Commentary by Ward Degler
This is the time of year I would enjoy driving through Vermont. The land, locked in the grip of winter for so long, is finally awakening. And as Mother Nature stirs, sap from the maple trees starts to flow.
In a matter of days the entire New England countryside will smell of hardwood smoke and the perfume of burnt sugar. Gathering buckets, hung from thousands of trees, will be collected and emptied daily. Men, women and children will man the fires and bottle the trickle of syrup in an ever-increasing frenzy.
It’s a short season; perhaps the briefest of all of man’s endeavors. In a matter of a few galloping weeks, the sap will stop flowing, the trees will leaf out, the cooking fires will die and the treasure trove of maple syrup will be stored in packing cases headed for store shelves and our breakfast tables.
To be sure, Vermont is not the only place that produces maple syrup. It’s just the state best known for it. It’s the highlight of what Vermonters call the Mud Season, when spring thaw turns the roads to axel-deep goo.
We made maple syrup when I was a kid living in the north woods of Wisconsin. Years later I managed to squeeze a few ounces from a dozen sugar maples on my farm in Minnesota. And soon after moving into our present home, I tapped the maples in our backyard and saved the sugary sap in a cooler on our screened-in back porch.
Over several weeks I had collected about 15 gallons of sap. Alas, our son, who was living with us at the time, thought it was water from melted ice left over from our Christmas get-together and dumped it. I never tried again.
While Vermont is the leading maple syrup producer in the United States, with about 6 percent of world exports, Canada dominates the market. Quebec alone produces 70 percent of the world’s maple syrup, a $360 million business.
Last year, Canada produced 19 million gallons of syrup. At a sap-to-syrup ratio of 40-to-1, the sap alone would fill a lake large enough to demand a name.
It’s only fair to give credit to the American Indian for coming up with maple syrup in the first place. It was a festival celebrated at the first full moon of spring. New World settlers started making maple sugar around 1680 as a substitute for pricey cane sugar that came from the West Indies.
A sweet story that now has me thinking about pancakes. And waffles. And French toast.