Maple Season

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(HOST) Although this spring’s mixed weather has kept maple production on the low side, commentator Tom Slayton has found time to visit a couple of sugarhouses. It’s one of his favorite rites of spring.

(SLAYTON) I know spring is coming when I see buckets on trees or freshly hung plastic tubing looping from trunk to trunk. The tubing is less romantic than the thousands of aluminum buckets that once festooned the maple woods. But who knows. Maybe someday, when buckets are a memory, we’ll associate the romance of sugaring with miles of gracefully arcing plastic tubes.

After all, the season was once epitomied by wooden buckets, and we’ve transferred our allegiance seamlessly to metal ones. The ping-ping of sap in the bottom of a newly emptied aluminum bucket now epitomizes the season.

Whatever the symbols, sugaring time makes me happy. It is spring at last, or close to it. By late March, early April, the days are noticeably longer, the smell of spring – essentially the smell of mud – is in the air and plumes of steam issue forth from sugarhouses scattered across the hills.

There are very few places where springtime’s goodness is more strongly affirmed than in the steamy, sweet-smelling interior of an April sugarhouse. I have visited working sugarhouses since my college days at UVM. After a day of books and study, I’d navigate some muddy back road, spot the warm glow of a sugarhouse in operation, knock and wander in.

Never once was I turned away. Sugarmakers seem to be almost universally warm, friendly people. Maybe just associating with all that sweetness makes them sweet! A new video by Don and Betty Ann Lockhart entitled "Voices from the Sugarwoods" has several well-known sugarmakers doing the narration. It’s great to hear those native Vermont accents.

Sugaring begins in winter and ends in spring. And if it is fun, it’s fun the Vermont way, with a distinctly practical side and a lot of hard work involved. You’ve got to boil down 30 to 60 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of maple syrup, and that means if a sugarmaker hauls enough sap to make 100 gallons of syrup – a modest crop – he or she has moved more than two tons of fluid. You can begin to see the appeal of plastic tubing.

Actually, although it retains all of the old-time allure for me, modern- day sugaring is, of necessity, a highly technical operation. You won’t see any of Vermont’s sugarmakers gathered around an open fire a la Currier and Ives. The State of Vermont has the most stringent quality standards in the world, and to meet those standards you’ve got to run a clean, competent operation. Quite often today’s sugarhouse is a very sophisticated little factory, filled with high-tech equipment – sapsuckers, reverse osmosis machines and the like.

But somewhere at its core, sugaring is still a primordial salute to spring. All the elements are there: fire, boiling sap and billowing steam, and an unbelievably tasty liquor that captures all the sweetness of the new season just awakening.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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