A curious anachronism that we hope will remain

If there were ever a day for tapping the trees, this was it. The proof was in the sap, which almost spurted from some of the sugar maples as Charlie worked a drill through their bark. There is a moment, as the wood curls away from the deepening hole, when you wonder if your timing is right. In past years we've been too early or too late, and the taps produced precious little. The trees keep their inner lives to themselves, and we can only guess at what they'll yield based roughly on the weather, which is fickle here in south-central Indiana much of the year. February is completely unreliable for any kind of planning.

Maybe we got it right because we had not, in fact, planned on tapping the trees this week. We'd done it to release some pent-up frustration as we finally acknowledged that the cattle farm across our pasture fence will soon become an upscale housing tract - notwithstanding a communitywide effort to preserve the acreage. We had hoped it could remain green space under a permanent conservation easement - as is the case with our own 80 acres.

But our protests and proposals could not block the wheels in motion. By maple-tapping time next year, that friendly expanse of pasture dotted with native cedars, redbuds, and shagbark hickories will be parceled into private lawns, planted with ornamental shrubs and garden exotics, and artificially lit long after the lovely dusks we've always known it by. Roads and private drives will replace cow paths on the undulating extension of ridgetop that shoulders the last two sizeable farms in a rapidly suburbanizing area.

Today, fresh from a town hall meeting that gave little hope for a reprieve or combination easement, we tapped our trees, thinking we'd forget for a time the unwelcome changes to come.

The oldest of the sugar maples, nearing the century mark, form a rough ring, but their offspring have grown to fill out the grove in various patterns. Now we have all sizes and shapes of trees to tap within a short walk of the outdoor boiling hearth.

After many years of our February tradition, we've come to know which are the workhorses and which are the slackers - and that size isn't always a clue. Charlie grumbled that the fully mature maple he'd just drilled was plain indolent and never had yielded much, in contrast with younger trees to the right and left of it that were verily weeping sap. It pinged a slow drop-by-drop contribution to the pail as if determined to take its own sweet time in filling it.

We eyed a young tree we had never tapped before but decided its time had not yet come. We hung two buckets on a granddaddy maple, which has not only outproduced every other tree, but also generously sheds branches for feeding the fire - as if it just can't give enough of itself. I fingered its rough bark, riddled with the healed plugs of past harvests, in acknowledgement.

We discovered a metal spout that we'd overlooked after last year's harvest still embedded in one of the trees. The maple had firmly and permanently claimed the spile, which would not budge from the wood's embrace. It seemed small enough payment for a few more gallons of its sweet water.

We admittedly have our own small development in the grove - a log cabin, stables and workshop, and a little timber-frame library. I try to imagine how our future neighbors will view the scene across the hedge, especially of an evening in February when smoke from the sap fire curls above the trees, the cabin lamps are lit, and our cows mosey by, wondering what we're up to.

I suppose the sugar camp will seem a curious little anachronism, there among the maples. And so, we trust, it will remain.

When the grandchildren of the new homeowners look this way, the little tree we didn't tap may be a two-bucket producer. Otherwise, provided our successors keep up the tradition, and our easement stands up to the pressures of progress, the scene when the sap runs might be very much the same.

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