A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MAKING MAPLE SYRUP

When the leaves begin to fall and the weather turns a bit nippy, I always think about the experience I’ll tell you about below. It is one of many from this particular “life,” not all of which were pleasant, but unforgettable nonetheless.

During the early 70s there was a great movement in this country to “go back to the land.” Much to the dismay of my two daughters, my husband and I decided to join it. We spent the summer building a cabin on 13 scruffy acres in Upstate New York, and prepared to settle in for the winter. We would study and learn self-sufficiency.

Come spring, we looked forward to tapping our Maple trees and making our own syrup. Consulting my homesteaders’ handbook, I was surprised to learn there are several varieties of Maple trees, but only the Sugar Maple’s sap has a high-enough sugar concentration to make the process worthwhile. Silver and Red Maples, which grew cheek by jowl with the Sugar Maples in our woods were never tapped for syrup-making purposes.

Although the pictured leaves indicated only subtle differences I was confident I could tell them apart when the time came. However, further reading indicated the leaves would not be on the trees when it came time to pound in the taps sometime in early March. Now, what was I going to do?

I took my tree-identification book to the woods to examine the tree trunks. Inspecting the tree bark by holding the book against each tree I suspected might be a Sugar Maple was disappointing. The results were inconclusive.

Finally, inspiration struck. I would simply take a spray can of neon paint and mark the Sugar Maples while I could still identify them by their leaves.

In the woods down a hill from the cabin, I peered high in the treetops to identify the Sugar Maples. To double-check I carefully examined the leaves under the tree. Thus assured, I spray-painted a large “X” on the side of the tree trunk facing the cabin, reckoning I would be lugging my sap collection apparatus (a minor detail not yet figured out) from that direction.

After marking 20 trees, I started back to the cabin and turned to admire my handiwork. I discovered, much to my horror, I had misidentified the first tree. From the angle I now approached it, I discovered it was a Red Maple. Fearful I couldn’t remember which tree was mistakenly marked six months later, I had to do something to stop me from tapping that tree.

Taking the spray can in hand, I drew a straight line through the “X” and underneath wrote in huge letters the word, “NO!” I could now welcome winter with no fear of the leaves falling too soon, knowing we would enjoy the fruits of my labor on our pancakes next spring.

The leaves indeed fell, the brush disappeared on the 100 yards or so down the hill where the woods began,  and there in full view of our cabin were now revealed 19 trees marked with huge reflective “Xs” and one tree shouting from the forest, “NO!”

The kids laughed, their friends laughed, my friends and neighbors laughed and then their friends and neighbors came to see and stayed to laugh. When the snow fell, the sight was even more impressive. All those brilliant red letters contrasting with the white snow made for a striking visual experience.

One day a hunter came to the door. He wanted to know why all those trees were marked in the forest. He had, he said, hunted in those woods all his life, and he had no idea anyone lived here. I assured him that yes, someone did live here, and if he didn’t get off my land, I’d set the dogs on him.

The opportunity to say that comes along but once in a lifetime if that, and I seized on it. We only had one dog, but it sounded more threatening to imply the plural.

Yes, he said he would go, but first would I tell him about the markings. No, I most certainly would not I said as I turned to whistle for the dog. The hunter skedaddled, but not before he, too, laughed.

As it turned out, the maple syrup experience didn’t go as smoothly as the homesteader handbook indicated. We tapped the trees in March and boiled down the sap over an outside fire. When the liquid started to thicken, we were instructed to pour it off into a saucepan, and finish it inside on the stove. Each time this crucial point was reached, something invariably happened to divert my attention, and the syrup proceeded from golden amber to black tar before I could say “Mrs. Butterworth.”

We tried tapping the red Xed trees the next year, and this time we managed to produce less than a pint of dark Grade C syrup that any self-respecting maple syrup maker would have thrown out before it even reached the bottle. We called it quits after that.  In time we left the cabin in the woods; the “Xs” and “NO!” were still there bright and glowing as ever. I suppose they’re there to this day.

All of which brings me to the moral of this story: never spray iridescent paint on anything you don’t plan to live with for the rest of your life. Believe me. The only way to hide it from your constant view is to move away from it.

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5 thoughts on “A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MAKING MAPLE SYRUP

  1. wow what a sotry u held my interest all the way to the end! Good Job!
    sorry about your tree markings maybe one of the reasons your trees did not produce syrup that was edible was because u sprays the trees….Paint is toxic

  2. Another moral to this great experience is, just go and buy some Miss Butterworths! This is a great story Mildred Ann! I never knew you had so much determination in your younger days!

    • Well, Dot, that’s a big reason I wish I had stayed in contact with my terrific second cousins from Smith Springs. We don’t really know one another. And that’s a big reason I’m glad we’re back together. We have so many stories to tell one another. I hope Marjorie told you I’ll be back in November. I want to see you then as well, if you’re around and willing.

      On Thu, Nov 13, 2014 at 6:19 PM, Mildred Moss wrote:

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