Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Maple Birthday

My daughter was born at the tail end of winter, spring just weeks away, and as I sat for hours holding and nursing her, my firstborn, I was acutely attuned to the time of year, the slant of the low winter sun, the gradual lengthening of the days, the changing angle of light coming in through the window onto the pair of us in the rocking chair. I followed that shifting rectangle of anemic light across the floor of the nursery to treat her mild jaundice, holding my baby up like an offering to the sun. How carefully I tracked the sun in my daughter’s first weeks, how slowly the time eked by as I longed for spring and for sleep, sensing that I would wake from my post-partum daze as the natural world erupted in bloom. But for those first weeks, everything seemed dormant, in stasis, and yet so much was already beginning to happen: the bulbs stirring underground, the birds already winging our way, the grasses preparing to green, the latent shoots waiting to emerge, and the sap flowing vigorously, secretly in the still leafless trees.

Now I tell my daughter that she was born during one of the most special times of the year, when the world is secretly preparing for rebirth, when the trees are great columns of moving sap, when the maple sugaring season is in full swing here in New England where we now live.

On my daughter’s seventh birthday, we invited about eighteen boys and girls, most of them first graders, to a local 4-H farm for a maple sugaring party. The day started with an indoor lesson about how to identify different types of maple trees based on their leaves, bark, and buds. The children sat in a half-circle on the floor listening to the naturalist and passing around maple samaras, pressed leaves, and bits of bark. Next they took turns practicing drilling a hole into a log with a hand brace and fitting the spile—or spout—into the taphole. They learned about different types of maples—sugar, black, red, even silver—all suitable for tapping, though the sugar maple is preferred for commercial production due to its higher sugar content and longer season.

Running out into the sunny, chilly March morning, the children headed for the sugar bush where they gathered around the maples, examining the spiles, lifting the lids and peering into the aluminum buckets collecting sap. At the naturalist’s invitation, they dipped their fingers into the buckets and sucked the sweet sugar water or let the slow drips off the spiles accrue in small puddles in their palms, which they licked away with relish.  

Next they headed for the sugarhouse, gasping at the intense heat and smoke from the wood-burning evaporator boiling down the sap. Standing in a safe perimeter around the fire, they listened to the naturalist tell them about the process of evaporation. Every forty gallons of sap, she told them, makes just one gallon of maple syrup. As the children’s cheeks began to glow red from the heat, she told them Native American legends about the genesis of the maple’s sweet sap and how people first learned of its deliciousness.

Of course it didn’t begin there. The year before, when my daughter was turning six, I took her to a maple sugaring class at another local farm. “There’s nothing quite like it in my experience,” said the naturalist who led that class. “You put a hole in a tree and you get water. Then you boil it down and get syrup.” We learned that maple syrup production is unique to North America, that the first accounts of Native Americans consuming the sap of maple trees date to the 1500s. We learned the ideal conditions for tapping the trees—temperatures in the forties during the day, in the twenties at night—and that the sugaring season typically lasts around six weeks, sometimes four, sometimes even eight. The season comes to an end when the temperatures stay above freezing or the buds on the trees begin to open. The sugar of this season, the naturalist told us, is what the tree built up last summer and stored as starch, so the production of this winter is determined by the conditions of the summer before.

To be tapped, a tree has to be a minimum of ten inches in diameter, usually thirty to fifty years old. A tree between eighteen and twenty-four inches in diameter can have two buckets; a tree over twenty-inches can have three. A good day’s flow fills a gallon bucket. Taking sap from a tree, the naturalist told us, is like donating blood. As long as you don’t overdo it, it doesn’t harm the tree. Some trees have been tapped every year for a century.

“And just think that this happens right on my birthday,” my daughter told me at the end of the class. That was the genesis of the maple birthday. She planned the party for a whole year.

Hungry from their time in the outdoors, the children headed back inside to eat. There was no cake at this party. Instead, the children were offered all-you-can-eat pancakes with maple syrup from the farm’s trees, poured out of mason jars. My daughter ate six, but my daughter’s friend who had also just turned seven, who was also a child of maple season, ate a record seven. Their stomachs full, the children headed back outside to roll down the hill and visit the 4-H animals in the barn. Near the end of the party, my daughter stationed herself by a box of the goody bags she had assembled herself. As the children prepared to leave, she handed each of her friends a brown paper bag hand-stamped with a maple leaf containing homemade maple cookies and a slip of paper with a maple-themed joke she had written and signed herself.

The maple birthday was really a series of lessons disguised as a party. Our goals were lofty: We wanted the children become more aware of the cycle of the seasons, to understand that they live on a planet where every day is not the same. We wanted them to think about how the natural world depends on these cycles—that there is a time when animals sleep the deep slumber of winter, a time when the leaves redden and then crisp, a time when nestlings fledge, and a time when the sap begins to course through trees. We wanted them to be aware of consequences—that what the trees did last summer affects them now, in late winter. We wanted them to appraise trees with an expert’s eye: “That’s a maple,” my daughter will say. “And I’m pretty sure it’s a three-bucket tree.” And we wanted them to know the sources of their food, to understand that maple sugaring is unique to this continent, that is has a long history and folklore. We wanted them to see the inherent worth of the local, the homemade, and to participate in the production of something valuable and delicious.

But really, it came down to sheer enjoyment. What seven-year-old can resist a big fire, a good story, and a puddle of syrup on a plate? What child wouldn’t want to run outside among the maples in the late winter days suddenly brimming over with light?

The party over, the children spilled into the arms of their parents, sticky-fingered, sated, the scent of wood smoke in their hair.

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