At Home in New Hampshire > Time to Tap

We humans seem able to slip into complacency with remarkable speed, adapting to—and tiring of—just about anything. I think this is why we enjoy weather so much in New England and why we find March particularly exciting. Winter really isn’t that long. But the white, subfreezing days become such a part of us that we soon have a hard time picturing the green grass we know must come again. So when the bright March sun pours down on our faces and the thermometer reads a whopping 42 degrees, we shout for joy, take off our coats and roll down the car windows to let in the exhilarating air. Come October, the same sun will send us shivering for shelter, but right now, it feels like life itself.

Giddy with the promise of spring, we thrill to all the signs March can bring us. There are buds on the trees, birds in the branches, mud in the roads and meetings in the towns. There is also sap in the buckets—if you’ve got a few good maples on your land and a will to tap.

Tapping Day is always a big deal around our house, especially now that farming is my husband Dave’s full-time occupation and not something to fit in after a day of work at the polyurethane casting business he used to own. Tapping Day is a work day now, and it marks a buoyant return to agricultural industry after the dormancy of the winter days. It also reminds us why we decided to take this path: to live with the seasons and to find as much of our food from the good land as our persistence and ingenuity can allow.

Dave embarks early in the morning on his annual hunt for taps and pails in the barn. Once everything is clean, we follow him from tree to tree and watch as the taps go in. The kids take turns catching the first drops on their tongues, but my favorite part is the sound of the sap hitting the bottom of the aluminum bucket: “Plunk! Plunk!”

I love how the best days of March are also the best days for the sap to run. The nip at night is followed by an explosion of sun, and everyone wants to be outside. Tramping through the softening snow, the sun warm on our skin, we collect the sap by the many gallons, pouring the trees’ generosity into containers Dave heaves along on a sled. It is hard work in this fabulous glare, but our operation is small, thank goodness.

The next step in the process can be a wonderfully social one. The evaporator Dave rigs up on cinder blocks is not far from the road, and neighbors show up to check the progress and hang out with us for a while. Wafting, sap-fragranced steam and smoke seem to relax us all. Witty banter takes a backseat to easy conversation and contented silence.

But evaporating more often is simply a long and tedious necessity. It still has to be done when the weather has nothing enticing to offer—and when nobody’s out there keeping us company. Someone has to tend the fire and the sap, and that someone is Dave, who knows the value of persistence beyond a project’s initial phase of excitement. As much as he’s drawn to the changing nature of the farm year, he also has the capacity to stick with something through all the hours of drudgery to see that the project does come to fruition. He is a true farmer.

Each batch of sap eventually reaches the finishing stage, when it’s carefully boiled down on the kitchen stove to avoid a sticky, charred disaster in the evaporator. At long last, Dave proclaims the syrup done, and he pours it into a bottle or two. The next morning, he fries up a ceremonial pancake breakfast, and then he starts all over again. It’s pretty exciting the first time, but after a while, you kind of get used to it.