I received a proper grammatical education in the Elyria City Schools, and I know the difference between a noun and a verb because of those good teachers. That being said, I don’t know how to convey, in a single word, the process of tapping a tree’s fluids, pouring it into huge collecting tanks, boiling it down to a thicker sugary syrup, pouring it off and starting again except to call the process, “Mapleing” as we bucket carriers have for many years. Come to think of it, we should have a better term than bucket carriers too.
My grandparents had a fruit farm in Willoughby Hills while I was growing up. For weeks in the summer and weekends in the fall this city kid put away the video games and hanging out and learned invaluable lessons in hard work. It wasn’t bad that I got to spend so much time in the outdoors either. But when the peaches had all been picked and the last variety of autumn apple was put in cold storage, there was no need for me and it was six months until warm weather again.
Then my uncle began Mapleing, and the late winter months would never be the same.
Maple at Nash Farm began as a hobby interest of my Uncle Doug Nash. He said he’d seen some neighbors do it, thought, “Well, we have maple trees. How hard can it be?” And so on the “old stove” kept in the porch room, he boiled down his first batch of collected sap in a stock pot. “The first batch, it could have been better. It’s pretty hard to do from eyeballing it. You really need the hydrometer.” He said of the learning process.
So, he consulted with friends who had worked a real operation, bought an evaporator at auction, and built a sugar shack at the bottom of the hill near the apple orchards.
The time in which you can collect sap is brief, a couple of weeks at most usually. Once the temperature rises above freezing, you’re on. The optimal temperature outdoors is around 40 degrees, but if it gets warmer than 50, it causes a change in the sap’s enzymes which imparts a bitterness to the syrup. You’ve worked so hard to get just a little when it was colder and now it flows like an open spigot. You have to be really cautious about this or you can ruin an entire batch. It’s hard to pitch sap too, but sometimes you do what has to be done.
It’s hard work gathering sap. Today I see a lot of trees tapped on Amish operations where they have large vinyl bags attached that only need to be emptied every couple of days. Some operations have PVC hoses running together from the taps to a big collection carboy at the bottom of the hill. I consider this cheating but Henry Ford would be proud. When we were mapleing it meant you drove the 1948 Ford Tractor and wagon to the path near the woods, grabbed a five gallon bucket and made endless trips from the trees back to the wagon, collecting from each one as you marched ankle deep through the thawing slop and mud. Fallen trees and branches, being constantly off balance, mixed weather and arms that felt like they were made of rubber by the end of the day were the norm.
We’d get back to the sugar shack, the tank behind us sloshing with the winter’s bounty. We were cold and often wet where we’d tripped and covered ourselves in sticky sap to the cruelly delighted laughs of cousins. As soon as you opened the door there was this rush of steam and humid heat that would hit you in the face like a dragon’s breath. Your glasses fogged, your nose tingled with the smell of smoke from a hardwood fire, and your heart soared at the invitation of Aunt Karen to come in and get warm. When I’m missing her, I think of that voice through the steam and the smoke and she’s always here again.
Maple time meant more than the hard work. It was a certain victory dance that we’d all made it through another winter and spring was on its way. In a few weeks we’d be eating ham at Grandma’s table and talking about the daffodils and the crocuses in bloom. By today’s standard, some suburban moms would say I grew up disadvantaged in child labor. I’d tell them I grew up spoiled by hard work and surrounded by the love of a family that came together.