The sugarbush is what Mainers call a grove of sugar maples. In winter, the trees are tapped for sugar, giving us the most natural and dendritic of snacks, maple syrup. Taps are pre-drilled, then a special device is hammered into the tissue about two inches and this hollow device lets a stream of sap drip out into a bucket that hangs from the end of the hollow tube. The raw sap is boiled and as the vapor comes off it thickens and sweetens until finally it is syrup.
A few days ago, I went out to see the sugarbush with a novice like myself and one very experienced maple-tapper, John. He has the galvanized buckets hanging on about a hundred trees. The buckets were old when he bought them, he says, thirty years ago.
He says that lately people are putting in plastic hoses, hooking all the taps together so that they drip into a common tank, but he thinks that method may be worse for the tree, as it set up a suction, which may take away more sap than the tree is able to give. That is how a siphon works, after all. Liquid pulls liquid. Water “seeks its lowest possible level”. This new method is being tried all over, so it will be a while until we will know the long-term affect on trees. Native Americans tapped these trees before we did, perhaps noticing the bears who scratched deeply at the trunks on those cold last days of winter and came back for a spring tonic of wet sap mixed with insects. The way they distilled it was to take the sap and let it freeze. The ice was taken from their vessels, leaving only the thicker syrup.
Arborists will sometimes drink bubbling water from fresh-cut cottonwood or poplar as it gushes forth, so they know that tasty sweet pure water, water filtered through the trunk of a tree. But the rest of us might never know that trees’ trunks could feed us, not just their fruit, if it weren’t for maple syrup.
These days, people are using the hoses because they save labor, and steps. I have to wonder what is becoming of our people, that eschew walking wherever possible. It was a great walk that first day, but the buckets contained mostly ice, and not much of that either. So we put it off for a couple of days. Its a time-sensitive but not a hurried sort of work. The weather drives your activity. Colder days are perfect for boiling, and the warm days and colder nights of February and March are best for tapping the trees.
When we went back John and Nancy, another experienced tapper, brought me along. We hooked a small John Deere tractor to a tank. The tank has baffles in it to keep the liquid sap from sloshing over or tipping the trailer over. Sap is heavy like water when it comes out of the tree. The trails we used had been used many times before, and were unfortunately muddy. I was surprised that my hosts knew of the harm this could cause root zones. It is unusual to find that awareness. We talked about how much weight the tires were putting on the soil and also John, the driver never spun a wheel in my sight or hearing.
We dumped our five-gallon buckets in the top of the tank, where a simple window screen was taped in place to filter out bugs and debris. Even in February in Maine, there were plenty of bugs, moths and even a few mosquitoes seen on the screen. The locals often discuss this winter temperature phenology change as a sign of global warming. They used to collect later, in early March not mid-February, and it was less frequent that they found bugs in the sap.
It was a cold raw day. We each carried two five-gallon buckets and filled them from the galvanized buckets after removing the spring-tight lids. I tasted the sap a few times. First from a piece of ice. It tasted more like water than it did a sports drink, but there was a flavor. Then I tried the dregs in the bottom of a bucket. Much sweeter. We filled the 125-gallon tank three times. It was harder work than I had expected, especially when the buckets were full. Ten or twenty yards to get to a group of trees seems nothing with empty buckets and is a slow deliberate slog back to the tank. By day’s end I was glad to be sitting still, and my neck ached from carrying liquid around on uneven ground.
On another day we will go out and boil this stuff, and see how it turns darker and sweeter. It was clear as water and felt quite as thin when collected. It tested at 2.1 on the Brix scale, as measured by a small hand held device. After cooking, in order to call it syrup, it must be at least 66 on the scale, a measure of the sweetness. And that 350 gallons we collected will make perhaps twenty-five gallons of the sweet stuff.
A recurring theme of our talk as we worked was of the few times John or Nancy collected using horses they had borrowed. I volunteered for any work I could do and an article to boot during that type of collection.It sounded like another kind of sweetness entirely.