving across the sky, time to leave the woods and return to warm house where wood fire cook stove eagerly awaits her turn at boiling. One human on each end of awkward, hot pan, it slides over rocks onto log and tips with one side resting on the ground. Hot sap dipped out and into cans for transport across pastures and up the lane. Collected from the pond nearby, four buckets of water quiet the fire and put our hearts at ease as the woods continues in peace and beauty. Around fifteen gallons of syrup rides on the electric buggy and is carried into the house. In three pots and two crocks the sweet liquid will bubble and steam all evening, all night, and most of the next day. In the middle of the night I rise to add wood to the fire and sap to the emptying pots. The house is wet, water dripping down the windows and walls. Sweet smell of sugar feels so good.
Sometime in the evening one of the pots is close to sugar. Its been boiled and stirred lovingly all day. The hot goo rises up the sides of the pot and is stirred back down. It rises up again, bubbles popping and spitting, and is stirred back down. Up and down one thousand times it releases water into the air until finally it cries ENOUGH! Remove me from this heat and I will granulate. Stir this massive puddle of thick, dark goo and watch it change into tiny bits of the sweetest sand. Sugar. Where there used to be clear sap from trees in the woods. Now there is a huge bowl of sugar on our table. Aaahhhh the wonder and glory of it all…
( Its lovely how a place and a people can inspire across distance and time. )