The Artist Date is a dream-child of Julia Cameron, helping readers learn how to become a better writer. We’ve discussed her book, The Artist’s Way, and highly recommend both the book and the weekly date. An Artist Date can be life-changing. It can open your creativity like nothing else. Today we accept a sweet invitation to visit a sugar house.
I have never liked pancakes.
Somewhere in my memory lurks a black cast iron skillet sizzling with melted Crisco and a batter so thick it almost required a deep-fry to cook through. Add to that greasy mess a thick sugary syrup and the end result is—what we call in my family—a sour belly. How many times did I get an upset stomach after eating pancakes as a child?
So when I sit next to a syrup-making man at a luncheon and he shares about his syrup-making business, his face shining as he talks, I surprise myself by accepting an invitation to visit his sugar house.
“You should come out to the farm and see for yourself,” he says. “Come this weekend if you can. The sap should be running nice and fast.”
So I do.
It’s mid-spring and the sky is azure when I pull up the long drive to the sugar house. The syrup man walks out to meet me, and I hug my jacket close as I climb out of the van—the early morning air nips with chill. The syrup man tells me this is good, that cold nights followed by sunny days get the sap flowing. He explains how the fluctuation in air temperature causes pressure changes in the maple trees that promote the easy flow of sap when the tree is wounded, or tapped. Then he ushers me inside the sugar house to watch the cook process.
It’s a tiny, dark building—no more than a shed, really. One wall is lined with stacks of chopped wood to feed the boiler and the floor is scattered with wood chips. But the boiler? It’s a gem: a stainless steel tank powered by a wood stove with an elaborate circulation system designed to maintain a steady temperature. The syrup man tells me how he and his brother drove all the way to Wisconsin to buy this setup from an old dairy farm. Two stacks extend up through the ceiling, one for the woodsmoke and the other to allow steam from the boiling sap to escape. The air drips a delicious scent of woody sweetness.
Next, he wants to show me his collection process, so we drive a little ways up the road to where the forest stretches out over the hillsides. We climb a hill and he shows me the tubing that trails from tree to tree, joined together so the sap will flow into the collection bin at the bottom of the hill. The syrup man and his partners tap hundreds of maple trees, starting in mid-February and continuing until the sap stops running. Linking them together this way saves them some time.
“It’s a labor intensive business,” he sighs. “You have to love what you’re doing.”
It takes fifty gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, so every drop counts. The syrup man tells me that his business makes about a hundred gallons of syrup a year. We stand at the base of the hill and I listen to the tinny sound of sap running into the metal collection trough.
“We’re always looking for sweeter trees,” he says, as we stare up into the forest. He tells me that the sap in sugar maples contains a high concentration of sugar compared to the sap of other trees, but some trees are just sweeter than others. He takes a tiny cup and scoops some of the sap, holds it out to me to taste.
It feels clean in my mouth—more viscous than water with only a hint of sweet. I read somewhere that Native Americans were the first syrup-makers. They chiseled holes in the trees and inserted reeds to collect the sap. Then they would boil it over an open fire for hours. In my mind’s eye, I see them now—gathered around the fire, tending the sugar-water, anticipating the thickening.
I ask the syrup man how he got started. His story is like the Native Americans’.
“When we were boys we were always into things.” He grins. “One day my brother hammered a hollow stick into a tree and we collected the sap. Mom cooked it on the stove all day until we had syrup. After that, it was regular thing at our house.”
A retired engineer who describes himself as a “tinkerer,” the syrup man, along with his brother and a lifelong friend, have been making syrup together commercially since 2003. We drive back to the sugar house and he takes me to his childhood home. The modest place has been converted into more syrup-making workspace and storage. He offers me a sample. The syrup is still warm from cooking when I roll it onto my tongue.
My host is telling me about his interest in electric cars, another hobby, but I’m barely listening. I can feel the sweetness of trees moving through my body like a tribal dance, linking me to the Shawnee that once walked these hills, and to my childhood, and then, Yes, I think, pancakes for breakfast in the morning.
At Tweetspeak Poetry, we are committed to helping people become who they really are. We believe in the power of community reading, writing, playing, and just plain living, to accomplish this.
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