Slight touch of spring leads to maple syrup adventure
Phone call; late afternoon. The voice on the other end does not identify himself; says only, “Can you be there at five?” The voice sounds heavy and tired. And I say yes, yes I can be there. He asks me if I remember where and I tell him I do.
Then I call Sally and tell her we’ll be hauling maple sap after I’m done with work and she’d better find her snowshoes.
Three days earlier it had snowed, a heavy, wet snow; big flakes weighted with moisture that fell straight down like nightfall and built up on the ground like November. I turned to Sally and said how that was the first normal weather we’d had in a long time. You expect snow like that in late March, in April, in, (perish the thought), early May.
I stood at the window and watched the snow fall; the edges of the world drew in as the snow settled down like a cloud. It snowed hard, like it was serious snow even though it was not. It was snow that would not last; late season snow comes and goes like a passing thought, never lingering long in its passage.
Now, on Sunday, Thursday’s snow was a memory. What was not a memory was the snow that sill remained. There was plenty of snow standing deep; that snow was for real. It was dark and dirty in town and had lost any appeal it might have had. It was old snow, tired snow, snow that had seen better days. It was snow that lacked structure and strength. But it was still snow. It was still deep. It could still slow one down.
The deep snow would be a burden in the woods where it still lay heavy and untracked. In the woods, of course, is where the maple trees stand tall and spare and dark and yet full of promise. For all the promise that a standing maple holds it should be golden and bright for what the maple holds in spring is treasure rare and hard earned.
We drove out in late afternoon on a day of cloud and some gloom. There was a feel of spring in the air, the feel of dampness and of humidity and a faint, slightly sour odor. We pulled off the blacktop, knealt to the snowshoes, tightened bindings. Then we walked to the maple woods.
The man who’d called earlier had tapped the trees the day prior in deep snow unscarred by any track or trail. He said that it had been a long time since he’d worked that hard and he sounded tired just talking about it. We picked up buckets, empty of sap, light and easy to carry in their emptiness.
It has been a late start to the syrup season. It’s been a late start to most everything associated with spring. This winter has let up grudgingly; there has been no rush to springtime; all has seemed stalled.
The sap usually runs earlier, the thaw generally shows gathering strength by now. By now we have seen cracks in the armor of winter, fissures in the ice on some rivers, snow melt running in gutter. Not this year. Ice holds tight, snow fades but gradually; sap has not run.
Until this day; until this Sunday. For on this day the sap is running, slowly, but running nonetheless. On this day people see the first robins of the season, rusty breast against the dirty snow, cheerful song in the gray of winter sky. On this day there is hope.
We walk to the trees where silver buckets hang from metal taps hammered firm in the trunks of the trees. We tip the silver buckets up, empty them into the five-gallon pails we hold; move on to the next tree; repeat. The pails gain weight at each stop. The snowshoes push deep into the rotting snow. The work begins.
We work into the fading light of day; an hour, two hours, more. It is hard work; we slow as we go, energy drains from us as sap from the trees drains to buckets.
Some buckets are near full; some hold only a cup of sap. We work them all, every single one; and there are several hundred in total. Arms ache and fatigue settles in like the shadow of the gathering dusk.
Then we are finished. In the west the sky shows pink-red of sunset through scattered clouds. Someone says it may rain Monday and that the temperatures will drop again and shut off the flow of sap for a few days.
We go our separate ways into the evening; it is dark by the time we get home.
The next day the man who had called and who had been very tired stops with a quart of syrup. It is still warm in my hand as if it holds life. The thin, clear sap of the day before has been boiled down and what remains is amber and golden and glows when I hold it up to the light.
There are few things as pleasant to the taste as fresh maple syrup, very few things in this world so sweet and pure. And nothing quite like a bottle of syrup still warm from the boiler.
I walk home from work that evening and I hear birdsong in the trees; robin and grackle and blackbird. Hear robin song and blackbird trill and in that I hear spring. In the trees near home I stand and watch grackles, black and stark in the late afternoon light. They hold perches high in the trees and the wind tosses the branches and the birds ride on the windy heights and call out in celebration of the spring and in defiance of the wind.
A robin calls then takes wing and I recognize both the song and the flight.
The next day is chill and windy and the birds are gone; the trees bare and empty. It is too cold for the sap to run and I feel as if we’ve stepped back a week or more, that spring showed us enough to tease us and tantalize us and now has left us bitter again as if the promise was broken. There is no bird call on the walk home.
I open the door and step inside into the warmth. The three dogs rush at me; the cat slides into the kitchen on soft, light feet as a breath of air. I close the door to the cool evening chill and hang my jacket. Sally asks how it is outside and I tell her its cold again and that I’m tired of it.
I know that it is what it is. I know that as March turns to April, we will have more days as this. I know in memory that April chill can bite deep and that an old poet wrote years ago about April being a cruel month (the cruelest month actually) and that he may have been right.
There is only so much one can do. It will come to spring; we all know that. I know that, even as the chill of April falls around me. I know there is hope but I don’t feel it. There is a difference between knowing and feeling.
I turn from the door and from my coat where it hangs and look to the kitchen. There, standing alone on the counter, is the bottle of maple syrup. I look at the bottle and for that moment all the thoughts of chill and cold and despair fade away and I see the golden glow of the syrup and in that I see spring. In that I see hope. In that I see comfort against the chill. In that I find reason to smile.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.