February 2010 Issue
The rewards of making maple syrup are much greater than the final product.
Emily Gladden samples the sap that her father collects.
In the beech and maple woods of my grandfather’s Knox County farm, there’s a hidden place I visited often as a boy — and where I return in my memories this time every year.
It’s the sugarhouse, set into a sheltering hillside by its wise 19th-century builders. The board-and-batten siding had weathered to a hard, silvery gray. Its characteristic steam vent stood atop the sharply pitched standing-seam tin roof like a lookout. The sugarhouse was lonely, beautiful — and mysterious to me in all the right ways.
Grandpa and Grandma came to the farm in 1957. Although they never made maple syrup, Grandpa kept the building in good repair. The sugarhouse was part of the farm, and we shared the same reverence for its landscape and history.
Yet, the sugarhouse seemed to belong in the company of the trees and animals of the woods more than it belonged with the house and barns and fields. Inside, it was dark and cool, even on the hottest summer day, and smelled of earth and dry wood. It made a fine front porch for groundhogs, which dug their burrows in its dirt floor.
An ancient horse-drawn mud sled for gathering sap leaned against the back wall. Dusty stacks of wooden buckets, which had not seen the light of day for decades, stood ready to soak in the nearby creek, swell watertight and hang on maple trees.
In one corner, each season’s maple syrup production from the late 1800s into the early 20th century was faithfully recorded in pencil on the wall. It always made me a little breathless to read that old handwriting and unfold its story, like the brittle pages of a letter from the past.
I could imagine the sugarhouse as it was a century ago — the center of farm life at winter’s end, filled with activity and sweet tastes and smells, as men, women and children labored together to bring in the first harvest of the new year.
Things catch our fancy, the way burrs catch our coat sleeves. For me, Grandpa’s sugarhouse was a special place that inspired my lifelong interest in maple sugaring. As a kid, I made my own spiles (the tubes that are tapped into the trees) from scrap metal tubes, used coffee cans for buckets, and boiled sap in saucepans on my mom’s kitchen stove. Sometimes my efforts yielded little more than a thimble of syrup, but to me it was like 100 gallons. I savored every drop.
Sometime this month, when the weather feels right, I’ll return to the woods for the beginning of a new maple season. The tools I use now may be fancier, but I feel the same excitement that comes with hearing that first drop of sap go “plink” in the bottom of an empty bucket.
It takes above-freezing days and below-freezing nights to coax the sap to run. The early spring sunshine that feels warm on the backs of our necks also feels good to the tips of the trees. The twigs send a message down to the roots: “Wake up! It’s spring! Time to grow! Send up the sap!”
The roots oblige. Stored maple sap — sugar water produced last summer to feed the new year’s growth — flows up the tree.
When the sun begins to set and temperatures fall back toward freezing, the branches say: “Uh-oh! It’s not quite time! We’re sending the sap back down!” And it returns to the roots.
It’s this period of seesawing temperatures between late winter and early spring that marks sugaring season. Our corner of North America is the only place in the world with the right combination of maple trees and freezing-thawing weather to make maple syrup.
The sugar maker drills a small hole in the tree, just past the outer bark, and gently taps in a spile. The sap drips from the spile and is collected in a bucket or a network of tubes that wind through the woods to the sugarhouse, where it’s boiled down into syrup.
Sap is about 98 percent water and 2 percent sugar. The water is evaporated off in great white clouds of steam until the sap is 66 percent sugar. Then it can be poured into bottles and called maple syrup.
A big, healthy tree won’t even miss a few gallons of sap. In a few months, the tap hole heals over, leaving only a small scar, like the mark on our skin after donating blood. Maple season lasts three or four weeks, ending when temperatures stay above freezing and the trees begin to bud.
It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup, depending on the trees and the conditions. Like people, some trees are sweeter than others. Maple sugaring is a $5 million per year industry in the Buckeye State, which ranks fifth in U.S. production. In 2009, Ohioans made 90,000 gallons of syrup.
I like maple sugaring because it’s a ritual that connects me to the changing seasons and to the Native Americans and pioneer families who lived in this land before me.
In the span of only a few decades, modern conveniences have caused us to lose touch with many of the seasonal rituals our ancestors practiced for centuries: pouring candles, making soap, planting seeds, stirring apple butter.
While many of today’s rituals — such as Super Bowl parties and back-to-school shopping — involve consuming things, the rituals of the past were about making things using skill, muscle and the gifts of the land.
Our family makes about 5 gallons of syrup per year — enough to supply us and to share with friends. Even on a small scale, it’s a labor-intensive business. The two 5-gallon pails I carry through the woods collecting sap from the buckets on the trees weigh 50 pounds each when full. After making a few trips through the woods, over creeks and up and down ravines, I feel it in my arms and legs.
And that’s only the beginning of the real work, which is boiling and boiling and more boiling, often through the night.
Yet, there is something reviving about it all. When I work up a thirst in the woods, I take a long drink of maple sap — pure and clear and slightly sweet, like the finest bottled water.
Later, when the evaporator is going, the boiling sap sends up a thick, fragrant white steam. I dip some of the hot sap out in a mug and add a tea bag. It makes the best cup of tea there is.
While I drink the maple tea, I stand close to the evaporator, where a wood fire is roaring. The heat soaks into my tired bones. I hold my head over the cloud of steam and breathe it all in — the sweetness, the sunshine, last summer’s rains, the ritual of sugarmaking going back centuries, the feeling of life beginning again — and it fills me with warmth.
The fresh maple syrup I’ll eat on my pancakes the next day will be the icing on the cake.
John Gladden is a writer based in Seville. His column collection,
How to Elevate a Cow, is available at woosterbook.com.