Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: The sights, smells and sounds of sugaring in NH
In early April, I was delighted to receive a letter from our dear reader-friend Anne Somero of New Ipswich.
In this letter, Anne's descriptive essay embraces her creative, sensitive thoughts and emotions as she describes the sights, smells and sounds of spring sugaring time.
Anne wrote: "This morning I heard the bluebird sing. I saw the red-winged blackbirds, I watched a huge flock of geese flying north. I know what this means. It means spring - spring in New Hampshire. The bluebirds have been here all winter, occasionally all hunkered up and looking grumpy. But I never hear them in winter. This morning I sat watching the dawn spread over the curve of the earth, and I heard it! The bluebird's song, so quiet, so warbley, so wrenchingly lovely. It makes you hold your breath for a moment, just so you won't miss it. The last time I watched geese they were flying south, high and fast, their calls, faint and far away. Now they are following ice out, I suppose, heading to their nesting grounds, heading home. And red-winged blackbirds? They flock early in spring, flashing their red wing feathers for all the world to see. But they are quiet this morning, just sitting in the bare lilac bush looking all perky and full of fun. The old saying goes 'when you hear the red-wings sing you have two weeks left of sugaring.' The old-timers, they knew. They took the time to listen to nature and what it had to say. So I'm waiting. When I hear that cheerful 'per-chick-a-reee' then I'll know that sugaring is nearly done. It will be, soon. Perhaps tomorrow. I'll listen, and the slushy, swampy places will ring with blackbird music.
"It's a blue and white day. The sky and the clouds and the snow and steam blowing from the sugar house make it so. The wind is brisk, it swirls the steam and smoke from the chimney, pushing them down, earthward, then flinging them back up over the barn and tree tops, melding them with the sky. When I step out the door, I can smell the maple smell, all smoky, and sweet and damp and sugary. How can you describe maple? It sleeps in the earth all winter, then when the warm sun comes calling it rises up, up thorough the woody heart of the tree, seeking buds and leaves, flowing out if it finds a crack or a hole. It has thinned out with the rain and snow melt and is food and drink and nourishment for the heart and body of the tree.
"Like all the other good things, it is given to us, mortal creatures. We, too, need food and drink and nourishment for body and soul. So we drill a hole and tap into this river of life. We put in a spout and a hook and hang a bucket, fit on a cover. Ah! That first faint 'ping' as a crystal drop of sap hits the bottom of the bucket! Springtime music to a sugar maker's ear. Stay now and listen to the tune it plays, gaining rhythm and momentum, filling the bottom. The 'pings' turn into 'splashes' that sing the song of the maple.
"If the weather is right - nights below freezing the days above - then the buckets are emptied and the clear, icy liquid is brought into the sugar house where it is warmed and boiled until water is steamed away and the golden maple is left for the canner.
"Last summer the sugar maker filled his woodshed with great stacks of wood to run the arch. Now it's a steady round of holding tank to pump to boiling pan. From woodpile to arch, your arms full. Open the arch door. Watch out for sparks as they fly upward. Bend and shove in the wood. Shut the door tightly. Listen to the fire catch and roar. Listen to the bubble and foam of the syrup. Watch the temperature to make sure you draw the syrup off before it cooks too long. Know when to stop for it takes a master hand to get it right. It may take a score of years to attain the magic of a master. But one who loves syrup-making will teach generations to continue on.
"It's early in the morning when the light is just coming over the trees. The mud in the path is crunchy and everything is frost covered and still. It's shivering in your parka while you stoke up the coals to crackle and the sugar house to warm, it's coffee and breakfast, blueberry pancakes, hot from the kitchen, slathered with warm syrup. It's talking through the sweet maple steam. It's the fresh air blowing in when a visitor opens the door and comes to sit a spell. It's friends and strangers who gather round and share the world with you. In warm, lazy afternoons, it's climbing over snowbanks to empty buckets. It's wet feet and cold hands. It's velvet evenings when the full moon spills a golden light over the world. It's a good fire that sends sparks red and flaming into the black sky. It's a guitar, mellow, and a voice raised in song. It's old shadowy friends who still linger in the smoky oracle of time. It's the stillness of midnight, when the fire dies down and you turn out the lights. When the quiet descends. When you crawl beneath the quilts and know that it is maple sugaring time again.
"Let the red-wing sing me his song tomorrow. I will listen and hear the old-timers say 'two more weeks of sugaring'- its spring in New Hampshire."
Thank you, Anne, for your thoughts of "sugaring" in springtime.
Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey.