naiveté and sugaring

At the end of last week the forecast for the following 10 days looked perfect for sugaring. That assessment is according to myself and my beloved, who have never tapped a tree in the entirety of our worthless lives. I have been leading the maple syrup charge this winter, insomuch that I have read The Maple Sugar Book by the Nearings and have come to the conclusion that it doesn't seem so hard (on a very small small scale) but requires much patience. I quickly became the in-house expert.

So, we got ahead of ourselves and the weather and started scrambling around for buckets last weekend. Ethan said that Clinton may have some old buckets for sale. Kyle said his uncles probably did. Nick said we might want to check with Sam. After several nervous and furtive calls went unanswered I took my mother in a snow storm 20 miles south to the nearest hardware store to buy some cheap modern plastic buckets. At this point I was just picturing sap streaming down every maple behind our house and I couldn't bare to let a natural sugar supply slip from my hold any longer. Mom and I came back with 10 buckets and 10 taps and 10 lids, a special tapping drill bit and $150 lighter. The new metal buckets would cost twice that.  Obviously this could become an expensive endeavor fast so next year I will begin my calls for used buckets much earlier.

On Sunday as we were about to go tap we were told by Sarah that she thought we were too early. Sam wrote to say the same. Justin called to say so too.

I started to feel quite embarrassed about my excitement and sugaring naiveté  Apparently, you don't want to tap too early as the tree will begin to heal around the tap hole immediately and that leaves you with only so many weeks of usable tap. Plus the neighbors will just have another reason to think of you as the asshole from the flatlands. Apparently the weather needs to be 6 degrees warmer than it said it was going to and the sun needs to be out to warm up the trees and on and on and on.  I wish we had some sort of mentor here in Vermont for instances like this, where we feel utterly new and completely stupid. The complexity of sugaring and the nuances of reading the weather and the trees isn't something you can just learn from a book.

Despite the collective neighborly opinion that we were too early we decided to put up one tap (above!) just to see how it is done. We were going to use being too early  to our unprepared advantage and start planning in detail which trees we would tap and how we would boil the sap to syrup.

Our next-door neighbor very kindly offered us the use of his meditation cabin for boiling down sap. It was perfect, I wish I had snapped a photo of it. A small wooden room with one wall made entirely of mismatched windows. It had a window seat long enough to recline upon and an upright cylindrical wood stove. The walls were peppered with various artifacts from his travels to India. He and Nick started a fire in the stove and put a pot of boiling water atop, to test how quickly it would heat up and how easily it would boil.

I'd imagine there is little doubt as to where this is going.

Nick left to do nighttime chores. I went to start cooking dinner (we were having all the immediate neighbors to dinner). The owner of the meditation cabin went into his house briefly to feed his cats and dog.

Before any of us had time to react the meditation cabin cum sugar shack was enveloped. We aren't sure quite how it happened. But happen it did. Quickly and silently and methodically as only fires can do.

Once the fire was discovered there was nothing we could do but watch it burn. Fortunately nobody had been sleeping on the window seat. No cats were curled up by the stove.  There was a solid foot of snow surrounding the cabin and forbidding it to spread to our homes. So we watched, in complete disbelief. The five of us who spend our days weaving amongst one another on this little hilltop community, watched it burn. And then we ate dinner together and laughed at the absurdity of the night and felt the gratitude that our first fire on this farm was so harmless.

Now we have burnt to the ground the only shelter, stove, and pile of wood, we had at our disposal for the season.

I am not optimistic about how the rest of this "season" will follow. I think we may just bite the bullet and buy syrup from any one of our well-seasoned neighbors again this year. I want to limit the number of times we publicly embarrass ourselves. We will try to put a little time and distance between us and this first fiery attempt.


  1. Oh it's a learning curve. Unfortunately in your case it turned out to be a rather destructive one. You'll get it next time!

  2. Oh no! I'm sorry you had such a terrible first try! And I'm super impressed by your openness about it….I can imagine the sheepishness, to say the least, that you must be feeling. Thanks for keeping it real….it will be better next time :)

  3. I love reading posts where farmers admit their errors. Doesn't mean that we newbies won't make the same errors when we start out, but it increases the kinship and knowledge. Great post, better luck next time!

  4. I am glad you ate together and laughed.

    One year our barn burned down along with all our winter hay. The negatives: we had to pay extra for supplementary hay that late in the season and use our neighbor's shelters. The positives: the insurance money allowed us to build a structure that was tighter and better suited to our needs, and the kindness of our neighbors left a warmth I still feel today.

    All the same, I'm so sorry that happened.

    1. Oh yes, insurance money is always a good positive :)! I'm sorry your hay burned......was the fire started by wet hay? Barn fires are my biggest and most constant fear.

      I know so well the warmth from caring neighbors you speak of, it's a good feeling.

  5. Kate, I'm so sorry you feel that embarrassed. I know that's easy for me to say outside of the situation, but I really mean it.

    It's really wonderful that your neighbors were understanding and made light of the situation. Fortunately this is just one of those things that will turn into a favorite story for your children someday.

    ps. I'm embarrassed to admit that the syrup you gave us is only a quarter full. I've been pouring it over oatmeal every morning and it's heavenly.

    pss. Got your note and you're both always welcome. :)

  6. I hoped that what foreshadowed was not true, such a cozy sounding little place. But relieved when noted it was controlled and warmed when noted that you all were able to laugh and carry on at dinner. I hope you don't give up and you keep on! Everyone has to be embarrassed before they're any good at anything. I think.

  7. OH MY GOSH. I'm glad nobody was hurt. You have put the fear of God in me. We are sugaring for the first time this year ( I'm chronicling it here: http://littledogvintage.blogspot.com/2013/02/first-maple-sugaring-season.html) and we don't know what we're doing either. We leave the sap boiling on the wood burning stove in the barn. Your post has got me rethinking that!!

    1. Oh Claire you guys look like you are doing light years better over there. I'm so envious of your (earlier) sap season too! Our trees aren't running yet. Good luck! And make sure somebody keeps watch over that stove! xo.

  8. So glad everyone is OK. In the way of lessons, this one seems fairly painless (despite the loss of the sweet little cabin you described). Growth and learning are generally quite uncomfortable, but none of it is anything to be embarrassed about :-)

  9. Oh, No! I was enjoying this post, knowing just how it feels to tap trees only to have the old Yankees question your timing. But the little cabin! I'm glad no one was hurt, though.

  10. I used to make maple syrup with my neighbours each year and it is one of my fondest childhood memories. We collected sap for several days and stored it in large barrels. Once we had a substantial amount of sap we created a large outdoor bonfire and used a large flat pan (larger surface area) to boil down the sap. It was a social event as well as work and since there were many people working there was always at least one set of eyes to watch the fire. It takes a long time to boil down but the reward is oh so sweet! Don't be discouraged my parents were first time farmers too and we learned so many lessons the hard way. Wishing you all the best in future sugaring seasons!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...