When does spring start? Does it start when the chickadees change their call? Does it start when the red-winged blackbirds return to the Lynch Wetland? Or does it start with the first harvest of the year?
A small snap of warm weather this year in mid February, combined with the enthusiasm of my colleagues Gabe and Syd, sent us into the forest. Vecny Woods has a ravine full of old sugar maples.
The sap from a sugar maple is usually 2%-3% percent sugar, and we set 26 taps in the Vecny Woods sugar maples. We will also be tapping silver maples in the floodplain (77) and box elders (a handful) in the former barnyard of the Penningroth Barn. While all three types of maple trees provide good sap, the silver maple sap has a sugar content of 1.5%-1.75% and the box elders have 1% sugar content. That sap requires longer boiling time, which in turn makes a darker syrup with a more robust flavor.
Reducing that sap to syrup requires a lot of firewood, a lot of boiling, and a lot of steam. It also requires a lot of patience. While the sap was flowing on February 11, our night time temperatures have been hovering around freezing, and the days have been cloudy. Those are not conducive to sap flow, and the trees have just been trickling. We might have enough to make three gallons of syrup. Fortunately, sap season has only just started, leaving us with a good month left for the weather to start cooperating. Next week is looking promising.
A friend from Illinois just posted a picture of her skunk cabbage poking out of the ground. While I suspected in my heart it was too early for my skunk cabbage, I couldn’t help but go and look. After all, what better way to spend a beautiful, relatively warm Friday morning?
The flock spent most of the winter being angry with me. They appreciate neither the cold nor the snow. I had to carry one Sapphire Gem hen back to the aviary after dusk; she was too cold and tired after spending a day in the orchard to make it back on her own. The guineas spent a night outside in the orchard after a bad storm, not wanting to sink into the snow even to go home. Fortunately, the fox also spent the night hunkered down, not wanting to sink into the snow. A chicken hawk took out a guinea nine feet away from the aviary, nine feet away from safety.
Cluck Cluck spent more than one afternoon standing in the heated water of the bird bath; his toes, mangled by a raccoon when he was young, are probably hurting. When I let the water run dry, a fox curled up in the same bird bath at dusk, absorbing its warmth and making me moderately nervous.
With the marginally and intermittently warmer weather, the guineas have been boiling out of the aviary every morning with Cluck Cluck. Sometimes the hens join them, sometimes they don’t. Laying has picked up with the longer days. I am getting an egg or two every day from the hens, and I usually manage to snag the eggs before they crack from the subzero temperatures. If I don’t, I set them out for the fox. Everyone needs to eat.
It was 20 F when we out to tap the maple trees this year, but the wind wasn’t blowing and the snow didn’t start falling until we were wrapping up. When it warms up in a few weeks, it will be too late-the sap will already be flowing.
We primarily set taps in silver maple trees. All of the native maples, including black, sugar, silver, and box elder, produce sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup. We just happen to have a large amount of floodplain, and a corresponding large amount of silver maple trees.
We also tap, to a lesser extent, box elders and sugar maples in the uplands. What difference does it make? Silver maple sap typically has between 1.5%-1.75% sugar in it. Black or sugar maple sap typically has between 2-3% sugar. And box elder sap has 1% sugar.To make syrup, we need to boil the box elder sap twice as long as the the sugar maple sap, and the longer it boils, the darker and richer the caramelization. It boils a long time, because we have to take the sugar concentrations from 1.5% sugar (sap) to 66% sugar (maple syrup).
Maple syrup is the first crop I harvest every year, and tapping the trees for it is my own personal act of faith that spring is about to emerge, in the form of sweet flowing sap from the maple trees.
The sound of the fresh falling snow lures me outside with the alacrity of a five year old. The snow renders the world silent, reduces the color palette to monochrome, refracts light into a million swirling rainbows, and turns even a well-known path into a journey of mystery and wonder.
I headed for the Baltic labyrinth because I wanted to be totally immersed in the snow experience. The woods can be a very distracting place for me. In the fresh falling snow, with no tracks before me, I am the pioneer and the sole voyager. The sense of the place is subsumed by the sense of the elemental. I become one with the intense solitude, and experience, well, obviously not waldeinsamkeit. Schneeinsamkeit, perhaps?
Snow has finally arrived. It has transformed the woods into a magical place full of wonder, and on a more practical note, I haven’t seen a tick in a few days. We’ll ring in the New Year quietly in the forest, celebrating the beautiful natural world around us.