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.
Image by t-mizo, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Laura Boggess of The Wellspring.
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Maureen Doallas says
Lovely to see you here, Laura. What an interesting Artist Date.
I’m not much for pancakes, either. French toast made with Challah is more to my taste.
Maureen, just a big ditto to what you shared. Pancakes make me ill but French toast with some fresh blueberries and I’m in heaven. Even better, eaten outside on the patio with hot tea.
Anything made with Challah has to be scrumptious :). And after tasting this homemade syrup, I’ve found all kinds of things to put it on … it’s great on vanilla ice cream!
Tami Tipton-Fletcher says
Oh Laura … I am so pleased that you enjoyed your sugar house date and chose to share it with us. There is something to be said about this lost art of yesteryear. While we often are intolerant to the riches of man, He allows us to wield out the finer elements of His blessings from even the very richest, thickest, stickiest of sins. You will get to reap the benefits of seeing a gentleman urge the treasures from within God’s created fauna, and with the intricate process of a man still working with an age old process of hand wielding results from caring for the quality of a hand-made product … will drip out a quality, golden brown, thick, opaque and gooey, sweet smelling, maple flavored pure product. You can’t get that from mass production, or from a phony imitation. Our lives as Christians are much like that as we seek a genuine relationship with our Saviour. There are masses of cookie-cutter “religious people” out there, and phony imitation religions, but the real authentic sap that comes from inside those maples, is from the King … and it is truly a beautiful sight to see it being brought to light – whether it be by a genuine sugar house worker or a faithful servant of Christ growing their relationship with their Father. Blessings to you and yours my sweet sister in Christ.
Tami, your thoughtful response is stirring more inside from this artist date. So much richness to mine here. thank you for sharing your thoughts here!
L. L. Barkat says
I would maybe like to just drink that glass of syrup, thank you 🙂
I am a huge fan of the whole process… from sap to syrup. And who knew, that one tree would be sweeter than another. But of course it would be that way.
Yes, indeed, that was the bonus :). Warm from the stove, fresh from the trees … who could ask for anything sweeter?
“I can feel the sweetness of trees moving through my body like a tribal dance”
this then, is the reason, the essence of the date
It took me by surprise, as these things often do–how it made me feel so connected to the earth and its people. Thanks for stopping in, Karin!
Diana Trautwein says
LOVE this, Laura. We stopped in a little syrup shack while we were in Vermont last fall and saw a huge system for making the syrup. They were a small business, too – but the one you visited sounds even tinier. Good for them – I love learning about brave entrepreneurs. And I love that you had a momentary experience of connection to the earth and the Indians and the trees. Lovely.
It always fascinates me when I discover people who do these things for the art of it–for the love of it, for the desire to make the world sweeter :).
Nannette and the Sweetheart says
Fascinating! So happy you shared. I could taste the delicious syrup and would devour those pancakes! One reason I look like I do I guess, at 53. 🙁 Wonderful post, Laura!
Nannette, you make me smile :). We all have a weakness for the sweet, don’t we?
Vicki Addesso says
going somewhere unexpected – learning something new – all five sense – changing your mind a bit…
perfect artist’s date!
i was there with you, and my mouth is watering…
tomorrow morn: pancakes…just wish i had some of that fresh new syrup…
I bought their biggest bottle, Vicki, and already we are out 🙁 Even my teenage sons lamented when the last drop was gone. I think I need another trip to the sugar house…
Ann Kroeker says
Laura, this same thing happens at our house, which is why, some time ago, I began rationing. I found a dispenser that squirts a tiny stream in hopes of slowing their syrup use–it has worked well for that purpose. http://annkroeker.com/2012/09/13/food-on-fridays-maple-syrup-dispenser/
Brilliant! I think I might even have one of those in the cupboard. Waste not, want not, right?
Charity Singleton Craig says
As I was when we were discussing this in person, I continue to be struck by that phrase, “We’re always looking for sweeter trees.” There’s something hopeful and optimistic about that sentence, but there’s also something a little sad and wistful. Even making maple syrup leaves us wanting more.
Thanks for this beautiful story.
Your comment during our conversation has stuck in my head, Charity: “We’re all looking for sweeter trees.” Yes, maybe that’s what this is all about on one level. Thanks for helping me think it through in Texas.
Jody Lee Collins says
My horizons are always broadened by these challenges (encouragements?) to make an Artist Date.
I thought I had to go to the museum or art gallery or botanical gardens–the usual places one would look for beauty and inspiration.
And here you find beauty in a pancake house.
Which is why you’re such a lovely writer, btw.
Funny how someone’s excitement can invite us to learn why…thanks for taking us on your artist date…who knew it was a 50:1 ratio for sap to syrup…hope you enjoyed pancakes with maple syrup 🙂
Tea or Topazshell says
I enjoyed the syrup story. I especially liked the parts about the Native Americans.
(hey laura! “syrup man” is my favorite part. such a term leaves much to my mind’s eye.)
“Syrup man” sounds a little like a Darlen-ism, doesn’t it? See how you rub off on me? xoxo
Laura Brown says
That last sentence triggered a sweet tear of heartsap. Pancakes redeemed!
Laura, the last time I wanted a pancake, I was pregnant with my now 17 year old. I remember hubs and I sat down at the Bob Evans and after I ordered said sugary cake, he said, “Now I know this really IS my baby!” That’s how averse my childhood memories of pancakes made me :). But this amazing syrup made with love? Yes. Redeemed :).