Wednesday, December 11, 2013
You take your breaks from the blizzards wherever you can find them, especially in clear sap running from a sugar maple.
Last week, when the snow stopped long enough to allow, off and on, about 36 hours of sunshine, my neighbor and a buddy of his hauled out 5-gallon plastic buckets, tubing and taps for their annual maple syrup operations, and got down to business. Installing taps was set to take place around lunchtime, so my neighbor called that morning to see if I could slip away to learn the tricks of this particularly sweet, low-cost, light-labor trade.
I'm always up for an activity that gets me into fresh air with good company, so I tagged along for the outing. These guys, who spend most of the year as painting contractors, run a sort of goodwill operation, tiny by comparison to commercial ventures. But the 5 gallons they get and give away each year goes a long way toward winning favor from clients whose homes or halls they've painted, and there's always enough left for them, their families and friends, so they've made a tradition out of maple sugaring each winter toward the end of February.
We stayed close to home, within a 15-minute drive of our edge of town. Our trio convened at the property on which the equipment was stored and a few old, old giant maple trees were waiting to be tapped. Weather conditions were perfect: relative warmth following a few good days of cold.
The tapping we did was my favorite kind of homemade-production operation -- low-key, fun and geared to the intelligence attained by an 8-year-old -- just about my speed.
At one point, my neighbor and I were talking "xylem" and "phloem," but only in that offhand manner that acknowledges that it's been a lot of years since college and any memory of even rudimentary botany.
I believe he was trying to explain what actually happens inside the tree -- how maple trees in the fall stop growing and begin storing excess starches throughout their sapwood. It remains there as long as the temperature holds below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature at which the starch turns into sugar, largely sucrose, and then passes into sap.
At about 45 degrees, sugar is no longer produced, and in March and April generally, the sugar changes back into starch. So there is this relatively brief window of opportunity -- warm enough to get the clear-as-water sap flowing and cool enough for sugary sap production -- for getting buckets and tubing, taps and temperments ready for the whole experience.
I noticed it takes a lot of standing around for an onlooker to participate, though the guys did let me drill a couple of holes (not too deep, on a slight upward angle); and I toted some of the empty buckets from one place on the snow-covered lawn to another (though I am unclear about whether that had any effect on the process). We had some lackadaisical conversations about whether the buckets were sterile enough for sugaring, but it was all in jest -- we knew some of that mud just had to be cleaned out.
I was happy all the while, the smell of clean fresh air all around, plans for the future hanging in buckets if not on air (we still had to boil down whatever sap we got), moving around outdoors during midwinter in serviceable, worn flannel old clothes and approximate schedules. These are some of the best parts of living in the woods, even with the vagaries of weather and seasonal finances looming like storm fronts on the near horizon.
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