For weekenders, there are three stages of country home-ownership. The first stage is the purchase of the property and marveling at the fact that you’re suddenly and nonsensically the master of a domain that may include trees and fields and the flora and fauna that inhabit them. If you’re fortunate your purchase may have even come with a view.
The second stage of home ownership is dedicated to improving the property. Making the house livable, raising it to whatever standards you can afford and that comports with your family’s sense of aesthetics. This includes landscaping, a process that typically involves a steep, often expensive learning curve as well as paid professionals that neglect to inform you that the fragile -- native or otherwise -- fronds, flowering bushes and fruit trees you plant in the spring will likely be devoured by ravenous wildlife the following winter, forcing you to replace the eyesores with things deer hate. Thus far I’ve found only one: boxwoods.
The third and final stage -- unless you’ve already sold the place and sought counseling; your fury fueled by skylight leaks, mouse infestations, power outages, frozen pipes and a thousand other slights -- is trying to turn a profit; amortizing the cost of all your repairs and home improvements, and cushioning the crushing blow of property tax bills by producing a cash crop.
That’s where our family finds itself on this leisurely curve. I remain committed to the belief that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But whether it does or not life certainly seems to creep inexorably in the direction of ever-higher expenses and multiplying bills.
So we’re making maple syrup. I’m visualizing a bright, shining future filled with collection tubes running through stands of trees, a state-of-the-art sugaring house, guided tours and perhaps even a petting zoo. And most important of all a robust tax credit for contributing to the greater, sustainable glory of New York State agriculture.
We’re starting small, however. Just three taps. Truth be told this was my daughter’s idea and, even though we haven’t discussed it in detail, I doubt profit is her primary motive. It’s more about -- how does that Grateful Dead song go? -- “discovering the wonders of nature.”
Last spring she inoculated a bunch of small tree trunks with mushroom spores. We’re still waiting to see how that turns out. But between mushrooms, maple syrup, a few apple trees I planted last spring and that the deer only partially devoured, and a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes over the summer from our garden we may never have to visit the supermarket again, or at least slightly less often.
Unlike me, Lucy does her research. Before she travels she even looks up the places she’s visiting to maximize the experience, something almost anathema in our family. We prefer to wing it, figuring that if we miss something we’ll catch it the next time. Or if it’s so important or delightful – an ancient temple, say, or a pop-up bistro with a future Michelin-starred teenage prodigy chef – we’ll hear, or overhear, about it.
Lucy, who has a healthy reservoir of anxiety, is less willing to leave things to chance. So keeping her ear to the ground, or Instagram, or however people get information these days she learned the sap was flowing and the time ripe to tap our trees. That happens in February and March when, ideally, temperatures rise into the low forties during the day and dip below freezing at night.
Generally the sap flows for four to six weeks. That’s according to “Maple Syruping at Home,” a companion guide to the sap-tapping paraphernalia Lucy requested and received from Santa last Christmas – these included the metal taps, also known as spiles; a drill bit to create a suitable hole in the trunk of the designated trees, and buckets that affix to the taps to collect the sap.
Sugar maples are preferred, the most important requirements that they be greater than twelve inches in diameter and healthy with an open, southern exposure. These days, now that science has decided that trees are sentient creatures capable of communication, it would be rude to drill a 2½” hole in their side without first introducing yourself and asking their permission. Which we did, even though I frankly considered this unnecessary. I flatter myself that I already have a relationship with our trees, certainly with those closest to the house. They’re members of the family, though less noisy and odiferous than our dog.
The trees we chose include one that Lucy used to swing on as a toddler; a spreading maple to the side of the garage that I don’t think gets the respect it deserves; and a third specimen Lucy described as “charismatic,” though I think “personable” might be more apt.
The stark truth as a city person about anything that involves prospering from nature is that you can’t believe it will succeed until you see it with your own eyes. Something will interfere – storms, locusts, your own towering incompetence – to frustrate your efforts. So, having returned to the city for a couple of days, it felt astonishing when Lucy sent us videos of the sap running, or at least walking, delivering a steady drip of sugar water into the collecting buckets.
So much of the stuff, in fact, that we’ve had to move up our plan to start boiling it – ten gallons of sap reducing to one quart of syrup. A lot can happen in the meantime – the huge, propane-fueled crawfish boil pot we’ve repurposed could explode; an extinction-level asteroid could impact Earth – but I’m feeling kind of optimistic. We may never achieve industrial production. But we’ll probably be able to keep our waffles and pancakes in maple syrup through next winter.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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