I hike through the woods on a crisp morning, listening through my fluffy white ear muffs to the birds singing, the gentle flow of the spring-fed creek below, and the odd squishy crunch of my winter boots on the muddy leaves of the path. This is my alone time with God. The time for me to walk and pray and listen. The time for me to find my peace for the day. It’s an absolutely vital part of the day.
As I walk, I peer through the woods at the barren trees. There’s my favorite, a sycamore tree, with it’s telltale peeling bark and giant leaves now scattered about at its feet and mine. Its branches reach high for the sunlight when it shines. There are so many lessons to be learned from that tree - the reminder of Zacchaeus daring to see Jesus and Jesus noticing him in spite of his low social standing, and how God wants to peel off our rough exterior and give us a new heart within.
Then I see another wise old giant. This one is tall, as most all the trees in the forest are, with its branches far beyond reach. Its bark is smooth but not as smooth as a sycamore, nor does it peel. It is much knobbier and not nearly as stout as an oak. However its most distinguishing feature is one that it didn’t grow on its own. It is marked with a pink ribbon, tied around the trunk, so it can be identified even in the dead of winter when its once brightly colored leaves are no longer above us but lying in heaps with the leaves of all the other trees, now just the same unadorned brown as the others, leaving no mark of their brilliance and variety of hues that were present but a few short months before.
I smile as I think about the previous fall when our family hiked around the woods on a mission to find all the maple trees whose trunks were at least twelve inches in diameter. We used the very last bit of our bright pink curling ribbon to mark these trees, though some were still marked from the previous year’s hunt. I also groan a bit inwardly thinking about how many hours we spent boiling sap on the open fire and later on the kitchen stove.
Yet it was a grand adventure! It was our first time making our very own maple syrup. I remember how we waited until the weather would warm above freezing in the day, but below freezing at night. That was supposed to be when the sap flows best. We took our newly purchased equipment through the woods, climbing, sliding, searching and finding our marked trees, deciding where we should tap them.
“On the south side,” the books said, “under the first big branch.”
My husband drilled into the trees, one by one, inserting a black spile with a maple leaf emblem and an attached tube directed into a bucket below. We waited anxiously to see if anything would happen. Nothing did right then, so we left the buckets to collect the sap, drip by drip, through the night.
The next morning we hiked back through the woods, following our same path, checking each bucket. Smiles and hoorays filled the air as we saw our very first collection of clear, cold sap. We triumphantly carried our harvest back to the house where we celebrated by pouring it into glasses and anxiously tasted the first drops of our own homegrown maple sap. Such an interesting combination of sweet and watery, like store-bought flavored water but much more refreshing. The kids especially liked it, and even more so on the days when there was a thin layer of ice on top of the sap in the buckets. “Sap ice” as we called it, became a real delicacy in our home.
We made drinking maple sap a regular treat for the season. On Tuesdays, the kids and I decided to have “Tea Time Tuesdays” and serve our maple sap “tea” in our fanciest china tea cups with saucers while I read poetry and hymn lyrics aloud. For most of the sap, though, we strained and poured it into our large boiling pot, not knowing exactly how to make syrup, but excited about a grand new experiment!
Forty gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. That’s a lot of sap and a lot of boiling! We had dug a fire pit and planned to boil the sap outside, but ended up doing most of the boiling indoors after the first couple of batches that we soon realized needed a lot of attention. The sweet smell of maple sugar filled our home, and our windows fogged over with condensation from the boiling pots that covered the stove.
Boiling sap down to syrup is a funny thing. It must be a fast boil, so I’ve read, which also means that it must be checked regularly as things can happen quickly once they get going. It takes hours to reach the point when the sap needs to be watched constantly to catch that critical moment when when the sap no longer bubbles like water but rather foams and froths in a sticky lava-like way that means it has reached its prime. Now it is no longer what it once was, a bit of sweet in a mass of watered down. Rather, it is only the sweet. The dross has been done away with and what remains is nothing but pure, simple sweetness.
Unfortunately, I tended to get busy with other things and would oftentimes forget my boiling sap for just a moment too long. Then realizing what I’d done, I’d race to the kitchen as the kids laughed at my distress and wild flight. Sometimes I would catch the sap just at its turning point and victoriously fill another jar with our marvelous liquid gold. Often, however, I’d run to the kitchen in time to see a scorched bit of sugar sizzling in the bottom of the pot, meaning hours of boiling had been wasted, gallons of sap gone, and that it would take some serious scrubbing to clean out the remnants of what would have been a breakfast treat to go with Daddy’s pancake shapes in days to come. No time to sulk about scorched syrup though, there was a lot more sap that needed to be boiled down to make room in the refrigerator for the next collection.
We harvested sap morning and night, and sometimes added a third collection time when the sap was really flowing. We really didn’t have the space for all the sap but hated to waste it, so we pressed on, drinking some, feverishly boiling most of it, and constantly rearranging our refrigerator to make room for yet another container of sap. Our entire existence seemed to be wrapped up in the making of maple syrup.
It’s hard to believe it has been a whole year since then. How much will the kids remember from last year’s experience? Will they remember how to tap the trees, how to find the right place to drill, how much sap it takes to make a gallon of syrup? Maybe, but more likely they will remember hiking through the woods as a family, working together to gather the sap, the feeling of accomplishment in making our own syrup, and how silly Mommy looks when running full speed through the house to try to save a batch of syrup.
I look around the woods at the trees marked for our second season of maple sugaring. We have more marked this year. Today is warm but tonight - tonight it is supposed to get below freezing. Tomorrow will be a warm day again. It’s time. Time to get out the spiles and tubes, buckets and boiling pots. Time to hunt through the woods for our pink ribbons and awaiting maple benefactors. The time has come. Maple sugar season.