They meet in the middle of the road–the Sugarmaker’s Son and my father. They meet in the middle of the road and stand, feet slowly sinking in the mud. I guess this is it. Yea, I guess it is. His pipeline is strung out, clotheslining the woods across the road into a thousand crooked squares, sectioned off like a haphazard chessboard. He has already begun to boil, and we are not so far behind.
This is, I guess, a first for us. My dad says, always tap on Town Meeting Day, but we are often a good week or two late. This year, we are a week or two early. We all are. The thaw has come soon and sudden–when I leave for work on Wednesday morning, the dirt road is solid and smooth. When I return home eight hours later, the entire six miles of it have turned into one long, roiling, broken mess, the aftermath of a warzone, impassable for my little car. I go the long way around, and still almost don’t make it.
The temperatures settle into sugar-weather–below freezing at night and above it during the day, the cold driving the sap down into the roots of the tree and the warmth drawing it back up to branches and our taps. When we first began sugaring, we bought stacks of tin buckets from the early 1900s. A bucket, lid, and tap together cost $2.50 then, thirteen years ago. Now, my dad says, you can’t get a tap alone for that.
The sun is out, and I walk from maple to maple, drill the holes, flick away the sawdust, watch the clear blood of these trees run out, staining the bark before I can get the taps in. I don’t know what was drunk on Mount Olympus, but I can’t believe the ambrosia of the gods tasted any better than this. Fresh from the tree, drunk in careful, freezing sips from the bent and disintegrating edge of a tin bucket tipped back. Drink too quickly, and it takes your breath away painfully for whole minutes. The frigid liquid defies greed, even as it offers a Perelandrian glimpse of real Pleasure. The taste of sap is something I barely know how to describe. Brown and green at once, sweet and smooth, steamy wet, sparkling. Like frost on a windowpane or the snapping film of ice on a frozen rut, early in the morning with the sun on it. The smell of it boiling in spring is like the smell of a pine in December. I can’t imagine one without the other.
We drilled out a modest hundred and fifty taps with an ancient brace and bit, our first year. We gathered by hand, hauling five-gallon buckets from tree to tree, carrying the sap to dump stations jerry-rigged with good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity to let it flow through pipes down the hill and into the big tank. Some days the run was so good we had to gather twice. My siblings and I drew out maps of the sugarbush, with all the pathways labeled with names like “Sapberg Street” and “Hatchet Line Lane.” We still hang buckets and gather by hand–but at least we’ve since upgraded to a battery-powered drill. The woods are full with the metronome sound of spring, running drop by sun-gold drop into our buckets.
Inside the sugarhouse, everything is damp with steam. The front pan lets off a fountain of it, and it rises against the ceiling, spreads, gathers, rolls down the walls. We take our glasses off so we can see. Our rig is small, with a homemade pre-heater over the deep-fluted back pan and an uninsulated woodbox that leaks heat and makes us sweat. The sap runs through the pre-heater, warming from ice-cold to steaming before it enters the back of the evaporator. You can hear it boil–deep, low, and rolling. Another of the sounds of spring. A stream of boiling water, too hot to touch, runs out the back of the pre-heater–the condensed steam. We collect it in a rusting sap bucket, use it for washing up.
Like the evaporator, our sugarhouse is tiny and a bit makeshift, too. In reality, it’s the farm’s old milkhouse. The ceiling is sagging and riddled with holes, after so many springs of steam, and the window has lost six of its nine panes of glass. On the inside of the door is scrawled in pencil the signature of Rufus Royce, whose grandparents built our house. Next to it is the date, “JULY 28, 1954.” There is an old pistol embedded in the concrete wall. My dad sits in a spidery corner, cracks peanuts out of a paper bag, throws the shells on the floor (“That’s part of the deal”), tells stories.
When we are ready to draw off, the syrup comes out a tawny brown, boiling hot and cloudy. I use a hydrometer to check the density–draw off too soon, and you have maple-flavored water. Too late, and you’ll have maple cream, or taffy. We finish the syrup inside, on the kitchen stove. We don’t have room to filter and jug it out in the sugarhouse, straight from the evaporator. My father runs the syrup by gravity through thick layers of paper and felt, to catch any impurities and remove the nitre, a dark, particulate sludge that makes the syrup cloudy and is a byproduct of boiling sap. My Mama and I stand by close, spoons at the ready–because someone has to make sure it tastes okay. My family lives in a haze of perpetual sugar-high, this time of year. It’s one of the perks of farming.
In college, my friends asked me in skeptical whispers if the rumors were true–if Vermonters really did drink maple syrup straight from the jug. I am here to testify to the fact that those rumors are not, in fact, correct. We drink it straight from the front pan.
Photos from Springs 2017 & 2018. Photos of the sugarhouse and myself credit my father and mother.