Life in Community

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Life in Community

Encounters: Maple Sugaring Season in New York

February 19, 2019 by

With the first touch of a strengthening January sun, an excitement stirred in us kids as surely and irresistibly as the sap rising in the sugar maple trees. The two were inseparably one; sugaring season was upon us once again! As the annual ritual unfolded, we stashed away our school books and for a couple hours each day traded four walls for the open classroom of the sugar bush.

kid tapping a sugar maple tree

Those who live outside sugar maple country (a dozen states in the northeast quadrant of the US and southern Ontario and Quebec) are to be pitied, for sugaring time ticks all the boxes: it’s fun but good hard work, too; it fosters teamwork and camaraderie; and it combines the disciplines of meteorology, biochemistry, biology, and physics into a single educational experience second to none. Best of all, the resulting maple syrup has a flavour all its own to be savoured for long months afterwards. That’s why we kids waited all year for the angle of the sun to initiate the cycle; instinctively, we knew The Time had come again.

Growing up on a dairy farm in the small hamlet of Wesley in upstate New York, Mom knew this too. And so did those who first lived in sugar maple country. Mom loved to tell about spending a week with a Seneca girl who lived on a nearby reservation. Just imagine that hundreds of years before the two girls met, the Native American ancestors of the one conveyed the knowledge of sugaring to the forebears of the other!

Imaginings of this kind were woven deeply into the tapestry of Mom’s childhood home. The place is an hour south of Buffalo and Mom was miffed her whole life when folks would refer to Westchester or Rockland Counties as “upstate.” As if the Canadian border was an hour north of New York City – the very idea!

Mom could tell stories of life “back then” just like Laura Ingalls Wilder or Wendell Berry. About the white-steepled Methodist church that formed the centre of Wesley’s spiritual and social life, and next to that “a long shed for the horses to be hitched to during the service, and a one-story building where the Friday Night Class met.”

This was when young folk from quite far around gathered each week for a short worship service followed by games led by my father and mother. We children had fun playing in the backroom and fell asleep to the aroma of boiling coffee. For years the smell of coffee reminded me of those times.
During the severe winter months, the Friday Night Class met once a month in homes. I have a clear memory of Dad gathering up neighbors along the way in his big bobsled, with the horses, Nip and Tuck. There was straw to curl up in and buffalo robes to cover us. The crisp cold, the smell of the horses, my jolly father and mother, the bells jingling – all very exciting for a small child…. The smell of the buffalo robes was one that was identified with the horse transportation of my early childhood; later, buffalo robes were much too bulky to use in an automobile.
Old Leonard Tarbell, the blacksmith, used to say (referring to my father’s barbering) that in Wesley, “We had a barber shop combined with a butcher shop!” I remember how he would tell my father stories about the old times as Dad cut his hair. I loved to listen. His head was always incredibly dirty, but Dad loved to hear him talk, and respected him very much for his craftsmanship and his compassion for little creatures.
Often whole families would come to get their hair cut at our house of an evening, and we children would have a lot of fun together. The grownups would talk or play 42 after the haircutting (twenty-five cents a head); we would have popcorn, or maybe would boil some maple syrup and vie with each other as to who could get “sugar” first and the whitest.

Mom used to tell about spending the night in the sugar house with her Dad to make sure the syrup was taken off at just the right point and the fire stoked to bring another batch of sap to a rolling boil. With the approach of dawn he would toss a couple eggs into the boiling sap for breakfast before the early morning milking. And the syrup! You couldn’t beat it on pancakes, or when it was thrown, thickened and hot, onto a layer of fresh snow to harden into soft, delicious “snow candy” to enjoy at the close of a penny social.

My own sugaring memories take me back to the mid-Hudson Valley across the river from FDR’s Springwood estate in Hyde Park. No Nip and Tuck, no bobsled and no buffalo robes. But the same eager anticipation for the season, the same excitement as sap turned to syrup, and the same taste that has no rival on the face of the earth. We didn’t much mind the hard work of hauling heavy buckets of sap down steep slopes. Or splitting the wood. Or stoking the firebox. And we certainly didn’t mind at all that our teacher, Glenn Swinger, revelled in the season even more joyously than we children. And why not? Every test we didn’t take meant one less test he had to grade. And more time to spend outdoors together!

Dad and son tapping a sugar maple tree

So what makes sugaring the most phenomenal activity you will ever do with your kids? It is all about feeling the cosmic orbit and turn of earth; about being in tune with the almost imperceptible transition from winter to spring, and keeping a close eye on night and daytime temperatures. A sudden cold snap or a “sugar snow” can reinvigorate and prolong the season; a warm spell, if it lasts too long, can bring a premature end to it all as tree buds swell and the sap sours.

Sugaring is a study in biology and tree identification. While the sap of most maples is sweet, only the sap of the sugar maple, with its elevated sugar content, can produce approximately one gallon of syrup from forty gallons of sap. With practice, it is not difficult to tell Acer saccharum from its cousins (the red, silver, and Norway maples) even in the dead of winter when the trees are bare of foliage.

Maple sugaring is all about feeling the cosmic orbit and turn of earth, about being in tune with the almost imperceptible transition from winter to spring.

The flow of sap has to do with starch, stored by the tree during the winter, changing into sugar. Sub-freezing nights and warmer days act to prime the pump as the process of osmosis pulls water from the soil. The pressure of the sap flowing through the tree is strong enough to create a steady drip once a hole is drilled into the trunk and a metal spile inserted into the hole. Tapping, as it is called, does not harm the tree because the number of taps is proportional to the diameter of the tree. In our day we hung buckets on a hook under the spile, buckets that were carried full and emptied into a tank on a trailer if the tractor could get through the snow. Nowadays, flexible plastic tubing is preferred.

Once collected, the sap is gravity fed into the pans for boiling in the sugar house, a ready-made science lab in which the concepts of evaporation, boiling points, and specific gravity cease to be matters of theory only. In fact, they can become bitter realities if the thickening syrup goes past a certain point and – at an astonishing speed – becomes one with the metal in a hard mass of charred carbon. There is nothing more gut-wrenching than smelling days of toil transformed into the acrid stench of burnt sugar; nor can one forget the hours of scrubbing that follow until the pans are ready for a new batch of sap. Trust me, it is something that rarely happens twice to the same operator!

people tapping maple tree at the Bruderhof, an intentional Christian community

The harder the work (or the more painful the lost batch), the more deliciously sumptuous the celebration as the golden-brown syrup is poured over waffles peaked with vanilla ice cream. A particularly prolific season yields the ultimate prize: enough syrup to boil some down to exactly the right point before whipping it into the best-tasting creamy maple sugar candy imaginable.

If you think I’m flirting with hyperbole, go to Sugar Maple Country and find out for yourself. And if you can’t do that, ask anyone who has done some sugaring and they will validate everything I’ve written. There have certainly been some changes in the processing of sap since Mom’s time, and the Native Americans before her. But from one generation to the next, the ritual has remained as sure as the cosmic orbit of the planet Earth.


About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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