Cold nights; warm days. The forest is speaking to us in sugar.
Long ago, during a late winter ski week in New Hampshire, my father took me down the road to visit Mr. Lucy’s sugarhouse. At one time, the Lucy family had owned and farmed much of the Saco River valley land on the west side of North Conway, and still lived in the big farmhouse on the West Side Road where our cottage was. Their cornfields ran right up to the river, and the maple sugar bush on Moat Mountain. The sap was running and the sugarhouse was fired up, the evaporator running full tilt. As we peered through the door, there was Mr. Lucy, hoary and bearded, walking through the maple steam like Hamlet’s father appearing in the gloaming. He beckoned us in and proudly showed off the amber syrup already filling bottles and gallon cans on the workbench.
The dark mystery of the visit comes to mind when the sugar maples start to flow. It is not Whitman’s lilacs that augur spring for denizens of this latitude; this type of forest. It is bottles of amber sugar that the trees give us, hope of flowers and raspberries. It beats “March Hill,” MEA testing, and potholes as harbingers. Syrup time is another law of thermodynamics.
Many years later, when I was a high school student in a town outside of Boston, a guy named Bill McElwain noticed that all of the ancient sugar maples in the suburban front yards were a latent resource, now that the old farms had been supplanted by split-levels. Bill was the town Youth Commissioner and could always get a following for a new scheme. He had a twinkle in his eye, most days. He also saw the green power in farming on town land and organized community gardening long before it became a commonplace.
Bill had a decrepit, blue Econoline van and a corps of dedicated teenage kids to help hang buckets on those trees—just plastic gallon milk jugs, to start with—and run around town collecting the sap each afternoon after school. This led to building a true sugar shack next to the brand new junior high school—funky, rough-sawn boards on a cabin next to the multi-million dollar, concrete 1960s architectural monstrosity. The evaporator-alchemy absorbed piles of kindling and turned out a golden syrup. For sale in recycled mayonnaise jars: instant karma plus youth industry. Bill too looked like Hamlet’s father, supervising the evaporator and inhaling maple mists, while his minions stoked the fire and replenished the sap.
Teenage syrupers! As zealous for sap as for wilder, self-centered pursuits—we were a human sugar bush. Making syrup and gardening tapped the spring sugar flowing through us kids. Making vegetables grow, or making a magical liquid for pancakes out of nothing but the effort of gathering it, was a great use of other latent suburban resources: me and my friends. And those of us whose vocation is now the schoolyard see the magic come again.
Where can you see Adams School sap flowing? The sun is higher and the playground mud thaws and freezes each night. Chewy footing by noon recess; tundra again by midnight. But each day as the kids flow off the bus their games have an insistent exuberance and zip—bucket loads. Sugar in sneakers. The snow pants are off and the speed of chasing games moves way up the curve. Green things are poking their heads through the snow banks. Hannah spotted the daffodils along the west wing foundation; crocuses are up; that faithful cardinal is back from southern climbs and you can hear his trill in the elm canopy daily. Somewhere, I like to imagine, Farmer Lucy and Bill McElwain are getting out the buckets and taps and firing up the heavenly evaporator. Maybe the blue van still turns over, running on maple sap vapors. There’s no turning back now. We will have our syrup.