The Miracle of Maple Syrup
I don’t mean the kind of miracles we often think of, in a biblical sense: an event that defies all laws of nature, and happens only once-in-a-lifetime (or only once-in-history, and only a very long time ago). In fact, the miracles I’ve come to see around me are the exact opposite: they ARE the laws of nature, and they are happening every day. I have held a seed in my hand, a TINY tiny seed, that has everything inside it needed to turn into an onion. A whole onion! That I will eat! Inside that tiny tiny seed! Honestly, I may not even believe such a thing if I didn’t get to see it happen in front of me, and help this miracle occur day after day over the course of a farming season.
Hearing about these miracles is one thing, and witnessing them is another, but putting in long days of physical labor to actually help them occur is truly a life-changing experience. I’ve eaten maple syrup before; it’s delicious. Then, during my first farm tour at Adamah, I was told that it took 40 gallons of sap from a sugar maple tree to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. I couldn’t believe it! It changed the way I thought about maple syrup – for a minute. But I quickly forgot.
Then, in early March, I spent my first week tapping sugar maple trees, carrying buckets of sap, and boiling it into maple syrup, and my relationship to maple syrup (and sugar in general) will never be the same. Let me give you a quick rundown of how this miracle actually occurs:
There is a special window of time (which we are in right now) when the weather is above freezing during the day but still freezing at night, and the trees haven’t budded yet. This is the time – and the only time all year – for sapping.
During this window, if you take a simple hand drill and make a hole (not too deep) in the trunk of a sugar maple tree, a clear liquid will start dripping out. Drip…drip…drip. If you hang a spout and a bucket there, and the weather is warm, that bucket will fill up in a day or two. And if you taste that liquid, it will taste DELICIOUS, remarkably like water but a little sweet, and also packed full of lots of minerals and other good things.
Wait a minute. Clear delicious liquid, enough to fill a bucket, from inside the trunk of a tree?? This is definitely miraculous. Amazingly unbelievable and wonderful. What an incredible treat!
You have to gather enough buckets-full of that sap – at least 80 gallons, just for starters – to boil it down to maple syrup, and you have to keep a fire roaring under it for long enough (usually a whole day) to boil away the 98% of it that is water. And from those 80 gallons you will be left with two precious, precious gallons of maple syrup.
Imagine what it is like, after a week of hauling 5-gallon buckets of sap and a full day of constantly tending a roaring fire, to hold in your hands a single bucket full of still warm maple syrup. Imagine how incredibly precious that syrup is! Imagine how you might use it if you got to have a jar of your very own – how long would you try to make it last? How would you want to enjoy it? How could you put a price on it?
What sapping has made me realize is that very special treats - miraculously good things - come with natural checks and balances that we have lost sight of. By doing the physical work of making these treats, we can reconnect to their actual cost and value. When we make maple syrup, we can only do it during a few weeks of the year, and we have to be careful to take only the surplus sap from each tree so that it doesn’t affect their health. Plus, it takes SO MUCH TIME AND WORK! These are the natural limits that, in a rational world, would determine how much sugar I would consume – simply the amount that is available based on what the land around me can sustainably provide, and what I can actually afford in time or money.
Not everyone can be a farmer, and not everyone should be – there is a lot of other important work out there that needs doing. But if you can spend a day on a farm, or talk to a farmer, or be a part of a process that creates even one food you eat, I promise it will change your life. After being at Adamah, I will simply never be able to see a bottle of pure maple syrup, or a bunch of carrots, or a single onion as anything less than a miracle. And once you truly see your food for the miracle that it is, it’s hard to ever take it for granted again.
Meredith Cohen came to Isabella Freedman as an Adamah Fellow last summer of 2013 and hasn’t left since. She is so excited to be staying on as a Field Apprentice this season, and to be taking over care of the dairy goats. Applications for the Adamah 2014 Fellowship are now available. Farm, Sing, Learn, Love! Visit the Adamah website for more details and to apply.