When we first bought our small farm in 1985, we were delighted to find a maple stand on the property. The second spring we made our first batch of maple syrup. Recently, I sat down to record my memories of those wonderful days boiling sap in our homemade evaporator.
The cold hits my face as the kitchen door closes behind me. It is four a.m. in a frozen world. Brittle, crisp air seeps into my insulated overalls, under my wool hat, creeping into my gloves, flowing into my boots, seeking out my toes.
Guided only by moonlight, I make my way to the tractor in the garage. Snow crunches under my feet. The heavy fabric of my pant legs makes a loud sound in the cold air. The rhythmic noise, soothing and invigorating at the same time, is the sound I hear every morning in early spring, when the sap is flowing.
Our rusty tractor, worn out from years of work, sits in the barn, cold and brittle like the world. I plop down on the seat and turn the key in the ignition. The tractor sputters in the frozen air. We are alike, this old machine and I, both sputtering and struggling to get moving.
The tractor engine gives a roar, black exhaust swirls around me, smelling of fuel and dirt. I pull the tractor out of the garage, attach the garden wagon to the back and turn it towards the large garbage cans sitting near the driveway. The plastic cans make a cracking sound with each movement as I load two into the wagon. They fill the wagon, pushing against its sides, tightly wedged. I am ready to collect.
I drive along the driveway behind the house. Looking up, I see the upstairs windows, covered tightly with insulated curtains. Our old farmhouse, built in 1880, has more openings than just doors and windows. Drafty cracks between the window panes, doors that don't meet the floor, small openings between the basement and the outside, all let in the cold.
The wood stove in the living room heats the house in zones downstairs, with the warmest nearest to the stove, the coldest in the kitchen. The heat rises up the staircase from the living room, and at night, if the bedroom door is open, it can bring you leaping from your bed in a sweat. I picture my daughters, their doors closed, blankets under their chins, sleeping. It comforts me to know they are asleep in the warm house.
I shift the throttle, turning the tractor towards the barn which sits up on the hill, past the garden and the old brick springhouse. We move through the fluffy snow with ease, wagon bouncing behind, garbage cans bumping each other.
From the barn the old trail branches off to the right. I reach my destination-a line of maple trees between the trail and the field. I turn the tractor close to the trees as the cold overwhelms me. Hot coffee and a chair beside the wood stove sound inviting.
Jumping off the tractor, I crunch through the field to the first tree. Two old metal taps protrude from the tree three feet above the ground on opposite sides. How many trees have these taps known? We bought them from a retired farmer who boiled syrup every season for decades. It is an honor to use them.
A plastic gallon milk jug hangs from each tap by a hole cut in the handle. The clear sap fills the jugs halfway. A good run, I think, bracing myself for an hour collecting in the cold. Two jugs in hand, I trudge back to the wagon, dumping their contents into the garbage cans. I return the empties to the taps and collect two more. One hundred more left. It is hard work, but it fulfills a fundamental need in me to be a part of the natural world of the land on which I live.
Later, I will sit by the boiling sap, stoking the fire beneath it while looking through the vapors at my family nearby. We sip hot chocolate while we talk about things, important and trivial, as we wait for the beautiful amber color that signifies the finished syrup. Life is magnificent.
We made maple syrup for ten years, creating some of the best memories of my life.
Since then, our daughters have grown and moved on to non-farm lives and families of their own. Recently, in our barn, I found the poem they wrote back in the early 1990s and wood-burned onto an old board that hung above our homemade evaporator.
"Fire burn and cauldron bubble,
Making syrup is no trouble.
Real good syrup is made from sap,
When you use the Randall evap."
I emailed both of them immediately. Did they remember the poem? Could they still recite it all these years and events of their lives later?
Without hesitation, they both did.
All photos property of Kathryn Randall.