Dotting the back roads and country lanes of the New England I love, often along the margins of farm fields where the nearby forest begins, can be seen man-made structures of weathered gray boards beneath rusting tin roofs capped with a matching rust-stained cupola-like hinged dome. Often, when time and circumstance permit, I stop and allow my eyes and senses to feast on the sight. Sometimes, I even venture across the intervening field to touch and feel the honest siding of a piece of architecture whose very image speaks of long history and tradition, and a sense of place so distinctive that no road map is needed to know where I am.
It was local Indians who taught the first Vermont settlers how to boil the sap of the sugar maple into syrup and sugar, a gift which helped those colonists to survive their first unforgiving winter in a land whose harsh climate and thin soils defied easy conquest. For more than three centuries, the thawing days and freezing nights of March have witnessed the reenactment of a ritual which both defines and enriches the lives of those who still love, respect and care for the disappearing maple orchards of this unique piece of geography.
Entering into the interior of one of these spruce-sided sugar houses is – for me – like walking into my own past. I am standing on hallowed ground. Immediately, my nostrils are filled with a delectable sweetness even years of abandonment cannot erase from the swaybacked structure. Every square inch of wall and timber has been infused with the billowing steam of boiling sap over unfolding generations of time, and the air itself seems filled with that distinct forest-sweetness which is unlike any other “sweetness” known to man.
As the gathered sap boiling in the circulating pans of the “arch” is converted to steam which gathers under the high roof of the sugar house before being sucked outside by the venturi effect of the open-sided cupola, the remaining sap becomes sweeter and more concentrated, until finally being “poured off” as finished syrup. Twenty-four hours a day, through the weeks of an all-too-brief gathering season, the process goes on. And over the years, the interior of the sugar house takes on a lush saccharinity which is both delicate and unforgettable; unlike any other sweetness encountered in a lifetime.
And for those of us who grew up surrounded by the memories bound up in the dark of an old sugar house in March, that nectarious presence has the power to preach a sermon of life.
As I write these reflective paragraphs, the sap is running home in Vermont, and yet another “sugarin’ season” is underway. It will take between 25 and 40 gallons of sap to produce each gallon of syrup, and despite some modern amenities such as vinyl gathering lines and automatic temperature controls, most of the half-million gallons the state hopes for, will be produced the old-fashion way – by farm families, tapping trees, gathering, hauling and boiling over long arduous hours of a labor born of love and tradition.
For Shirley and me, doing a visual inventory of our carefully-husbanded pantry supply of maple syrup gets intensely personal: Much of our inventory bears the imprint of Maple Crest Farm in Cuttingsville, Vermont, where our friends of thirty-five years, Bill and Donna Smith and their son tap trees planted by Bill’s great-grandfather, and where seven generations of Smiths have been doing the same thing. Some come from the “Nickwackett Sugarbush”, nurtured by David and Michele Parker, a young couple who have lovingly revitalized a hillside dairy farm in North Chittenden. And then there are several gallons of our highly-prized “Vermont Fancy” of the 1995 season harvested by our friends, the Hodgdons, now retired from farmin’ and sugarin’ but whose handiwork still graces our basement shelves . . . and today’s pancakes.
HOW SWEET IT IS !
Photos by Al Cooper