The Sweet Taste of Spring
March winds blow the sweet scent of maple sap boiling to my questing nose. When the days are warm and sunny and the nights below freezing, the sap rises in the trees.
If those trees are sugar maples, then it is worth drilling a hole in the bark, inserting a tap, and collecting their sweet sap. There is so much sugar in sugar maple sap that it can be boiled and turned into maple syrup and maple sugar.
There’s about one gallon of maple syrup and ninety-nine gallons of water in one hundred gallons of maple sap.* A hot fire and a slow but steady boil send that sweet-smelling water vapor high in the clear, cold sky. The March wind blows it to me. I close my eyes and remember my years of “sugaring,” making maple syrup.
There’s something special about a task that requires one to stay up all night. Maple sap starts to ferment if it is left at normal temperatures for very long. Once ten or so gallons of sap have been collected, the boiling begins . . . and cannot be stopped until the finished syrup is achieved many, many, many hours later.
I have never sugared without at least one overnighter, and sometimes two. A large operation boils sap for weeks without stopping, just drawing off the syrup as it forms, if the run is steady and copious.
It was a picture of Helen Nearing driving a team of horses through the woods standing on a sleigh loaded with buckets of maple sap that made me long for a homestead where I could lead The Simple Life, like her. Two years later, I had my own “sugar bush” (an acre or more of woodlot where large sugar maples grow). Spring equinox found me with my drill in hand, a pocket full of taps, and a bunch of funny buckets with lids to hang from the taps. “Ting, ting,” the ping of sap filling the metal buckets echoes, tying me through time to every woman who has ever sugared, and bringing a smile to my heart and face.
My groves of sugar maples have never been large enough to require a team of horses or a sleigh. I’ve always lugged a big bucket out to the trees and poured the sap from the collecting buckets into it. When I have two or three buckets full, I pour them into a big galvanized tub set up on cinder blocks over a fire and commence to boil it down.
Native peoples valued maple sugar so highly that they set up camp in the sugar bush and lived there until the sap stopped flowing. Lacking metal drill bits, they cut a shallow groove in the bark and pressed hollow elder stems into service as taps to direct the flow of sap into birch bark containers.
I can heat the sap directly in my metal tub, while they had to hollow out a log, put smooth rocks into the fire, heat them, and put the hot rocks into the sap in the hollowed out log to boil it down into maple syrup and sugar. Whew! I am impressed with the power of the desire for sweet. It takes far more calories, in fuel and human energy, to make maple syrup or maple sugar than it returns.
Grandmother Twylah taught us that maple trees are friendly and companionable, colorful and expressive. They always have a positive attitude and are adept at helping us see solutions to impossible problems. Maple trees are devoted and true. Make friends with a maple and you will have a friend for life, she advised.
Ellen Everet Hopman, green witch, reminds us that maple-syrup-making time is Eostre’s time. Eostre (ee-oh-stir) is the Teutonic goddess of fertility and manifestation. Her symbols are the egg and the rabbit; her time is Spring Equinox. A lovely custom, still enacted, but without the underlying magic, is to paint a picture of something you desire on an egg and plant it in the ground so Eostre can help it grow and become real.
If it’s too late to tap your maples, or you live too far south for the sap to flow strongly, you can still be blessed and embraced by maple. A decoction of maple bark boiled in water can be used to ease sore eyes externally and to tonify the uterus after birth internally.
A magical wand of maple wood is used for spells that bring harmony, especially in the home. And maple leaves sewn into a charm made of green flannel, tied with a golden string, will bring abundance into your life.
Indulge your desire for sweet. Celebrate spring equinox and Eostre, who loves sweet things. Have a stack of pancakes swimming in butter and maple syrup. Or pour maple syrup over plain vanilla ice cream and savor the sweet taste of the friendly maple tree.
* How much sugar per gallon of sap is quite variable, depending on the type of maple, the growing conditions, and especially the amount of sun the tree gets. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) sap is the sweetest, followed by the saps silver maple (Acer saccharinum), Northern red maple (Acer rubrum), and Norway maple (Acer platanoides).