Sweet beginnings of spring
By Elizabeth Gibson | March 10,2013
Spring comes on very fast here in Vermont after our long winters. Between the longer days, the mud and the steam rising from the sugarhouses, I’ve been experiencing some spring fever these past few weeks.
As I observe the telltale signs — the bright red flash of the cardinal in the wild rose bushes and the smell of earth and rain — I remember springs past when our now-grown sons were small, especially the early spring day I spent with our younger son Thad when he was about 9 years old.
That day we went outside together to see if the first crocuses were up. Not yet, but we did find some snowdrops — tiny white flowers that I had years before when we had first moved here.
The day was wonderfully sunny, and we decided to walk over to our neighbors, across lots. The previous year these neighbors had made 800 gallons of maple syrup, and Thad had a yearning to visit their sugarhouse.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting with friends at the sugarhouse, but Thad was most motivated by the allure of tasting some warm, fresh maple syrup. We headed off across the fields to see if our neighbors were boiling.
The day was glorious: deep blue sky, the sun a welcome warmth in the chill air. Thad kept up a running stream of conversation about everything he was already looking forward to in the summer: He doesn’t have to bring in wood for the stoves, Popsicles always taste best in the summer, and there’s lots of sweet Timothy grass to chew on.
We went up over the hill where we could see all the way to the Adirondacks in the northwest and then down through the woods, where we could hear the sap dripping steadily into the buckets attached to the old maple trees.
The weather that week had been favorable for sugaring, with freezing nights and mild days. We checked out some of the well-filled buckets and then arrived at the sugarhouse.
But we were too early; our neighbors were still gathering sap from their 2,000 buckets. They told us to come back in the evening, when they would be boiling.
As we walked home by a slightly different route we came to one of our favorite places on the hillside below the old apple orchard — a natural spring, where the water trickled out of a huge rock outcropping into a little depression that formed a small pool.
Right by the pool was a large, smooth, slab of rock, warmed by the afternoon sun. I plunked myself down there. Thad scrambled over the outcropping and delighted in all he found: the algae, dried flowers from last year, and intricate lichen.
We stayed a long time and then slowly climbed the hill back home.
That evening brought freezing temperatures. We went back to visit our neighbors. Steam was now rising from the roof of the sugarhouse, and inside it was nice and warm.
We talked with our neighbors while we watched the sap bubbling in the huge evaporator and sampled some of the hot, fresh syrup. The matriarch of the clan gave me her recipe for maple cream, a wonderful smooth, sweet spread on toast and muffins. We watched her son draw the finished syrup off from the evaporator.
Then I took the reluctant Thad home. He had already consumed two large cups of maple syrup and was clamoring for more. By now it was getting late, and I was worried he wouldn’t sleep.
Visiting sugarhouses is a time-honored tradition in Vermont. This year’s open sugarhouse weekend is March 23-24. A list of maple syrup producers that you can visit then is available from the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association.
Or just watch for steam rising from your local sugarhouse and spend some time with your neighbors and learn about a unique Vermont product that has been locally and sustainably produced for centuries.
Elizabeth Gibson coordinates the Environment page. She lives in Pawlet and can be reached at email@example.com.