The last of 500 buckets have finally been cleaned, two months after the sugaring season ended in mid-April. And not one of those buckets were hung in a traditional sugarbush, a section of forest where well spaced sugar maples are managed to thrive with little competition. So how does a farmer sugar without a sugarbush? You hit the road, three and a half miles to be exact.
New England is full of roadside maples, and these Tamworth backroads are no different. In between the farm and the village there are fifteen different friends and neighbors with tappable sugar maples near the road, and all of these folks share a passion for rites of spring, like buckets on trees.
It almost feels like a three and a half mile congregation, a ministry of maple where the buckets baptize the faithful as winter takes its first early steps into spring. And I am no minister, but during those six transitional weeks of winter nights and springtime days, I can certainly preach the gospel according to sap.
My pulpit is a pickup truck. When the sap is running, I hitch to a trailer containing six empty 55 gallon barrels, along with the five Disciples of Sap: Amy, George, Margaret, Jennifer, and Lucy. We roll slowly down the road from one band of buckets to another, from one neighbor to the next. At each stop we all disembark to our usual trees, methodical and cheerful, powered by hope.
There is conversation, always conversation. The mood is as high as the sun, beating back the long winter behind us. People smile and wave, others stop to help empty a few buckets and then move on. Seasonal communion at this roadside church.
We drink the “wild water” as Jennifer calls sap, sampling different trees along the way. Some are sweeter than others, like people, and we remember the sweet ones. We find our way back to them.
Eventually, with a setting sun and falling temperatures, we make our way back to the farm. Barrels are pumped out into a 400 gallon tank where it can slowly trickle into my evaporator. We say our goodbyes and I prepare a fire for the solitary act of night boiling.
Loneliness does not come easy to me. I love the cadence of my work when guided by quiet mindfulness. The rhythm is almost always the same in that three-sided sugarhouse on dark and chilly nights, steam rising for the stars. Every few minutes my right hand holds a piece of slabwood on a chopping block, my left arm swings the maul. It is a motion built on muscle memory, and I wonder if that memory is capable of forgetting the pain that is starting to creep in after all of these years.
I swing open the doors to the arch, throw in an armload of wood and close the doors quickly, not wanting to kill the boil. Next I’ll check the temperature of the front pan, glance at both float valves, then perhaps finish bottling a batch of syrup into mason jars. Once every two hours or so I’ll grab my hydrometer and draw-off about three gallons of 219 degree syrup. Some of that syrup eventually flows back down the hill to all of the friends and neighbors who shared their trees.
When the clock starts flirting with midnight, my body starts to shut down. It has usually been a long and physical day, and I don’t dare sit down for fear of falling asleep and burning syrup in the front pan. At times I listen to music, or a baseball game (a sport made for radio), and often I’ll let my mind wander to the low rumble of fire and the rolling sap. The questions always outnumber the answers in this open-aired cathedral of the night. My kind of church, I suppose.
I draw down the fire and make sure the sap levels are running deep. The urge to sleep has once again surpassed all other urges, and I walk across the dark yard feeling like I’ve nothing left to give. But across these recent years I’m learning to save a little something to somehow, some way, give thanks.