This is an article I wrote in 2018, before my concussion and my second baby paused my writing for awhile. Harry is two now and I am starting to emerge again as a writer. It is March and despite the despair and unknown of March 2020, it is still a favourite month in our home. The sun gives us some more backyard time, expanding our home by acres. We spend as much time outside as we can when it is warm enough. March reminds us of that. This weekend, we took the kids out for two straight days: sliding, playing, bonfire, jiffy pop, hot cocoa, and, my favourite, a book by the campfire. Next week, the maple syrup boil starts. That reminded me of my favourite writing piece, shared on this site in March 2018. I share it here as a reminder of what This Place has meant to me and my wish for my children in This Place.
Here is a little throwback article to 2018:
“You need to add butter,” he says. “When the sap starts to foam. It calms it down. Just a little.”
He’s been making maple syrup since we moved into our Kingston, New Brunswick home five years ago. Our first winter here, he started small, tapping several trees around our property, learning through experience and tips he found online: which trees to tap, how to boil it down, how best to preserve the maple syrup so we can have it all year round and pass some on to family.
This year he’s fashioned an old cast iron stove into an evaporator for sap, cutting out the top for the stainless steel pan, and adding a fan to keep the fire hot.
“It’s hard boiling today because it is windy and cold,” he explains.
This is exactly why I’ve kept my toddler, and myself if I am being honest, inside for most of the day. She’s been watching him all morning from our kitchen door, narrating everything he does.
“Him making hot--,” she looks to me for the word.
“He’s making a hot fire to boil the sap,” I tell her.
“Him making fire to make syrup for my pancakes!” she exclaims, and then dances around the kitchen island.
I don’t think she has quite grasped that boiling forty litres of sap to yield one litre of maple syrup takes patience and time. It won’t be until late tonight that we will get the first bottle, and she’ll be in bed before she’s getting pancakes, but maybe tomorrow.
“The syrup’s ready!” she yells. “Daddy is making the syrup for my pancakes, and it’s ready!”
There is more toddler dancing.
This is her exclamation every time he gets up, adds a log, stokes the fire, adds more sap to the pan, and does other tasks that is involved in the full day sap boil.
My role is still one of observer and keeper of toddler--because of the flames and boiling sap. I help out when things need done away from the fire, but mostly I watch, learn, and think about how the man I met eight years ago has changed significantly. Then, he was totally into snowboarding, where now he is a red-bearded man who raises chickens, pigs, and spends much of his weekends in March perfecting the art of boiling sap. Over the few years we’ve lived in Kingston, he has learned how to boil the sap so that it is not too thick, not too thin, but delicious and beautiful, and made from our backyard and in our backyard.
Later that night he brings what is left of the forty litres of sap into the house to finish on our stove. The wind and cold has made it a hard day of boiling, and the last hour can be done indoors. We marvel at the amber liquid. He snaps to it quickly when it starts to foam maniacally, settling it down with a little slick of butter, and eventually pouring the litre of syrup into two small mason jars.
“Will you boil again tomorrow? Or do you need to wait until you have more sap?” I ask.
“If it is a good week, I will get more to boil down on the weekend,” he explains.
This year he has about fifteen of our sugar maples tapped, and each night he goes around from tree to tree, checking the sap, filling a large bucket with the gains. I remember the year I was pregnant, it had snowed so heavily that he used snowshoes to get from tree to tree. By May, the snow had melted and the buckets were high up in the trees. He used a ladder to get them down. But this year, with such little snow, I can take Adeline around to the buckets, low enough for her to touch, and I show her the sap, dripping from the tree and into the bucket over the spile. She is only two, and maybe she won’t understand that this tree and her pancakes have so much in common, but someday she will.
“How long will you collect the sap?” I ask, curious and always a little in awe at this old custom played out in my backyard.
“As long at the days are warm and the nights are cold, and until the trees start to bud. That’s generally the season,” he explains. He’s short. He’s told me all this before. But, I ask a lot of questions.
I think about the corn syrup masked as maple in the grocery stores. Until recently, I really never thought much about the difference. I should have, though, as I’m from New Brunswick and it is our culture.
My grandmother, Velma Finnigan, ninety one and from Wirral, NB, loves hearing about these backyard homestead adventures. She grew up on a farm and she too had chickens and pigs. Her father tapped his trees for syrup. Her brother still lives on the land.
I call her up as the sap boils on our stove.
“Do you remember your father making maple syrup when you grew up?” I ask.
“Yes, I do. He used to tap the trees up on Birch Hill, and bring it all in for my mother to boil over the cast iron stove. It was hot in the house once the weather warmed, and I remember my mother saying it would take all day for just a little syrup,” my grandmother explains.
“Did he do enough to sell, or was it just for the family?” I ask, curious about her life on the farm.
“He only did it for us. It was hard work, and my mother had so many other things to do that using the stove for an entire day to make sure it turned out took a lot of work. She didn’t have running water, or electricity. She cooked all of our meals on that one stove, it took her all day to make a stew. So, they didn’t do the syrup much, just enough for our pancakes,” she says.
I can’t help but think of my grandmother, waiting all day for maple syrup for her pancakes like my daughter waited today. There may be 89 years separating them, but the custom of the maple syrup boil is exactly the same.
I remember going to Elmhurst Outdoors in Kingston, NB in the 1990s. I liked learning about it that day. The trees and the sap and all that boiling wowed me then as it does now. But today, I like the lesson of patience in the production of the syrup, something I missed on that one day trip to the wilderness. Thanks to my partner, I get to see the deliberate toil of progress: wait for the tree to produce the sap, hope for a good season, and then collect it all for the boil. It is slow. It is precise. It is rewarding. And I am thankful my partner has taken on this skill so that my daughter can learn from it.
Before my daughter goes to bed, I take her out for a last look at the boiling, just as her dad is getting ready to bring it in.
“It’s preddy,” she says. Pretty is still a tricky word at two.
“What’s that?” I ask.
She is on her swing in the backyard. It is snowing. The trees are blowing hard at the top, but down here on the ground it is calm, and the quiet is beautiful.
“This place!” she smiles.
She opens her arms up wide, closes her eyes, and breathes deep.