Last year - one of profound personal transition, as it turned out - I made the choice to attune to the seasons and seek out their transient, annual offerings. This lead to some wonderful and previously unknown pleasures, such as a shad bake on the Hudson in Catskill, out on a point by the river where the old Day Liner used to call, where we feasted on planked fillets nailed to seasoned oak and barded before the coals with strips of bacon. It also brought my past and my children's present into marvelous alignment in the drip of maple sap in our backyard.
Our home sits on a 1/4 acre lot among century-old residences in a working class town. We have one, large sugar maple behind the house, probably as old as the chestnut planks we discovered under the dark walnut stain in our interior trim. In fall, its leaves turn a deep amber gold, warmer than the bilious yellow of Norway Maple, but neither do they achieve the flaming orange of another sugar maple down at the corner of Prospect and Bragg. Soil, sun and moisture give each sugar maple its distinctive palette, and my children love the vast golden leaf piles that accumulate beneath its autumn branches.
In winter winds the old tree sheds a few, minor branches but is otherwise strong and sound. Yet before we moved here, no one had tasted its sap. There was an orchard behind the house, and wild apples still grow in the field beyond our garden gate, but the sugar bush lies outside the village on the slopes of Canaan Mountain, not here in our streets and sideyards.
I am so desperate for a hint of Spring's coming by this time of year that I find myself drifting back to the Marches of my youth. I grew up at a rural boarding school in Dutchess county and attended another in distant Delaware. Our three week Spring vacation coincided with sugaring at home and my mother and I took over for the absent students to collect sap and boil syrup. Mom had tapped a few trees on her own before the school got into syrup production on a larger scale, and blew out several sets of electric stove burners before buying a second hand evaporator. By the time I could drive the school tractor down the muddy lane that lead to the school, there were sap buckets on every maple on either side of the road and up the slopes of the "ski hill". An old skate hut by the pond that once served as the school's first rink was jacked up and moved to behind the maintenance buildings to serve as the sugar shack, and I would pour each galvanized pail into a huge plastic garbage bucket lashed behind the tractor. There would be mason jars of syrup filling an entire refrigerator in our home by the time I returned to school.
I decided last year to tap our tree, figuring that a good run of sap might give us a quart of syrup for each of the two pails I planned to employ. It was not easy to find a hardware store selling the old spiles and sap buckets of my youth - not in this age of plastic tubes and gravity feeds. Our tree was large enough for three taps- one for the first 12 inches of diameter at breast height and one for every 6 thereafter - but I settled for two on the southern exposure. Daffodil shoots poked through the mulch at my feet and my children and I drilled a 7/16 inch hole on a 20 degree angle and watched the sweet nectar well and drop into our pail.
That year was a short but ideal season stretching from March 11th to 23rd, and we boiled off the sugar in a huge 3 gallon pressure canning cauldron on our propane stove. It worked surprisingly well, and as we have no wallpaper to yellow in that heady steam, the only unwanted impact was that it made our kitchen surfaces beckon like glazed donuts to convoys of emerging ants.
I wrote recently about the transporting power of our senses. Breathing in the maple steam draws the wellspring of my boyhood up from its dormant roots. I had a similar experience passing a brewery in Seattle, where hop-laced vapor mingled with the salted fog of the Sound. I felt myself once again standing on the strand in Swakopmund by that cold, upwelling Benguela Current. It was the smell of the Hansa Brauerei in my nostrils, venting its intoxicating cloud into the desert fog with the South Atlantic breakers scouring the shore.
Many other trees can be tapped for their sweet sap. Surprisingly, the sugar maple is not the only tree in its family with 3% sugar. Norway, Red and Silver maples can each be tapped and boiled for syrup, each uniquely and distinctively flavored. The sweetest of all northeastern trees, the hickory, produces small quantities of sap that reportedly will reward a patient collector with sugar of unsurpassed quality. Yellow and black birch will yield a brew from boiled twigs or sap. Unlike these renewable pleasures, extensive extraction of sap by fermentors of palm wine kills the donor tree. I recall many of these forlorn snags in Africa, standing topless above the Mopani veld, with pegs driven into their sides to serve as ladders for sap collectors.
This year I resisted the unnatural urge to tap with the first, premature sap run in January's thaw. Last Sunday, though, when the midweek snow melted away in a few short hours, my children and I set out once again to our old maple tree. We carefully sited the new taps six inches from the old scars and hung our new, galvanized pails with their sheet metal covers in the afternoon sun. Yesterday, I sugared off the first four gallons of sap on our stove, but like the first, sacrificial pancake before cook, batter and iron work in harmony, I walked away at the crucial moment and returned to find, instead of 10 ounces of amber syrup, caramelized cakes of sweet maple sugar instead. Of such happy accidents are wonders made.
The incipient Spring awaits with other pleasures. The herring run up the Agawam near my Grandmother's home in Wareham, MA is another long anticipated event that grounds me in the wheel of the seasons. The chorus of vernal pools, the warblers in the orchard, the ramps and - yes - the morels of May woodlands will arrive in procession. But hope springs first in the culm of maples - it is manna and ambrosia for body and soul.