Jefferson salamanders are the earliest vernal pool visitors, arriving even when there’s lots of ice.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 7 of 7

There are things that make someone a good sugarmaker, like an understanding of forest health, keen attention to detail, endurance. But at the end of the day, the success of any given season mostly comes down to the weather, which no one has any control over. This season ended up being a perfect case in point. 

It was a cold and snowy February in southern Vermont, so there was no meaningful February sap run. We got a minor run on the first day of March, but then a cold front moved in and it didn’t get above freezing for seven straight days. The trees don’t run when they’re frozen, so this amounted to a lost week. We could have, in theory, made up that lost time in April, but only if it stayed cool and March-like. It did not. Three days into the warmup we had a three-day stretch where the highs reached 60, 66, and 56, temperatures that are really too warm. You can absorb a three-day stretch of this, but the seven-day heat wave that came on March 20 – 26, when temperatures soaring into the mid-70s, was just too much. The warmth changed something in the trees, which changed something in the sap. Last week, the syrup went off-flavor. The sap still came after that, but neither we nor the place where we sold a portion of our sap this year thought it was worth the time and effort to collect and boil it. And so we’re done.

Examining the weather from a different angle, I noted that this March, in our woods, there were 11 days when it was in the 30s or below – a little too cold. And there were 11 days when it was 60 degrees or higher, which is a little too warm. That left just 10 days in the sweet spot. I hauled sap on 22 days this season. Last year, when the weather was more consistent, I hauled sap on 32 days in a season that started on February 24 and ended on April 2. As the days-spent-hauling number would suggest, our yield this year was off by almost a third compared to last. In 2020, our Maple Hill bush averaged 29.5 gallons per tap, this year the average was 20.6. 

But it is what it is. Compared to last year, this season was a disappointment. But one of the good things about getting older is that your perspective broadens. As a young man, I used to be happy with 12 gallons of sap per tap. Middle-aged me is balking that I even wrote that line, thinking that there was a lot less riding on a season when i was 25 years old. But young me is still in there somewhere, and immensely grateful that the trees gave so much. 

Bulk syrup prices have been creeping downward for the last decade as production boomed in the Northeast, and an off year, production-wise, that keeps the packers honest and a little scared about supply probably doesn’t hurt in the grand scheme of things. 

Near the end of the season, I just happened to look closely at the tongue that connects the trailer hitch to the pickup and noticed that it had cracked and was hanging on by a strip of twisted metal. Had the trailer broken free with a load of sap on it, it could have been a disaster. That didn’t happen. 

Near the end of the year I found a spotted salamander trapped in a bulk tank swimming in 1,600 gallons of sap. I pumped it down and climbed in and rescued the silly thing. Later, I told my 4-year-old about it, and the next day, I’m told, it was the talk of Evergreen Preschool. Nobody there would have even comprehended what 20 gallons of sap per tap means, but the fact that I rescued a salamander gave me Ryder-from-Paw-Patrol status. I felt like I earned a bit back in her eyes after being gone so much for the last two months.  

We’ll get through this pandemic and there will be better days ahead. Thanks for reading.

The hard-won snowless ground got a sprinkled coat of snow overnight. The juncos are easy to see now, but still too many to count.

Dispatch from the Sugarwoods, 2021, Part 6

Stress tends to distill us, accentuating our base personality traits. Maureen Dowd wrote a political column about this recently, pointing out that the stress of the Presidency made Jimmy Carter more preachy, Bill Clinton more self-indulgent, George W. Bush more insecure, Barack Obama more professorial. 

But you certainly don’t have to be a president to experience some version of this. I tend to lose myself deeply in things, and the stress of pandemic life, combined with the stress of the maple season, have certainly magnified this trait. As I’ve lost myself in sugaring, it’s been a struggle to be a good father, and partner, and friend, and good teammate to people I work with on the Almanac. There’s some of this every year, but this year more so. I’ve neglected emails for a month because in my down time I couldn’t bring myself to even turn on the computer. Friends would ask if they could help lessen the sugaring load, but I couldn’t think of how they might – there was just no capacity for peripheral thought. The part that stings the most were all the times I’d have to stop in the house to work on a broken pump part, or get a tool, or get wash water, and my four-year-old would be there and say: “Dad, let’s play!” and I’d respond numbly with: “I have to work, honey.” And then I’d go back to work, over and over again, a lot of days from before she woke up to after she went to bed. In hindsight it doesn’t seem like it would have been that hard to spare 20 minutes, but I just kept grinding. It was what-not-to-do parenting right out of a Harry Chapin folk song. 

This is weirdly personal for a maple blog, I know, but I’ll bet you anything you recognize some stress-induced distillation in your own life these days. We’ve spent a year now being isolated from one and other, which is its own sort of trauma beyond whatever financial and health-related traumas people have endured. Of course it’s changing us.

There’s something to note here, too, in that farming in general and sugaring in particular is immensely stressful on a professional scale. That’s something that’s often glossed over in the PR copy. Rick is the name of one of the guys at XR Maple I sell sap to, and I don’t think he sleeps during the season. I got texts from him at night during tapping season from the woods, tapping in the dark with a headlamp. I’d deliver a load at 9 pm and he’d be there starting the RO and heading out to haul sap. I’d bring another load at 4 am and he’d still be there. I have this image as I write this of him standing in front of the heater in the RO room, cigarette hanging out of his mouth with a long ash on the end of it, absorbing the heat while looking just bone tired, before a wave of energy courses through him, and he whirls off for another 20 hours of climbing mountains and hauling sap and emergency repairs and making syrup. 

There’s joy in this work, some of it the same sort of adrenaline-fueled, masochistic joy that endurance athletes crave. But when that adrenaline subsides, you’re sometimes left feeling despondent and alone.