Ways of seeing: Sugaring becomes a family affair
With a bit of optimism on a late winter day, you put on your boots and outdoor gear, thrust a couple of tools in your pockets, grab a stack of buckets and lids, and head into the woods. It’s about to be sugaring season.
We began sugaring shortly after moving to Ripton. I don’t remember how we acquired our first set of slightly dented, sometimes leaky buckets or the less-than-perfect taps, but I know why we got them. We were aiming for as much self-sufficiency as we could manage, and here was the wonder: You could drill a small hole in a maple tree (make sure and know which ones are maples!), use your hammer to insert the tap, hang on your bucket, attach the lid, and you were in business! Of course, it was somewhat more complicated than that. We had to collect the sap from those buckets into bigger buckets. We had to carry them home. And, tasty as that clear, cold, slightly sweet sap was, just out of the tree, it needed to be processed.
Our first effort involved a ring of rocks, a washtub, and a fire. It did work, but very inefficiently. It was hard to maintain a fire adequate to the task of boiling all that sap. It takes roughly 30 gallons of sap to cook down to one gallon of syrup, so that’s a lot of boiling.
Undeterred, we got someone to turn an old boiler from a heating system into a sort of stove, and purchased a pan that a colleague’s father had made in the 1950’s. We acquired a few more buckets and even used milk jugs to expand our operation. Every day, if the sap ran, we would head out after work and start to gather. Many of the trees were our neighbors’, up and down the road, and we would share the results with them.
Over the years, we were out there with a toddler slung on one hip while hoisting a bucket on the other side. In time, the toddlers grew big enough to help. Sometimes friends and neighbors would pitch in too. Eventually we got a “real” arch and pan and new buckets, etc., putting out a bit over 100 taps, but we never moved to tubing or anything remotely high tech.
During those days and nights as the season changed from winter into spring, I developed an outlook about a special aspect of sugaring. Other people would complain about the season. “Mud season,” they would groan. Not us.
If the days were warm and the nights were cold, the sap would run and that was good. If temperatures dropped down into the deepfreeze, we got some days off, and that was good. If the days and nights were too warm for a good run, we got more days off, and that was good. And finally, when the trees began to bud and the sap was no longer full of sweetness, it was truly spring, time to put everything away, and that was good. We never had a mud season because we were too busy having a sugaring season.
I wonder if there are other opportunities — maybe ones I’ve missed — for turning mud into sugar? This column is called “Ways of Seeing,” and so much, really, is a matter of perspective. This year we decided not to tap any trees. It was a combination of aches and pains and the depth of the snow at the time we should have been tapping. I don’t know if we’ll return to it next year or not. I do know that I will always regard the weather, as it does the delicate and messy dance between snow banks and daffodils, and consider how the sap’s running.
There was a time when people immigrating to the U.S. were told the streets were paved with gold. Perhaps Vermont should advertise as the place where the trees run with the sweetest golden syrup. You can spend vast sums of money and make it a commercial venture, or you can tap a few trees in your yard and cook it on your stove. But there it is, running through the tree like a bit of a miracle: Let some out, boil it up, and you are ready to go. It’s a gift from the trees and the lengthening days, a treasure you can garner if you are willing to put in the labor.
I cooked waffles today. Each little square received its sweet drop or two. I am not someone who actually eats a lot of the maple syrup. We have always given away much more than we have used ourselves, and that’s another bonus you get for making the stuff. It is oh-so-sweet to share.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and longtime Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental and just.
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