One of the things that engaged us when we moved onto the farm in early 1970 was preparing for maple sap harvesting and maple syrup production. That we were able to pull it off, to actually make sugaring happen and productive, seems almost miraculous and unbelievable in hindsight.
There is no production work, no hunting and gathering, no rendering on Earth more rewarding than making maple syrup. There is also no taste more delicious than maple syrup. Trust me on this: even if making maple syrup is labor-intensive in ways you simply cannot fathom, it is an act of love for which the reward is sweet and pure ambrosia. And no matter how hard the work is, and the work is extremely hard, there is joy to be had in sugaring that is found nowhere else. Besides which, when was the last time you actually had ambrosia on your hands, and on your boots, in your nostrils, going down your throat?
Maple sugaring lore and sugaring technology go back to the Native People of the Northeast, hundreds of years before the first European settlers ever set foot on the continent. Abnaki Indians knew about sugaring and shared their wisdom and sugaring techniques with the Europeans. The idea is really deliciously simple: find a way to tap into and harvest the sap that runs up the veins of mother maple, Acer saccharum, in the spring. Then boil the sap down until enough water has evaporated off so that the juice has thickened into maple syrup. Just like bees do, take the nectar back to the hive and evaporate the excess water by flapping your wings over your harvest for a good long time, days even, turning nectar into sugar, spinning floss into gold. The larger the amount of nectar which has been collected, the faster you must beat your wings to blow air through the hive, and the faster and longer you stoke the fire to dry the nectar. And you must be careful the nectar doesn’t spoil, be careful the sugar doesn’t harden. If you’ve got a big crop and the sap is running in the maples never let the sugaring fire go out.
The means of maple sugar harvesting and production are straightforward, even simple. Just figure out how you are going to gather the sap, put the gathered sap in a cauldron or pan, apply heat, boil off about ninety five percent of the water, and watch it very carefully at the end. The short moments between producing syrup that pleases the tongue of God and producing utterly useless burnt maple molasses are brief, like a sexual climax. You build up to it slowly, intensely, steadily, but when it’s upon you it is happening urgently and unstoppably according to immutable principles of expression and release quite beyond your control.
The endeavor of making maple syrup is time consuming, regardless of whether you have been making sugar all your life or you know absolutely nothing about it, which is a fair characterization of our skills and knowledge when we began our sugaring operations less than two months after moving onto the farm. What one needs to start a serious sugar production operation is lots of time and a goodly amount of equipment, including, in order of appearance: drills, taps, about three or four thousand galvanized metal two gallon buckets, a three hundred gallon sap gathering tank, a fifteen hundred gallon holding tank, a four by fifteen foot boiling pan, a sugar shack, dozens of cords of wood, a good team of horses, harness, tack, and a dray or skidder. Yeah, that should do it.
What we had to start with was the sugar shack, the gathering tank, the holding tank and the buckets, all three or four thousand of them stuck together with congealed maple sap and sugar from the last time they were used by the overwhelmed and underachieving former owners off our farm, three thousand buckets serving as caskets or homes to sweet deprived ants, moths, mayflies, and other insects who supped and lived and died inside them. Three thousand buckets, each and every one of them needing to be pulled apart from the bucket it was stuck to, and not easily pulled apart, and then cleaned. Nor was the cleaning easy, requiring absolute fastidiousness and care, because there is nothing that ruins an entire batch of maple syrup as quickly as impurities and dirt.
Now this was a job for revolutionary communalists if ever there was one: bucket washing and the formation of brigades. It felt like the Chinese Red Guard had sent us to the countryside for rectification of our bourgeois tendencies among the peasantry. Every adult was assigned to the bucket brigade, a chore from which there could be no escape. Thirty buckets per day per pair of washers as assigned each morning, roughly an hour’s work, times five pairs of washers. If we were disciplined and started now, which we did, the job could be completed in less than a month, one more task amidst a list of tasks far more numerous and time consuming than we could ever conceivably accomplish.
In a sense it is amazing we did as well as we did that first year, because we were always critical of ourselves as being inefficient and indulgent hippie fools. We met each morning after breakfast. There was a tremendous tension between the deep desire for complete freedom that motivated so many of us and the equally honorable desire for discipline and productivity. Ideologies were routinely discussed, invented, borrowed, modified, and adapted. We had times where there was absolutely no specialization, for example, everyone had to spend one day a week doing house care and childcare, and everyone had to chop and stack wood. “Give a person a fish,” we would say “and you feed a person for one day. Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” Only over the seasons did the demands and realities of time and the farming life make us less doctrinaire. Sometimes, for example, it just isn’t best to have twelve different people operating the same piece of machinery.
It certainly isn’t best to have many different people driving the horses. Working teams of horses thrive on consistency, dependability, and predictability. They want so much to please you, to give you precisely what you want, but they absolutely need to know as clearly and simply as possible what it is you do want in order to be able to give it to you. And Peter’s touch was different than Barbara’s touch and Barbara’s touch different than mine.
This raised an even larger question, of course, and a larger lesson was being offered here, although I’m not sure we ever fully answered or understood it, much less learned it. At our most extreme there was no ownership of anything, not of our children, our wives and husbands, not of our skills, our toothbrushes, or our underwear. Just pick up the next clean item in the pile and put it on. But if you’ve ever lived in a family of more than one person you know that specialization, personal preference, and accommodation to differences is the rule of the day. A leaderless community is not necessarily an efficient community. Initiative, which is so dearly prized and needed, is also reactively opposed.
And there we were. I don’t really know how people in town understood or knew that we wanted to resurrect the Magnant place’s sugar operations, but since nature abhors a vacuum, once they recognized that we were planning to tap our trees, advice poured in fast, principally from one George Truax, the real deal, our friend and savior and guardian angel.
George had lived in Franklin all his life. I wish now I knew more about him. He was a horse wizard, a genius, and the repository of generations’ worth of horse lore and legend. Kept a team for skidding out logs from deep in the Vermont woods and kept a barn full of ponies in a urine line. Now here was a piece of lore and education we hadn’t quite anticipated. You keep the ponies in their stalls all day long, your goal being to acquire their urine to sell to cosmetics manufacturers to use in the production of lipsticks and perfume. Don’t ask me how that part works. But you must have plastic tubing running from the horses’ penises to fifty-five gallon barrels that are collected one or twice a week from the shed outside your barn by a middleman to the cosmeticians, just another variation on the whole northeast dairy farmer’s weltanschauung: collect the liquid - the milk, the piss, the maple sap, whatever - store it briefly, transform it yourself or have others transform it, ship it off, make a small profit.
George was fifty-eight at the time, a short heavy man, with a cute rolling walk and one of those red and black checked hats on, winter and summer, and a Camel cigarette between his lips. Coughed a lot. Spat a lot. Always needed a shave, which is hard to do given there has to be at least twelve hours in any given day on which he shaved that he had to appear clean-shaven, though he never did, look clean shaven that is. Hiked up his green suspenders, a lot, reached into the belt loops on his pants and pull on them, first the right side, then the left, always had a twinkle in his eye, rain or shine, like Santa Claus.
George was in the woods one fall day he told us, more than once I must say, had to have been fifteen years ago now, trying to skid out some logs from trees he'd felled earlier, walking along side the dray with his team of horses, Chub and Tucker, through red and green and brown and yellow, when a fox ran out onto the trail right in front of them, and damn if Tucker, always a fool of a horse, didn’t start to dancing and rearing and aiming to chase that fox, while Chub, never much of an initiator, but as fine a follower as you could ever hope to meet, joined in the chase. George, having wisely or not so wisely jumped on the dray, is leaning back as hard as he possibly can, as much to keep his balance as to restrain his horses, straining and screaming at the top of his lungs, "Whoa, back! Whoa you horses," knowing full well he was completely out of control of his stampeding team, the wind in their manes, their tails lashing like furred serpents, the leaves so thick and stirred to motion, heavier and heavier, sticking to his clothing and face, so dense it was hard to breath or see, an ocean of leaves cleaved through by these mighty steeds, pulled by invisible forces, wildly, uncontrollably, beyond his grasp and hope. "Damned if I ever knew how I got control of those critters. 'Spect they just plumb run themselves out. And damned if it wasn't right close to where we started, cut us a right nice new path through the forest them creatures did. Best damn team I ever owned."
George, who knows where every piece of horse drawn farm equipment that ever lived in Franklin County is, and how much it cost new, and what it's now worth, adopts us. I don't know why, because we would love horses almost as much as he did and he knew it? Because he still used horses to work his farm and we proposed to do so the same, preserving a way of life he thought would be gone and didn’t much care whether it lasted or died with him one way or the other until we appeared. Maybe because he had no children of his own? Maybe because he was a bit of a rebel himself? Maybe because he worked from time to time as a hired man on the Magnant spread, and knew it well? Or maybe because he had a big heart, and loved Peter, our kids, and the women, in just that order. I don't know, but George helped us buy our first good team, taught us everything we knew about horses, and set us up with harness and tack and sleds and equipment. Teaches us where and how to tap the marvelous maple trees, how to set up the sugarhouse, how to break the road through the snow in the sugar bush, how to boil the sap in the fifteen foot long sugaring pan without burning the sugar or the steel. It is amazing what 58 years living in one environment and developing a set of skills to flourish in that environment can be like, what pride, persistence, practicality, passion, and practice can bring out in a person. What it means to try real hard, to occasionally make big mistakes, to hurt the people you love without meaning to, and to come back and try your hardest again. We never would have made it without George. Not that we made it with him, but that’s another story.
And thus began our mission. We found a team of horses. Rather George found our team of horses. Mike and Jim. Solid citizens. Mike was shorter and older, perhaps seven years old by then and by far the more stable of the two horses. Jim was three, bigger, stronger, adolescent, with a military haircut, and not just a little bit raunchier. But they were a beautiful team of chestnut geldings who came to us with all their harness and tack for a very good price, perhaps at the time under six hundred dollars. Of course horses have to get used to their owners and owners have to get used to their horses, but from our side it was love at first sight. And they were such good strong creatures, and so good to us as well.
Freud says somewhere that the horse is the id and the rider the ego and that it is the horse who uses the rider to get where it wants to go, or some ironic transposition like that. I don’t know. I just know that these were the bravest, solidest, strongest, kindest allies anyone could have asked for, and we were very good to them, and they were very good to us.
It is not easy driving a team of horses, harnessing them correctly, hitching them to the equipment you want them to draw, and getting them to stop and go as you wish, but there was never a team of horses better suited to a person’s needs than Jim and Mike were suited to ours. Mike always went on the left. He was the leader. He set the tone. And Mike served Jim as loyally as he served us, protected Jim, steadied him down when necessary, uncomplainingly pulled more of the load when necessary. These were immense creatures, easily weighing well over a thousand pounds each. And strong, did I say that? And obedient. And eager to work, bless their souls.
We took all the buckets from the sugarhouse where they’d been careless left by the overwhelmed Bates and carted them down to the milk room, which still had all the washing equipment from the Bates’ dairy operation. We banged on the lips of the buckets with wooden mallets. We soaked them in hot water. We wiggled them and jiggled them. One pail came loose. We washed and scrubbed it and made sure all the dirt and soap were removed. We set it out to dry. There were only two thousand nine hundred and ninety nine buckets to go. Next year we’ll clean the buckets before putting them away for winter we said. It was a noble plan.
Naturally, as well, the gathering tank, the holding tank, the boiling pan and every piece of hose or pipe through which runs sap or syrup has to be washed and cleaned and freed of residue and old sugar before it can be used in any new sugaring season, which we did, for hours it seemed, filling the gathering pan with hot water, hauling it to the spot on the hill where we would later unload the sap, almost like a trial run. Off load the hot water into the gathering tank. Climb carefully onto the joists that support a tank that can hold fifteen hundred gallons of sap. Wash out the insides of the tank, run the water through the six columned boiling pan, drain that water off, send the team of horses back to the milk house with the empty gathering tank on the dray, fill the tank with fifty gallons of hot water, or whatever the capacity of your hot water boiler is, run that load back up to the sugar house, drain that hot water into the holding tank, slosh it around until all is good and clean, run it through the boiling pan again, squeegee out the boiling pan until it is clean enough that you would eat out of it, and viola, you are ready to make maple syrup.
After your buckets are cleaned and assembled, and all your equipment is washed and cleaned, you also need drills and drill bits, hammers and spouts, cans, bottles, wood, labels. The list is endless. But then on the first Monday in March you go to town meeting, and every adult who lives in Franklin is there, everyone who hasn’t set foot out of their snow caves or seen hide nor hair of their neighbors and fellow citizens since Thanksgiving, everyone, even those hippies living down to the Magnant place (now how many votes are they allowed?), ready to do battle over budgets, and road graders, and the library report. And we thought we had issues! And then you just go home with the rest of the farmers and wait for the first day when the temperature rises about freezing after the Vermont winter and then you set your taps.
You know it’s the start of sugaring season as soon as you awaken, because you hear the snow melting and dripping. And on that longed for day you hitch the horses to the dray as early as you can. And you load as many of the buckets as possible onto the dray, leaving a little room for some of the children to ride. You head out into the sugar bush. Four or five people wear carpenter’s aprons filled with dozens of taps. Four or five others carry hammers and drills. Someone watches the team, the sugar buckets, and the kids. The horses step into snow up to their withers. They step carefully, almost daintily into the snow. They do not know what lies under foot, under the blanket of snow. The step carefully to avoid rocks and buried down branches. They make the first trail of the year through the three and four foot deep snows. Some of the adults wear snowshoes. They traipse to the maple tree in teams. One person drills three, four, or five holes in the tree depending on its girth. They blow into the hole to clear out any remaining sawdust and wood chips. One person hammers the tap into the just drilled hole. At the bottom of the tap is a hook. Someone hikes over to the tree from the dray with five buckets. Each bucket has one small hole that has been drilled into it just beneath the rim. The bucket hangs on the hook at the bottom of the tap and rests against the tree trunk. Aluminum covers shaped like tent tops are slid over the bucket to keep out rainwater, bugs, and falling debris. Between drillers, tappers, and bucket hangers, six to eight sets of footprints have been made between the dray on the main trails being forged and the maple trees. A network of capillaries all branching out from the main artery is cut into the snow. The harnesses jingle. The children giggle. The first droplets of maple sap run down the spouts and strike the empty bottoms of the galvanized sugar buckets with a pinging sound, first one bucket and then another. Soon it sounds like the fall of raindrops on a tin roof in the maple forest, the sap in the trees rising into the sunlight, droplets falling into the buckets. On the way back we stop at some of the first hung buckets. We pour the teaspoons of sap that have gathered in the bottom of each bucket into a gathering pail. When we have three or four cups of fresh sap we stand around the dray, each person sips the sacred waters, each person tastes the faintly sweet delicious sap, each person marvels at the gifts of nature and the promise of spring. Three thousand taps on eight hundred trees, the droplets pinging into the buckets. If you’re quiet and stop oooing and awing long enough to listen carefully you can soon hear the empty buckets pinging again, a chorus of maple sap drum beats on the tins.
When the dray carrying the two or three hundred gallons of sap has made it back to the sugar shack we unload the gathering tank into the holding tank. This is strictly gravity at work. One end of the sugar shack opens onto the road or driveway for entry and exit into the main building for the loading and unloading of wood, equipment and syrup. The shack is invariably built beside a hill or rise so you can park the horses at the right spot on that hill, turn the galvanized rain gutter sized pipe at the bottom of the end of the gathering tank down, and direct that intense stream of sap toward the culvert size pipe that runs from this point on the hill next to the sugar shack into the shack and into the fifteen hundred gallon holding tank that sits up high on the hill side inside the shack. From the holding tank a one-inch pipe leads to the boiling pan. The boiling pan holds only about twenty or thirty gallons of liquid at one time. It is four feet wide by fifteen feet long, but only five inches deep. The boiling pan is divided by metal strips built into it into six channels, each of which is opened at the opposite end from the one next to it to form a simple maze of eight inch wide channels through which the maple sap runs, from thinnest and coldest as it enters the pan on the right hand front side, to thickest and hottest at the opposite left hand front side of the pan where the syrup, at the very moment it is formed, is drained off. The entire pan sits about four feet off the ground on a three sided brick foundation that serves as an oven, the fourth side being a door into the heart of the oven through which is fed the wooden fuel to heat and fire it.
Oh, about all that wood you need. Think about it. How much wood do you need to bring a fifteen foot long pan filled with cold maple sap to a boil, and to boil long enough to evaporate off five to ten thousand gallons of water over the course of a sugaring season, for that is what it takes, about fifty gallons of sap boils down to one gallon of syrup.
And here we had a brilliant plan. Across the Canadian border in a small town in southern Quebec was a sawmill. Sawmills generally make planks from logs by shaving off the round outer bark covered edges of the logs until the log approximates a square shape from which a number of one-inch thick (really thirteen sixteenth of an inch thoese days) planks can be sawed off and then trimmed into one by six or one by eight or even from a good log one by ten or twelve inch planks. But all those shaved off bark-covered edges are really just useless scrap to the mill owner. He might even be able to sell his sawdust, but he historically could not give away these scraps. Not until he met the hippie revolutionary sugar making horse-using farmers that is.
“Bon jour,” said Peter. We’ll take that pile of scrap lumber off your hands.”
“Take? What do you give to me for it?”
“Give to you? You should give us something for cleaning out the mess from your mill.”
“Some fellow in Hamilton say he will pay me something and haul it away for pulp.”
“Not that wet bark shit.”
“Well I must get me something for it. I cut it. I carted it. I stored it. I don’t just give it away.”
“Two dollars for a pickup truck full.” That would be about two cords of wood.
“Two dollars? I’ll keep it myself. Ten dollars per truckload is what I want. American dollars.”
“My friend, we’ll give you three dollars per truck load. We’ll stack it and clear it and take ten truckloads today and tomorrow. Here’s thirty dollars American,” Peter says as he reaches out his right hand with the thirty dollars.
“It is a deal,” says the Quebecois, taking the thirty dollars and shaking Peter’s hand.
“We need a bigger truck,” says Peter under his breath.
It will not be the first time crossing the border with a truck loaded with something - grain, wet bark, sawdust - that we have any difficulty. It will also not the last. Before sugaring season started, looking to take a rare day off, Mary Pat and I took Maia and headed up to Montreal in the pickup, perhaps our most dependable vehicle. At the time the pickup had a cab on the back end and it was our job to take a couple of weeks’ worth of non-compostable or burnable trash to the town dump. This was mostly boxes and plastic bags filled with cans, broken bottles, dirty disposable diapers, I don’t know what, but trash. We drove down the road to the dump, but it was so icy and snow bound I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get back out and just turned the truck around without ever dumping off the trash. Then we headed out to Montreal. The Canadian border guards never searched Americans and we zipped right through, as we would many times in the future with all kinds of fugitives and draft dodgers. We had a lovely day in Montreal. We visited a museum. We walked all over the city. We may even have eaten out somewhere. By the time we headed back it was well passed midnight. I had completely forgotten the truckload of garbage, but it was garbage so who could give a damn.
On the American side of the border they thought they had struck gold. We were ordered out of the truck. A matron took Mary Pat to a bathroom where here bra was searched and she was required to take off Maia’s diapers. I was taken to a bathroom and strip searched, but not cavity searched. The border guard made sure I saw his weapon. We were taken back out to the truck and asked to open the rear.
“It’s filled with garbage,” I said.
“Open the rear,” he said.
“It’s not locked. It’s really garbage,” I said.
I opened the rear. He put on rubber gloves and took the bags and boxes out one by one. Two other guards joined him. They opened the bags and poured the contents on the ground. They found bags and boxes filled with garbage. They finished their search. They started putting the contents of the bags and boxes neatly back into the bags and boxes to put neatly back into the truck.
“Look guys, I know this is silly to say, because if I were a real criminal I’d lie to you, so you can’t believe anything I say, I know, but it really is all garbage and I don’t care how it is packed, just throw the shit in the back of the truck, honest, it’s garbage, I’ll dump it all out some other time, before I ever cross the border again, honest.” I was laughing. They weren’t smiling. They finished loading the contents back into each bag and box as they had found them. They put the bags and the boxes neatly into the pickup truck. They told me, “You can return to the cab, sir.” They gave me a military salute, sort of waving me on at the chest. They did not look inside the hubcaps. Of course there was nothing there, but I’m just telling you they didn’t look.
“That was weird and scary,” I said to Mary Pat.
“Fascist pigs,” she said to me.
Oh yes, the maple sugar and the lumber. So we loaded the truck as high as we could pile it with lumber, which we tied down, and then drove across the border to the farm, where we off loaded the maybe five hundred individual slabs of wood, and then carried and stacked them in the sugar house and then went back across the border and did it nine more times. I don’t know what our gas bill was. I don’t know how many hours it took. But I do know that in the end we had enough wood to keep that stove going, sometimes twenty-four hours a day, until about eight thousand gallons of sap had been turned into one hundred and seventy two gallons of Vermont’s finest maple syrup. Here’s how we did that.
Charlie and Crow loved to make the syrup. Loved it to the point it was a passion with them. No one could explain it and no one cared to. To most of the others it was just another tedious chore, like washing buckets, but Charlie and Crow were in love with it. And they had a system. Charlie was the fireman. Crow was the cook. Peter and only Peter drove the team through the snow.
Here’s one of my favorite sugaring tales that captures the essence of the Franklin commune experience for me.
We were gathering heavily flowing maple sap on a glorious sunny day, temperatures in the high forties, using a three hundred gallon tank being drawn by our team of horses on a dray through deep snow. Dozens of people were tromping through the woods pouring sap from the tap buckets into gathering buckets and unloading those buckets joyfully and speedily into the horse drawn tank. As we drove the first fully loaded tank back toward the sugarhouse the dray hit a hidden rock and tipped over pitching the gathering tank off the dray and onto its side. Though we only lost about twenty or thirty gallons of sap, the tank was far too heavy for us to right and reset on the dray, even with all the people power we had. So we set about unloading the sap we had gathered in the tank back into the gathering pails and then retraced our steps through the snow to the trees we had just harvested where we poured the sap back into the very buckets just unloaded. It was as if someone had taken a movie of our operation and was now playing the reel in reverse. Once the dray was righted we marched back to the trees, unloaded the buckets into the gathering pails, walked the pails back to the dray, and reloaded the gathering tank and drove it to offload into the holding tank.
Once there is enough sap in the holding tank to not worry about running out of sap to keep the pan full when the fire is roaring hot you are ready to start cooking. The pan is set up in a way so that as cold sap is added to the right side of the pan it moves the sap that already sits in the pan through the channels from right to left with the thicker more concentrated sap now appearing at the left front side of the pan. The fire must be absolutely ferocious. Steam rises from the surface of the boiling pan and is released through huge open vents in the sugar shack roof. Once the fire is going there is really no sense in shutting it down, unless, of course, you do not have enough sap to sustain it. You must anticipate your future boiling pan needs. You must neither have too much sap in the buckets that you have no place to unload and store it, nor too little sap in the holding tank to support the needs of the fire and the pan. Some days you cook just for eight hours at a time, but at the very height of the season we actually cooked for eighteen hours a day for three days straight. It was glorious work. People visited us all the time to see and taste. You’d know the sap has turned to syrup when the ladle you are using to help move the sap from one side of the pan to the other comes up with an apron of syrup that drips off from it just right. And then you can drain off a quart or two quarts of syrup at a time. Pour some into that clean little bottle you have and hold it up to the light next to the standard bottles you got from the agriculture service depicting the color syrup which is acceptable from grade A to grade B. Why you can even put chicken eggs in the pan and boil them right up so that when you peel the shell from the hard-boiled egg it has a little brown hue and tastes just a little sweet.
Charlie has found a pair of chaps. He wears them to protect against the intense heat of the fire. He loves feeding the fire. There is never too much work for him to do.
“Just tell me what you need, brother. Let’s bank that fire as high as we can and sugar until the dawn.” There are brief moments when he and I rest and talk, but the sap is running hard now, the holding tank full, the gathering tank unloaded on the hill, and in the morning the buckets on the trees will have to be emptied. Lou brings us sandwiches and coffee through out the night. We are both in love with her, which was bearable, and truth be told she was in love with both of us, which was just a little harder to take.
In the end we had one hundred and seventy two gallons of syrup. We literally sold one hundred and fifty of them under the Earthworks label for seven dollars a gallon. I figure that turns out to be about ten or fifteen cents an hour as the rate of pay for our labors. But, as they say, there are just some things money can’t buy.