As winter slides into spring, maple sap flows and a comforting ritual says welcome home.
By Ben Hewitt
Feb 14 2017
As Huck the cat looks on, the author heads to the second floor of the home that he and his family have built from scratch in rural northern Vermont. The stairs are trimmed in spalted maple boards that were pulled out of a friend’s barn.Photo Credit : Penny Hewitt
On the first of February, we begin our move into the house. It is a mild morning, as many this winter have been; the ground is snow-covered, but only just, and in the process of moving we track a slurry of mud and melting snow onto the wide pine floors I’d sanded and finished a mere week before. At first this makes me tense, but I determine to let it go: These floors are going to see a heck of a lot more abuse than this over the coming years. Might as well break them in a bit.
Naturally, the house is not finished. For instance, the stair treads consist of rough-sawn boards temporarily screwed to the stringers. Although we have arranged the upstairs into three rooms—one for each of the boys and another for Penny and me—there are no dividing walls, so the separation is mostly theoretical. There is running water at the kitchen sink, which after three months of hauled water seems a minor miracle, but the counters consist of old tabletops laid over rough framing. And in defiance of every building code ever written, our electrical power arrives via a homemade 400-foot extension cord running from an outlet at the meter, along the driveway, and through a window we leave open just enough for the cord to pass. For those of you rightly questioning our common sense or even sanity, please know that the outlet is what’s known as a ground-fault circuit interrupter, which continuously monitors current and shuts down if there’s any deviation.
Soon after we move, Penny and the boys embark on a road trip to Minnesota, where they’ll snowshoe half a dozen miles into the wilderness to spend a long week in a wall tent with similarly afflicted friends. “House living a little too comfy for ya?” I joke to the boys on the morning of their departure. They answer in the time-honored fashion of children the world over: with a silent roll of the eyes that speaks volumes.
With my family away, I soon fall into rural bachelor habits, eating when and what I wish from the same unwashed plate, if I use a plate at all. I stay up late, but strangely I wake even earlier than usual, my entire schedule thrown off-kilter by the solitude. Though of course I’m not really alone: With Penny absent from the bed, our dog, Daisy, takes up residence to my right, and Fin’s cat, Huck, tucks himself into the crook of my left arm.
To help pass this lonely time, I build shelves for the pantry, then fill them with the multitudes of jars and cans that have until now been piled in boxes. It is pleasing to stand back and see our stores of food arranged in neat rows, and it occurs to me that although the shelves were a relatively minor project, they are a big step in transitioning our house to our home.
Just as I finish the shelving, it becomes cold—the first real cold snap of the winter, an intense and clarifying cold, stripping life down to water, wood, and food, in repeating cycles. I make the animal rounds every two hours, flipping their troughs to stomp out the ice, then refilling from a bucket, calling to the cows as I do, because if they don’t come drink in the next hour the layer of ice atop the water will be too thick for them to break with their soft noses. Spittle freezes in my immature beard (shaving: another thing I’ve let go during my family’s absence) as I yell to the beasts, who seem not to appreciate my efforts in the least.
Before the cold snap ends, on a late morning when the sky is clear and the sun high, I walk the woods to the height of our land. Down low, just past the barn and brief expanse of pasture, the trees are dense and predominantly coniferous, but as I climb, the hardwoods increase in number, and soon I come to the sugar bush that composes the upper swath of our property. Here the understory clears, and the light courses past the leafless upswept limbs, casting long, serpentine shadows. The effect is almost cathedral-like.
For a time, I follow a set of fresh deer tracks—a small animal, young or female or both. They lead me to the stream that runs almost the length of our property, and where the deer crossed, I turn onto the stream bed. The intense cold has created a layer of ice just strong enough to support my weight, so I walk directly down the stream’s center, following the bends, clambering over a big cedar that’s fallen from one bank to the other. From beneath the ice comes the sound of water folding and churning into itself. I break through once, but the pool is shallow, and the water does not breach my boot tops.
Near the bottom of our property, right before the stream flows through a large culvert to cross under the road, I hop onto land and trot through the orchard. I’m in a hurry now, feeling as if I’ve frittered away too much time, knowing the animals’ water will be frozen over yet again.
The cold does not last, and the arrival of March soon brings a stretch of ideal sugaring weather. For months, sugar makers have speculated about what the relatively warm and snowless winter will mean for the sap run. Consensus is elusive, with some claiming the dearth of snow will result in a truncated season, while others declare with unequivocal certainty that the conditions will have allowed the frost to settle deep into the soil, setting the stage for a record crop. Everyone agrees that the bare ground has made for easy tapping.
We’d promised ourselves not to sugar this year, to instead apply ourselves to the long list of tasks forsaken in last summer’s quest to get a roof over our heads. But then the days begin to stretch at both ends, and clouds of steam appear over neighboring sugarhouses, and, perhaps most threatening to our intentions, we step outdoors to feel the warm sun on our sallow cheeks.
“I think we should hang just a few buckets,” I say to Penny near the end of the first week of March. “A half dozen or so. No more than 10.” We’ve already missed the early sap runs, but with any luck there will be a few more.
She agrees, and by that evening there are 40 buckets hanging from the sugar maples populating the fringes of the old skidder road that accesses the upper reaches of our land. When pressed, I am forced to acknowledge that 40 is a wee bit more than 10, but Penny says it’s near enough to consider it a mere rounding error. And anyway, I never was too good with math.
Since we don’t yet have a proper sugaring setup at our new homestead, we boil atop the wood cookstove, the windows of our unfinished home thrown wide to expel heat and steam. This year we’ve determined to make as much maple sugar as the season allows; we’ve made sugar in years past but only in small quantities, just enough to whet our considerable appetite for this traditional sweetener (for best results, sprinkle atop the homemade butter you’ve spread on a slice of toast fresh off the cast-iron top of the wood cookstove before the sun has cleared the eastern horizon). Besides, around these parts, maple syrup’s as common as mud on a late-March back road. But sugar? That’s as special as hen’s teeth.
We turn the first sap run into sugar, then the second, then the third. The fourth, too. And the fifth. Indeed, the trees just keep giving and giving; in the unofficial rural debate between deep snow and deep frost, the deep-frost argument has claimed the title by a country mile.
I gather the last of the sap on Sunday, April 17, carrying two near-to-overflowing 5-gallon buckets down the hill from the sugar bush and through the fenced-in pasture, the cows watching me in that skeptical way they always do. The old fool, at it again. Frodo, our 3-day-old bull calf, totters on spindly legs. He eyes me briefly before returning his attention to his mama’s swollen udder.
My arms ache from the weight of all that sap, and I will myself another 50 steps before stopping to rest. But I make it 55.