We reap the harvest of almost-spring

You rarely hear of the sap that got away - of that time-honored ritual (boiling sap down to syrup) gone awry. No; you're told that real maple syrup carries more than its weight in sweetness, much of it in the making.

It's work, but it's done out of doors with winter at your back and spring just beyond your fingertips. To watch that first drop of clear sweet water fall with a clarion ping into the pail is to believe in it all - trillium, bloodroot, redbuds in bloom, and the whole, leafy extravaganza of summer.

And if it's not quite warm enough to relax into the vision, there's the boiling fire to feed and hover over. As any enthusiast will tell you, turning sap to syrup is an idyllic way to spend a few days.

To be honest, our spiles don't always tap utopia.

We live on the southern edge of real maple-syrup territory. The freezing nights and sunny days needed to get the sap rising don't come in a reliable pattern, but in fits and starts, punctuated by gray drizzles and balmy evenings. The trees hardly know what to do with themselves this time of year, so how are we to know when best to tap them? One year it's late January, another it's a Valentine's chore. For the past five years it's been too warm to bother. This year we're at it later than ever.

As quirky as our timing are our skills. After 10 years, we're still finessing our technique for collecting and condensing 150 gallons of sap from a grove of sugar maples into a few gallons of syrup. All of you in real mapling country know in your bones how to do things, but as I've said, we live on the fringe - both of climate and native expertise.

We made the discovery early on that cows will drain a good thing when they taste it. Our dairy herd took quick fancy to the bovine-friendly buckets of sweet water hanging conveniently head high about the maple grove. After we fenced them out of the grove, they seemed to bear no grudge, but they unwittingly cost us another harvest one year, when we left the boiling to do the evening milking.

The fire was low, steady, and well-banked. We thought we had plenty of sap water in the big rectangular pan to prevent its burning clear away. Yet when we returned that night, flashlights bobbing hopefully, the liquid had all bubbled off, leaving a scorched black residue. At least we'd had syrup for a brief period, even if we weren't there to see it. And we did have a full tank of milk to show for the day.

Raccoons have invaded our buckets; we've lost collected sap water to rains, to souring warm spells, and to sloshing spills from the tank our horses pulled from tree to tree on a sleigh one snowy year. It's almost a miracle when weather and events combine in just the right way to reward our efforts with that amber liquid so widely prized and understandably pricey in stores. When we beat the odds and come up with quality syrup from our own back woodlot, it goes straight to our heads.

This year Charlie and I hovered over our first boiling all day long, leaving only in turns to check the cows, fetch the mail, or collect and saw more wood to feed the fire. As some 60 gallons of sap water finally condensed to two, we jumped into action, donning thick gloves and pulling the pan out from the fire to rest on a stump we had planned for the pouring-off.

Charlie folded a piece of soft green felt over a sieve and opened the pan's bottom spigot. The filter neatly caught the twigs and leaves that had drifted into the pan, as the most perfect syrup we'd ever made flowed into a two-gallon bucket. When it was half full we closed the spigot to pour what we had into Mason jars, feeling rather smug.

As the third jar filled, Charlie's eyes narrowed and his brow knitted. The viscosity was spot on, but the syrup had an unmistakably green cast to it. We eyed each other, then took a bead on that filter cloth. Grabbing a white T-shirt, we replaced the culpable green felt and reopened the spigot.

Our first few pints of syrup aren't our best, but we'd learned another caution, and had paid excellent homage to St. Patrick. Tomorrow we have another 100 gallons to boil and perhaps a new lesson to learn. But today, as the sap dripped down the spiles, I wasn't thinking of failure.

The sandhill cranes warbled overhead, and bickering male cardinals flitted brightly about the grove. A tiny pine siskin put in a brief appearance on his way north. I feel near enough to spring to claim sweet success whatever happens tomorrow.

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