Maple sugaring - that's what we're doing right now - is an exciting mix of frenzied work and long hours which culminate in a delicious reward of full-bodied maple syrup. We excitedly anticipate it even though it leaves us exhausted. In fact, when I add up all the time we spend on it, I’m not sure it pays to do it.
But we, especially Bill, can’t stop because we are addicted - me to the taste of the syrup; Bill to the process of making it. He loves heading out to the cold, often snowy woods which inevitably turn to a thawing mess of wet slush and slippery mud before the trees bud out and the last of the sap is hauled up the logging road to come home.
He transforms before my eyes. If winter represents a slower time of reflection and planning for warmer seasons, sugaring represents a jump-start to action. And Bill epitomizes it.
He isn’t averse to enjoying downtime in the winter. He becomes more sedentary. His beard gets scruffier with more white showing every year. He wants to go to bed as it gets dark (Really? You’re going to bed at 6:30?). I get a glimpse of the old man he’s starting to become as he relaxes in his rocker.
Close-up of sap coming out of the tap and into the line.
Then the weather changes a little. The sun shines a little brighter, making the days warmer even though the nights remain below freezing. Magic happens. Bill and the trees awaken.
Changes of pressure inside the trees force the energy-filled sap, which was stored in the roots for winter, up the trunks fueling the budding process, and then back down at night. And Bill feels his own kind of pressure: he doesn't want to miss the fleeting impending sap flow.
He gets up before the sun to rummage around in his syruping equipment. He checks and re-checks the weather outlook, trying to predict exactly when the sap will begin running. He puts together new taps and cleans old ones, he washes the 250-gallon collection totes with the pressure washer, he checks over the 4-wheeler so it's ready to haul the sap out of the sugar bush, he sets up the evaporator, and he splits wood in anticipation of the coming cook.
He heads to the steep ravine of our sugar bush, kids and me in tow, to check and repair sap lines knocked down by fallen trees, the wind, or deer. He directs us to bring him tools and supplies as he moves up and down the treacherous incline. He drills holes in the bark and screws in the taps. He sets collection totes at the ends of the lines in the bottom of the ravine.
Bill tending the sap in the evaporator.
Pans of sap - changing to a golden brown as they "cook" and move to the right.
I huff and puff as I climb, my legs rubbery, not sure if I should worry more about having a heart attack or accidentally flinging myself down the hillside - slamming into rocks and saplings on my way to the bottom. While I know it is affecting Bill the same way, it doesn’t show. The aches and pains in his back and knees seem to disappear. I don’t know if they really do, or if he is just running off adrenaline for a month straight. Is that even possible?
All of a sudden he seems 20 years younger. The old man on the horizon fades, and I see Ponytail Bill (as my Aunt Lee affectionately called him before he started losing his hair and cut it short). He tells us stories when as a kid he would get up, pack a knapsack of snacks, and disappear into these same woods, not coming home until dark.
Sometimes his family life and school were hard; the woods gave him a needed respite from it all – a chance to feel space and let stuff go. He learned much about life and himself during that time. It all comes back now and rejuvenates him.
But as the days and weeks pass I eventually I get impatient with Bill’s maple syrup mistress. When she comes to visit, practical matters are forgotten to him. Meals, other chores, bill paying, the kids' lessons, income tax preparation - all are forgotten as he watches over the sap in the evaporator.
Bill becomes preoccupied with monitoring the rate at which it heats, stirring it, adding wood, or turning the flame-fanning blower down as needed. He becomes the fire master, the sap tester, and – the syrup whisperer. When the syrup measures perfect on the brix meter (a tool which tests sugar levels), he pronounces the batch done and empties it, devoting his attention to the next one. His goal is to keep the fire going 24/7, stopping only for a nap every so often.
This is when I feel the burden of keeping us anchored in our everyday routines. And I have to fight my ego because I get jealous. I become insecure and start to question. Do his eyes light up that way when he talks about me? Does my presence have the power to relieve his mind of stress?
But I realize I’m getting full of myself and am just tired of feeling the season will never end. As I look at the jars of finished syrup, I remind myself that he loves me,but I am not everything to him. Nor is he to me. And that is okay.
This is a time for us to again re-define our relationship. A chance for me to remind him I need him in other ways even while he is immersed in sap and maple syrup, and a chance for him to remind me that while he loves everything about this sweet season, he can only fully enjoy it because I keep the rest of our world running.
As in all we do, we are partners. Sometimes imperfectly, but still partners.
That is enough for me. I can again see the value of watching Bill fill up with life as I remember how fleeting this time is. I can share with him in both the work and the satisfaction of a job well done. That is priceless.
Yes . . . we are addicted to maple syrup season . . . and it does pay!