My friend Sandra Murphy is greeting spring in the Vermont forests in an act that few of us can be so fortunate to experience: sugaring. What we know is the amber, sweet, and viscous gift that we pour on our pancakes or waffles. Delicious. Maple syrup connects us to the trees in wild, intense, and condensed flavor. It all starts with a sap bucket. Here is part one of Sandra’s story of this year’s syrup:
I have returned to Vermont after seven years away. This homecoming is especially sweet, for body and soul, because I arrived in early March, just in time for sugaring season—the time between winter dormancy and springtime budbreak when the forest softens and stirs and the maple sap rises.
On my first day home, thick plumes of steam billowed up over the hilltop from my neighbor’s land below, a sure sign that sugaring was underway. The past few days had been sweater-warm, and that daytime warmth, followed by nighttime chill, had set the forest in motion.
I found two sap buckets, spiles, and bucket covers in my cellar, scrubbed them clean of seven years of idleness, and carried them, along with my hand brace drill, into the forest. Though we hold 40 acres of forest, the soil is mostly too acidic and low in nutrients to entice sugar maples to grow. But the soil is sweeter on the southern edge of the land, and a number of sugar maples grow among the yellow birch, beech, red maple, and black cherry.
The sugar maples have added inches to their girths since I last tapped them seven years ago. I set my buckets down at the foot of one stout maple, then laid my hand on the broad trunk and gazed up at the tree’s leafless crown, hoping the tree felt the unspoken gratitude.
Then I picked up the hand brace and pressed the bit into the maple’s bark at chest height, leaned into the head of the brace, and turned the crank. Moist, blond wood fibers filled the threads of the bit. After I’d drilled in nearly the length of my pinky finger, I cleaned the hole with a twig and tapped in the spile with a rock. Immediately drops of sap gathered one after another on the tip and fell to the ground.
Before hanging the bucket, I leaned under the spile to catch a few drops on my tongue. Oh, the elixir of springtime! Pure, cool water laced with sweetness—essence of the sugar maple. I hooked the bucket to the spile and slid the lid in place to the gentle beat of sap on the metal bucket bottom.
When I tapped the second tree, its sap flowed nearly twice as fast as the first. Did I do a better drilling job this time? Clean the hole more carefully? Is the tree simply more vigorous? Or, as is much more likely, is there another reason I can’t begin to imagine? There is so much to this process that is mystery and miracle.
When I peeked under the lids late the next afternoon, each bucket held several inches of clear, cool sap, rippling with each new drop. I poured the sap carefully into my carrying pails, then made my way back toward the house. Though Vermonters wisely used a shoulder yoke back in the day to make the carrying easier, I simply carried the pails in each hand, stopping to rest a few times along the way in the golden late-day light, the thumping of my heart mingling with a robin’s whinnying call and the distant rush of the New Haven River.
What an intimate act it is to tap a tree and partake in its lifeblood. What a gift. To waste any of it, at any stage in the process—from forest to plate—squanders that gift. I filter the sap through a paper towel-lined colander into a big stainless steel stock pot, catching the few small bits of bark and a water-logged bug. I carry the bug outside and shake it free.
In the many years I tapped trees in the past, I’ve always felt a great appreciation for the trees that gave their sap and those that fired the woodstove to turn that sap to syrup. Yet my appreciation is so much deeper this season, in large part for the reading of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. The best writings remind us of what we already know, in the deepest part of ourselves, to be true. Braiding Sweetgrass is a lyrical ode to reciprocity, a gentle, yet insistent reminder—like the steady drumming of maple sap —that we are long overdue to wake up from our self absorption and remember how to act with humility, gratitude, and restraint in the natural communities we are so privileged to inhabit.
Sandra Murphy’s website: www.alexandramurphy.com