All this past week, my dry winter house has been bathed in the sweetest of steam. The sap began running in my backyard sugar maple at the end of January, several weeks early than is usual for any year but one with a false Spring. While it is not a heavy flow, it has persisted since then and produced enough so far that I have already sugared off nearly a pint of stove top syrup and look forward to more.
It is a delicate, intoxicating perfume. It lacks the briny tang of cold sea fog, or the maltiness of brewer's wort, but is still every bit as pungent and evocative. When mingled with woodsmoke from a larger sugaring operation than my two pail affair, it takes me back down the muddy lanes of memory to my Upstate youth. I breathe in that coiling steam and can almost feel my hair curling in the unaccustomed humidity. To stand in a sugar shack on a bright winter day is to be enveloped in nectar like a drunken bee.
I know the smell of approaching rain on a hot, dry wind. Maple steam has the same affect on me, full of expectancy, alive with the promise of life returning. I tap my maple tree because it grounds me, draws me back to my roots and turns me forward. The ringing pail fills slowly with sap that at first is one shade greener than clear. Each hour on the boil with the white steam rising transmutes it to amber gold.