Springtime ritual provides solace, comfort
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
The wheels of season change have begun to turn. The end of winter sputters to a grinding halt and surrenders to the quickening pace of spring. I feel this in my bones; I feel it in my gut; it comes to me in memory. I see the change, I feel the change; I find the scent of change in the March air.
The earth beneath my feet hides complexities of soil and taproot. I know that somewhere in the darkness of dirt and tree root lies the heart of the maple tree and to that heart comes lifeblood of sap and the sap runs skyward in the indefatigable pulse of spring. I do not see this but I know it to be true.
The maple tree does not herald the coming of spring in loud calls as geese or sandhill cranes, does not dance in gaudy sunlight as the rush of spring streams; does not take the stage with drama or flash. Maple trees stand tall to the March sun and in their trucks the life force of spring surges unseen, unseen until the drill breaks bark and sap shows to the light of day and the light of a new season.
I tap maple trees to help friends who gather the sap. I use a cordless drill, let the sharp drill bit spiral in. An inch and half deep; the drill cuts; wood shavings fall to the snow. The hole is clean. I reach for a tap and pound it in with the poll of my hatchet. The tap bottoms out and I connect the line to the tap.
In the afternoon on a warming day the drilled hole shows a quick, slight drop of sap; the run is beginning.
I move on, taps and drill and lines to work. I drill and tap nearly 300 one day; over 300 the next. The novelty of the process quickly fades. I work under a falling snow, wet and chill on one day; under a rising sun the next. Necessary work. The basic groundwork merging the run of the sap to the modernity of the synthetic tubing and vacuum pumps.
There is an explanation for it all, for the subsurface magic and the flow of sap loosened from the grip of frost and flowing upward to the blue sky (think of it; a liquid flowing straight up as if to defy gravity as inexplicable as a stream running uphill!). There are studies and facts and reasons for it all, for this wondrous process of water and mineral to sap and thence to syrup. I do not care to know. I prefer to dwell in the mystery.
I do not need fact to clutter and distract from what I would rather see as a miracle undefined by sterile numbers of science and fact. I do not need an answer found in a Google search. I would rather stand in the March sunshine with my hand on the rough bark of a maple tree and watch the steady rise of clear sap. I would rather stand in ignorance of the scientific explanation for in our world there remains too little mystery and too much of the reasons why things work as they do and in that knowledge comes separation from wonder. At times I would rather have wonder than fact. At times I prefer miracle to knowledge.
I have a capacity for the ledger sheet of life and of late that capacity is filed by wondering about the levels of natural immunity plus vaccines that will lift us to herd immunity or the morass of numbers on sales reports at work or if it’s spring forward or back. At times I tire of numbers and find solace and comfort in the simple mystery of sap flowing and the amazing process of nature that gives up sap that can be made to syrup, that takes crystal clear sap to smoky gold syrup, that transforms the tasteless sip of sap on my tongue to the powerful sweetness of fresh syrup.
I do not mean to be a Luddite on this, do not mean to rail against progress of facts and science. I mean only that at times one needs a break from it all. One needs time in the wood lot in the company of trees more aged than I, in a natural world that needs no explanation only an understanding that time in the March woods brings comfort.
When the trees are tapped and the sap is collected the fire box under the pan is filled, set to fire; flames rise. The sap comes to the pan and the process of making syrup begins. The boiler is large and shines in the glint of dull steel. The stove door is opened, the fire box is aflame with the fury of firestorm; a log loaded, a second, then the stove door closed with a metallic clank.
The boiler is housed in a small building with a pitched roof that reminds of a chapel. The walls of the boiler room are cedar and the roof is vented.
Above the rage of fire the steel pan lies and the sap comes to a boil and reduces in volume. Steam rises and in the steam is the sweetness of syrup in the making and the small room is shrouded in the fog of the sweet-smelling steam and in that the mystery of the syrup making.
The steam rises like a spirit and in my mind that is what it is for the spirit of the syrup is a magical and steeped in mystery.
The mysterious and wonderful alchemy is at hand in the steamy room, an alchemy that works magic on clear sap and turns it to liquid gold. The sap boils, the room is still. And then, syrup.
I taste the heavy, unbearably sweet flavor of maple syrup still warm from the boiler. Outside darkness has fallen. Stars shine bright. It is springtime at the sugar shack.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.