…Here in Kentucky, that is.We’ve had a very busy week thus far tapping trees and gathering sap. The weather has been so lovely this week that all of the work we’ve been doing felt more like opportunity than toil. I would have to recommend not tapping sugar maples if you don’t like a few sore muscles and smelling intensely of wood smoke.Today was our first boil-off of the sugaring season and to say that I am tired might be an understatement. We must have boiled off about 100 gallons of sap today. The 2-3 gallons that did not evaporate into thin air are now finishing on the cookstove in the house. I’m not sure I can see the task to completion this evening as the darkness has long since settled and I was dressed and out the door at 3:30 am this morning. (I have to add here that Eric was up at 2:45 am and had the fire raging before I even arrived on the scene!) Plus, we will be firing the rig again in the morning, and, looking at the clock and calculating the number of hours between now and then… well, I don’t see a whole lot of sleep in my near future.That’s ok, though. Maple syrup seems worth the effort. In particular, maple syrup that comes from trees that are like family to me. Trees that have become interwoven into the fabric of my life here on the farm. Trees that loom in the backdrop of my every day existence, no matter what the season. Trees that my children are beginning to identify as individuals and as good friends (that have pocketfuls of sweet candy). I live in a forest full of sugar maples and feel incredibly lucky for that fact.We’re getting better at the process of sugarin’ as the years pass. Each year we seem to make one or two refinements that seem to revolutionize our lives. Last year it was the evaporator pan. This year, a length of irrigation pipe from the pasture that wasn’t being used. That very basic 200 feet of plastic pipe with a funnel duct taped to the end has spared me countless treks down the very steep and slippery forest slope with a full load of maple sap. This year, the funnel-attached-to-the-pipe is kind of centrally located in the sugar bush and we merely have to traverse the slope a bit and dump buckets of sap in the glory hole of the funnel. Gravity takes care of the rest… directly into our storage tank. This makes me very happy. I’m a pretty cheap date. Amazing what joy I can garner from some black plastic irrigation pipe, a cheap-o plastic funnel, and some duct tape. In my opinion, that’s way better than a movie and some popcorn.
29 taps. 49 days. 7 1/2 gallons. it’s official, our 2014 sugarin’ season has drawn to a close.
my relationship with the sweet sap of our maple trees all began on a february day 6 years ago, dear fellow farmwife cher and her family came to celebrate paul’s birthday. their gift to him, tapping a majestic maple outside our home. so began a new relationship with this tree. that year we made a single pint of our own farm’s syrup, but the foundation was laid for a rewarding winter’s project that would grow and expand as the year’s passed.
gathering maple sap and boiling it off into maple syrup is not for the faint of heart. with sap flows related to weather, the process is not only arduous, sometimes it feels like a gamble. the right moment to tap those trees varies with the year and the conditions. anticipating cold nights and warm sunny days, we drill the holes with the hopes of a good season.
collecting 40 some gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup means some slippery hill climbing, heavy load fetching, twice a day kind of fun.
and then, the boiling off. these days begin at the crack of dawn. these days are long but i have come to love those fires, those cups of coffee out of doors as the sun starts to peek over the ridge.
the hours pass, the sap turns darker and darker, we continually fuel the fire, transfer liquid on our home made rig, use the fire to cook our snacks, hoping for those sunny cold days that allow us to truly enjoy the day long fire.
we are all in it, my family, these maple trees and me. it is a glorious gift from the woodlands and now, the season passes and we look ahead fully to spring. with each delicious pancake breakfast and every smooth bowl of yogurt sweetened with this syrup and so many delicious moments in the coming months, i will hearken back to these late winter moments with my maples and be so thankful
I love knitting in the round. I especially love big not-so-fancy projects that allow me to go round and round and round in mesmerizing circles. Bless the soul that figured out connecting two wooden sticks with a string (aka circular knitting needles) to avoid all of the back and forth stuff. Yep, circles are where it’s at. And then, when you start connecting these circles, a few stitches here, a few stitches there, form develops. Usable, functional form (well, hopefully). Sometimes it feels a bit like magic.
Today, while cooking down some more maple sap (Yes, more. You must think I do nothing else at this point!) I was trying very hard to finish up a pair of mittens in between moments of stoking the fire and skimming the sap. They are still not finished… maybe because I was also preparing four pizzas (from scratch, wood-fired), tending three little people, assisting Eric with his current project, and whatever other distractions befell me. Anyhow, in my moments of actual knitting and in my moments of thinking about my knitting, I found myself pondering circles. And the beauty of interlocking circles. And the amazing creations that can occur when circles come together and expand:
There is an area of the farm, a small amount of bottomland that borders the big creek and which rises to a lovely little hill (we call it Persimmon Hill) that we have a vision for. It’s a terribly overgrown area of the farm that we are wanting to reclaim as more domesticated space because of the close proximity to our house, the loveliness of the site, the fertile soil of the bottom (far more fertile than our gardens!) and the magnificent view of the creek. Well, last winter Eric started clearing a bit. Cutting out less desirable tree species to encourage the timber and mast-producing species. As trees were felled, they were cut into manageable lengths and then piled up to be burned later. Then winter turned to spring; clearing project abandoned as farmer turned to his gardens.
Now, this winter the work on this long-term clearing and domesticating project has resumed to a small degree, but there’s a new twist. Handily enough, the wood that was cut last year and piled up happened to be (mostly) just the right length for the maple syrup making in our new system this year. So the clearing project has the added bonus of providing fuel for the maple syrup. Now two totally separate projects have become intertwined with the other, providing more incentive in both cases. My bell is ringing loudly here. But this circle is nowhere near completion yet, so I’ll go on.
So the wood was cut, gathered and brought to the maple syrup fire. That fire was stoked and stoked and kept incredibly hot. But at the end of the day, when the syrup moves indoors for finishing, we still have a gigantic bed of coals with lots of life and heat left in them. One shovelful gets transferred to the cookstove in the house to get that fire going quickly. Then, Eric shovels the rest of the coals (a mighty hot job!) into a steel barrel, drapes a thick wet cloth over, and puts the lid on tightly to seal out the oxygen. Viola! Our own biological charcoal or “bio-char”. This is a very stable form of carbon which makes a superb soil amendment and which we use in our gardens and our potting mix. Last year, our bio-char making was an isolated event requiring it’s own fire, time, and considerable effort. Now it has become an integrated component of the expanding circle of our farm and, inseparably, our lives. Did I mention that my bell is ringing?
(As an aside, once the coals are mostly removed from the fire pit but while it is still good and warm, Ira gets a mess of sweet potatoes for baking in the ashes. Supper gets cooked, too. That’s my boy.)
The clearing project fuels the maple syrup making. The maple syrup making creates the bio-char. The bio-char feeds the soil. The soil feeds the plants. The plants feed us, giving us the energy to get back to the clearing project… I know I’ve neglected to mention many nuances in this process, but you get the idea. Circles.