The sweetness of March delights us drop by drop
The lingering winter days of my childhood frustrated me. The ice rinks were slushy, yet the air and sidewalks were too cold for roller skating. Staring out at frostbitten lawns and the leafless trees of my dormant city neighborhood, I waited for spring.
Now during the late weeks of winter when I receive postcards from urban kin traveling in warmer climes, I'm tempted to send my own note: "Sap's running." Those words mark the beginning of a treasure hunt. They have transformed how I feel about March.
We never know when the sugaring season will commence. There are signs we watch: the angle of the afternoon sun, the spring mating call of the tufted titmouse, and the black specks of snow fleas dancing in my ski trail. On my daily constitutional I snap a maple twig and wait. Despite the sun and 34-degree temperature, nothing happens, and I ski home.
But on some bright day I am rewarded and sap oozes from the green end of the branch. I hurry home to spread the news.
My family pulls out sap buckets, spiles, and stacks crates of bucket lids onto our sled. Our oxen, Leo and Tolstoy, are yoked, and their gait matches our enthusiasm as we hike toward the sugar bush. My sons throw snowballs, but I watch for bluebirds and emerging pussy willows. There is no stopping spring once the sap runs.
Wielding brace and bit, my husband and sons take turns drilling holes while I tap in spiles. We hang buckets, adjust the lids, and listen to the plinking of sap meeting metal. The closer the drips, the higher our spirits as we envision a good run.
After winter days of schoolwork, shop projects, and sawing lumber, my whole family relishes these hours in the woods. Like so many elements of farm life, our work is determined by temperature, sun, and precipitation, and we never know the pattern of our sugaring days. Liquid treasure may await us on sunny days when we race for the woods to check our buckets. But then again, the trees may gush during a storm of snow and slush. The mystery of sugaring ensnares us.
Boiling sap into syrup means sticky everything - mittens, jackets, and even our hair, curled by the evaporator's steam. Then, just like its surprise beginning, suddenly it ends. One day, snow lingers only on the north slopes and spring peepers call to us as we remove buckets and spiles.
Soon the Northerners who escaped to the South will return, not knowing they missed a month of mystery and suspense. But on our pantry shelves rest rows of Mason jars filled with amber treasure to sweeten the coming year.
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