March, 05, 2009
Last year’s sugar season was an exceptional one for Abbott’s Sapworks — the single tree, two-spile operation we traditionally run in our little corner of the Litchfield Hills. Usually, I can count on a bit more than half a gallon of syrup from our backyard sugar maple, but last March we had an almost unbroken month with ideal sap conditions, often resulting in a gallon per bucket each day. I sugared off more than a gallon of the amber nectar, enough to enjoy on aebleskiver (traditional Danish pancakes), Belgian waffles, blueberry buttermilk pancakes, silver dollar flapjacks, Indian pudding, oatmeal and sourdough French toast for at least a month of Sundays. We are still working through our last pint of that excellent vintage.
I am grateful to our maple tree for its largess, and gave it an extra layer of mulch in recompense. I don’t want to take undo advantage, given that the tree also provides shade in summer and extends its welcome limbs for swings and hammocks. I tap the tree to stay connected to my rural roots, and boyhood spent driving a tractor down muddy lanes, collecting sap and filling evaporators in the sweet fog of the sugar house. For me this is the most welcome sign of spring, even when the snow hides the brave new shoots of daffodils.
For this two-bucket outfit — and against the better judgment of those home economics majors who know full well what a heady brew of maple steam can do to wallpaper — I am compelled to set the kettle to boil on the stove. This has the tendency to tempt little ants out of winter dormancy and into our kitchen, but that is a small price to pay for the nectar of the gods.
This year, in the final days of February with daylight temperatures reaching the mid-40s, I spotted sap weeping from the drill holes of a woodpecker. I retrieved the buckets from winter storage and scrubbed them to a galvanized shine. The children and I searched the sunny side of the trunk for another hand-span between faded scars to place the spiles, setting the drill at an upward angle so the sap would flow freely. Each percussive drop in the pail obeys a particular rhythm — one spile runs faster, one slow and steady — which to me is a soft and comforting music. Given time and the right conditions, nature’s slow accumulations will produce a gallon of sap, or an inch of soil.
We had a hard freeze this winter, without the thaws of recent years that forced premature flows as early as Twelfth Night. Most climate change models predict that sugar maple will vanish from the New England landscape during this century. Even the few studies that allow for a limited persistence for this species vastly diminish its representation in the northern forest and drive sugar maple completely from southern New England. The trees simply will not have sufficient dormancy and temperature variation to maintain viability.
The implications for sugar producers and rural economies that rely on autumn leaf peepers are grave. The ecological costs may be just as catastrophic, though not as easily quantified. Sugar maple is a larval host for nearly 40 species of moths and butterflies. Then, too, an expansion of the outbreak of Asian longhorn beetle from its new foothold in central Massachusetts might only accelerate its demise. This pest, like chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease before it, has the real potential to be the tree killer of our generation.
Each morning I step out to the tree and mark the level slowly rising in the pails. When I empty them in the afternoon I run my hand against the rough gray bark, feeling the warmth of late winter sunlight. This tree has stood for close to a century, and I wish it many more years of health and steady growth. There are other trees that can be tapped — black and yellow birch, butternut, hickory and even invasive Norway maple sap have 3 percent sugar — but I have no desire to substitute ersatz syrup for the perfection that is ours by birthright. Nor would I trade the blazing orange of autumn for any paler palette.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.
© Copyright 2009 by TCExtra.com
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