by Kate Tvelia Athearn
There comes a point sometime in February when my family is finished with winter. Months of being crammed inside together make the house feel too small and stuffy. The entryway overflows with fleece and wool and clunky boots. The new Christmas toys have lost their luster. Mother Nature teases us with isolated sunny days, only to snatch them away and replace them with weeks of dreariness.
I used to turn into a bona fide grouch around this time of year, thinking spring would never come. But that all changed when my husband, Brian, found an oddly shaped piece of metal in the carriage house. About three inches long, it was hollow and had a hook protruding from the middle. He couldn’t imagine what it was, and, being him, couldn’t let it go until he found out. After many months of carrying it around with him and asking everyone he came in contact with, he finally discovered it was a spout used to tap maple trees. Brian was sold on the idea of figuring out this new hobby. I was less excited to take on yet another responsibility until I found out that sap runs during those late winter doldrums. This new distraction was just what I needed.
Being a staunchly independent sort, Brian isn’t one to get all caught up in how things are supposed to be carried out.
He catches sap with repurposed water jugs and bright orange Homer buckets from the Home Depot. Instead of investing in an evaporator, he discovered the portable propane burner and our giant lobster pot are perfectly capable of boiling sap. He has learned a lot along the way.
Water jugs are preferable to milk jugs (no matter how thoroughly you rinse them). Sleep-deprived mothers with short attention spans and small, needy children should not be trusted with the all-important task of shutting the syrup off before it burns.
It’s true, sugaring is as much hard work and disappointment as all of the other farming we do. But we put the time in, because the reward is just so… rewarding.
The other food we grow and raise and gather is delicious, but undeniably wholesome. Contrasted with the austerity of farm life, maple syrup is liquid indulgence. It is a reason to linger over oatmeal on a hectic school morning, an excuse to blow off soccer practice for Dad’s famous pancakes. Even those same old winter squashes we’ve been eating since October are revitalized under its gentle embrace.
So now, instead of trudging grumpily through those final winter days, we ride our oversized wagon down the hill to check our daily catch.
The kids sample sap right from the buckets as we empty them into giant tubs for boiling. These children who have been fighting over everything from breakfast cereal to bedtime stories, suddenly work together to push the wagon back up the hill. They giggle as they slip in the slush and mud that conspire to pull us all back down.
Producing syrup doesn’t just take our mind off our cabin fever. It cures us. It teaches us to tune into the very earliest signs of spring.
Crocuses erupt from under an icy crust of snow. Skunk cabbage, forsythia buds, and the tips of daffodils emerge. Before we know it, we’re planting peas and listening for pinkletinks. Just like those maple trees, we awaken, open ourselves up to another season of growing and giving, and the knowledge that there is sweetness all around.