Sitting by the fire, sap simmering in a stainless steel pan, sparks fly bright and hot, drifting high into the black sky before fading. I am alone, but connected to the perhaps thousands of fellow Mainers tending their syrup with me tonight.
Freeze, thaw, hot, cold, this is the season of contrast. Cold nights and warm days cause the sap to run. Red hot bonfires glow in the arctic air. In backyards across the state homemade sugar shacks and boilers are fired up turning clear watery liquid to amber sweetness. It is a family thing, and watching young faces as the first drips come out of the freshly drilled hole are a change in contrast, too. There is anticipation, big eyes and awe at what the tree is offering, and then, in spite of warnings, surprise and scrunched noses when they realize it isn’t sweet.
I am part of a network, connected by fires, wood-smokey clothing, and contentment. Tending the sap is one of the most grounding things I know. My artist friend Kristy is sharing beer with her buddies while watching the steam swirl. My neighbors have recycled water bottles attached to trees in the bog across the street, the luminescent plastic jugs glowing palely against the dark wet bark. They tap every year, too. Another friend writes lyrical FaceBook posts about gathering sap as her dogs pursue the scent of Spring. We are all connected by this rite, which those who have not done just do not understand.
I was explaining the process to a client, he asked questions like, “It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, right?” Yes. “You have to haul all the buckets to your fire?” Yes. “You spend hours at the fire reducing all that sap?” Yes. “And then you have to bottle it?” Yes. “What does it cost to buy?” About $50.00 a gallon.
This is a good year, and we will have about four gallons of syrup. Do the numbers and we are making $5.00 an hour. I prefer to think we are saving. No movie tickets, therapists, travel, or gas. Anyone in their right mind would pay us for this experience.
But, it remains a backyard hobby. In Canada the porter at our hotel told us he used to tap trees, too, when his girls were young. “They thought it was magic,” he says. They watched his every move, and helped with collecting, cooking, filtering, bottling, amazed that he knew how to make maple syrup, the real thing. He laughs, “They are twelve and fourteen, now. Nothing I do impresses them anymore.”
I am connected to the past, too. Memories of daughter Kymry drilling holes, who liked learning to use the power drill as much as making syrup. And grandson Duncan, charged with keeping the fire going—what a bed of glowing coals we had that year!
This year the syrup is for Kymry, a grown-up now, and getting married this spring. She and her fiancé love maple syrup, and it is going to be a wedding favor.
And so I tend the fire, and watch the sparks, and feel connected. Sap flows every spring, but this year my girl is getting married, and the sap carries a little extra sweetness.