(Picture of sugar shack from http://hurryhillfarm.org/?attachment_id=332 )
Today was the first day I noticed my energy was even remotely like it was before I got clobbered by walking pneumonia. Having around a tenth of my ordinary energy felt so wonderful I was a hundred times as happy. Does that make sense? No, but it is typical for humans. And I’ve known it since I was a teeny bopper:
It felt mysterious to be on the rebound. There was a magic in the air, simply because I was able to appreciate things again. Not only that, but a lot that I had been disgruntled by no longer gruntled me. For example, the long winter had worn me down, and it might have taken me two trips to carry ten logs into the fire, where I once could stagger in with all ten at once, and it irked me to be older and slower. Now it might take me ten trips, but I’m as happy as a clam whistling Dixie. Does that make sense? No, but I’m enjoying life a lot more.
The worst part of being ill was to have the interest fade from everything. I have always felt Creation is full of beauty, yet people are strangely blind to it, and walk right by what could make them perfectly happy, always in a hurry to crave some distant thing they may never reach, but illness made me unable to practice what I preach. The light faded from things, and then came back again.
For example, as I drove the gang-of-six to kindergarten each day I noticed a flock of turkeys by the side of the road on the way. In my depressed state they were just annoying birds, liable to fly out into my way, be struck by the van, traumatize the kids by getting splatted, and make me feel guilty for the rest of the day. I’d slow and swerve well away from the side of the road, but they made the morning just a hair harder, and who needs that? And the stupid birds never learned. The next day they were in the same place, making my life a little harder, just a headache and a nuisance.
Then today, what a difference! Suddenly I was noticing the iridescence on the feathers in the morning sun, a ruby-bronze hue shimmering atop the deep brown feathers. I was also wondering over the size of the flock. There were ten birds, and, as a mother turkey usually only has around 10-12 chicks, that is a great survival rate. Most winters foxes and coyotes pick them off, one by one, and by spring you will only see a flock of two or three. (Sometimes two mothers will combine their troops, and a flock can start out as large as 24, and still shrink down to two or three.) However this winter, with the snow so deep and powdery, foxes and coyotes couldn’t creep lightly over solid crust, and their floundering couldn’t get close before the turkeys would explode into flight and escape.
Suddenly the turkeys were a window into the winter woods, rather than an annoying bird making my day harder. I found myself wondering what the turkeys found to eat, and also pictured the gaunt fox, starving, looking at the fat birds roosting up on branches longingly, and then snuffling deep down into the powder snow, hungry for a single mouse.
I haven’t seen any foxes yet this spring. Usually when they get hungry my chickens vanish. Maybe the foxes didn’t make it to spring. However I did make it, and so did my chickens.
We adopted a new chicken at the start of the winter. People tend to move from places that do allow chickens to places that don’t, or children who pleaded to have cute chicks decide they don’t like grown chickens, and someone has to take in the orphaned hen, so we do. I mighht have thought I was all done with chickens four years ago, (when a very clever vixen managed to bring up her cubs on my hens), but somehow I always wind up with more chickens. However this particular refugee was especially traumatized, the sole survivor of a coop fire. Besides a damaged foot, a side effect of post-traumatic stress was that it utterly ceased laying eggs. It was basically a useless bird, and I’m not sure why I didn’t just eat it. It was a bizarre looking, exotic type, with no comb, and a ring of fluff around its neck that looked like it was designed by Dr. Seuss. It was bigger than the other hens, but was bullied by them, so I had to make an extra effort to make sure it got food and water. Last week I was thinking I shouldn’t bother with the blasted thing, and muttered it only survived because I was too busy shoveling snow to deal with it, though I sure could have used some chicken soup as I first came down with my cold a couple of weeks ago. (Once I went to bed my wife did make a chicken soup, which may have been what cured me.)
In any case, as I got around to collecting eggs for the first time in a while today I found a new nest, away from the others, holding eggs as blue as a robin’s eggs. I showed them to the children at the childcare, telling them you know it has been a cold winter when the hens start laying blue eggs, but they said the eggs were blue because Easter is coming.
They were not all that interested in eggs, as their focus has been on maple sugar. The older kids have told the younger ones how delicious sugar-in-snow is, so I am sort of stuck with doing it. Last week it was just one more thankless task to grumble about, but this mysterious Monday the wonder awoke.
One wonder is how the trees draw the sap up. There are no leaves evaporating water at the top, creating a partial vacuum to suck sap upwards. The maple, without a heart or any sort of pump, or obvious valves (such as our veins have), must lift hundreds of pounds of sap to topmost twigs over sixty feet up in the sky. I’ve read various theories speaking of stuff like “capillary action,” but I find it hard to imagine capillary action could draw a liquid up that high, even in the finest tube, without the sheer weight of the liquid above creating a downward flow. However maples don’t care; they just do it.
The little kids don’t care either. They seem a little skeptical when I talk about sap rising, but when I drill the hole and insert the tap, and they see the clear sap immediately start dripping out, their eyes get very round. The softhearted want to know if it hurts the maple, and I say it is only a little prick, like they might get picking blackberries, and the tree will quickly heal the scratch, and the sap will stop (which is actually a concern of commercial tappers, and is why they make sure their taps are boiled clean of any residue from the prior year, as such residue will hold chemical signals that may hurry-up the healing.)
I am not in it for the money, and use an old-fashioned bucket. The children immediately want to taste the sap, apparently expecting maple syrup to pour from the tree. I let them taste the sap, and they can detect the faint sugar content, (which my jaded taste-buds can’t notice anymore).
Then we boil the sap, which is the most expensive part of the operation, and takes the most time, and involves paying careful attention or you wind up with a pot holding burned, black carbon (which I have managed to do more often than I like to confess). (I have other things to do. Some spring I hope to arrange things to a situation where I can just sit and watch sap boil, but I haven’t managed that yet.)
It is interesting to note that the Indians apparently did little boiling. Mostly they allowed the sap to freeze, and threw out the ice. It has been cold enough this spring to allow me to throw out a lot of ice, and it works. The liquid that remains has a far more concentrated level of sugar.
It is also interesting to note that there was a cultural divide, among Indians, as to whether maple sugar was desirable or not. Not far south of here sugar maples apparently grew scarce, as the Medieval Warm Period made it too warm for such trees to grow further south. The Abernaki made maple sugar, and included it in their trail mix, but further to the south the Massachusetts Tribe sneered at people who ate sugar, especially the English, and when the English tried to trade them cane-sugar the Massachusetts didn’t want any.
As the cold conditions of the Little Ice Age set in it was largely the Puritan settlers that transplanted sugar maples down to the southern coasts of New England. They grew along roads and in what amounted to orchards, and as late at the 1830’s Henry Thoreau expressed surprise when he spotted one in the Massachusetts woods. (It may have been a survivor from the cold period before the Medieval Warm Period).
Now that conditions are warmer sugar maples have a rough time further south, as their sap starts rising several times right in the middle of winter, which causes problems, and can cause trees to sicken and die. You may hear this is a result of “Global Warming”, but actually it is due to the end of the Little Ice Age. Sugar maples require a cold winter. They grow all the way down to Georgia, but up in mountains that stay without thaws through January.
Believe it or not, I do babble about such things with little children, because they are full of questions and wonder, when I do something like throw away the ice on the top of the bucket. I suppose some of it goes in one ear and out the other, but I also know they experience tapping maples, boiling sap, and winding up with ambrosia.
The boiling is the most expencive part of the operation, and as farmers around here were generally poor they used to use wood from their own farms. Now the operations have become amazingly high-tech, with wonderful inventiveness involved. A few weekends, (including last weekend, and perhaps next weekend), are called “Maple Weekends” and farmers welcome people onto their farms to see their sugar shacks, (as they can sell a lot of maple syrup, maple sugar, maple-walnut ice-cream, and even maple furniture, to visitors).
I like to visit them to see their innovations. The plumbing gets more and more complex, and some farms have piping that run from the trees all the way to the boiling vat. The sap is heated on its way in, and the smoke and steam leaving the operation is only lukewarm. Efficiency is everything, and sone farmers are now using some sort of reverse osmosis I don’t even pretend to understand, before they start to boil the sap.
I study this stuff because, when my novel starts to make money, I want to build a toy sugar shack on this toy farm, to entertain the children with. However for now I am embarassingly primative, compared to other farmers. I boil sap in a kitchen pit, on a fire, and my wife has to keep an eye on me to keep me from using her better pots.
I used to just boil the sap on a campfire. The syrup tended to have a smokey flavor, which was barely detectable when I used maple wood, and interesting when I used pine.
I’ve grown lazier with age, and now use the propane burner for an external turkey fryer. (You were likely wondering how I’d work the subject back to turkeys.)
I don’t bother much with syrup, anymore. The best stuff is the candy. You have to keep your attention on the amber liquid boiling in the pot. If you are smart you use a candy thermometer, and wait until the boiling syrup gets to around 235 degrees. (I’m not smart, and judge by how drops look when dropped into cold water.) Then you take it from the heat, and let it cool. When smart people see the temperatures down to around 175 (and I can touch the pan for a second but not two seconds) you start to stir the stuff. In essence you whisk it without a whisk. It goes from amber and clear to milky, as crystals form. Once it starts to look dry, rather than liquid, You spread it out onto a sheet of wax paper, about a half inch thick. (Or put it into molds the shape of maple leaves, if you must.) Cut it into squares, like fudge, before it is cool, because kids will want it before it is cool.
The amazing thing about this candy is how much better it tastes than stuff you get in stores. Not that the stuff from stores isn’t delicious, but like anything else maple sugar loses a little flavor, as time passes. (If you have some maple syrup that has been sitting in the back of your refrigerator since last year, and you compare it with maple syrup from this year, you will see what I mean.)
I ask you, which would you rather eat? Broccoli you picked from your own garden just before dinner, or broccoli grown in California, picked a week ago, and refrigerated, and shipped at top speed to your table. The answer is easy. Fresh picked stuff is so much better that even in the inner city you will see planters growing broccoli on rooftops.
It is very difficult to grow maple trees on planters on rooftops. However, in the exact same way, fresh maple candy is far better than stale stuff. If possible, one should journey to the farms where they are making it.
To be honest, fresh maple candy is so delicious I find it difficult to share any of it with the children at my Childcare. This is especially true because once they taste it they want seconds and thirds and fourths, and don’t care if I get any at all. It is only because I am spiritual I allow them even a crumb. Then they unionize and mug me and don’t leave me even a crumb.
It is for this reason I make certain to set aside a little for myself (and my wife) before we even start.