We've been dabbling in small-scale farming for several years now-- planting gardens, raising poultry, and even keeping (or TRYING to keep) bees-- but nothing makes me feel more like an authentic homesteader than making maple syrup. The process remains so similar to descriptions from iconic children's books like Little House in the Big Woods and Ox Cart Man that you feel a kinship with those pioneering characters: "And in March, they tapped the sugar maple trees and boiled and boiled and boiled the sap away..."
We tap with plastic tubes and recycled milk jugs instead of hand-whittled spigots and homemade buckets, but this year my incredible husband built a cinder-block evaporator so we could boil more efficiently with a woodfire, which added a new degree of authenticity.
The children are getting big enough to be a real help: they empty the jugs into a big barrel a few times a day when the taps are running well, and freely offer their services as taste-testers to determine when the final product is ready for bottling. And how precious the actual syrup seems when it finally reaches that point! The ratio of sap to syrup is 40-to-1, so the "boiling and boiling and boiling" bit of Donald Hall's poem is no exaggeration. We did three all-day boils over the course of a week or so and ended up with a little over a gallon and a half of syrup.
There is a temptation to think "That's IT?!" after you've directed all your attention to tending the fire for a day and see those few pint jars. It's easy to lose perspective: For example, while I was filling the containers, my dear and loving husband who had devoted his entire Saturday to cooking the sap outside, whispered over my shoulder: "If you spill that, I'll divorce you." (He was kidding. Well, perhaps not in the moment. But I didn't spill, so we'll never know!)
Despite our growing (mistaken!) sense of entitlement as we devoted more time to the project, the wonder of maple syrup lies in the fact that it's a naturally available resource, a gift free for the taking, a grace. Yes, the taking demands some effort, some time, and some willingness to order our days around the unpredictable rise and fall of late winter temperatures. But all real graces require our receptivity, don't they? The results are a lovely glimpse of the rewards of mankind's original work as tenders of the garden. I have to imagine that Edenic maples contained a somewhat higher sugar content--we're working with fallen sap here--but the extra labor imparts extra value. We can't take that sweet, golden syrup for granted after having a hand in its making.
More and more I am coming to appreciate the value of handmade goods. In a world where a chatbot can write the ad for the mass-produced product which is dropped on your front porch by a drone, we're at risk of losing our appreciation for the personal touch. Small projects that require a bit handiwork like cutting and drying your own herbs, knitting a scarf, or dipping a candle can infuse our lives with the grace that comes from attentiveness and gratitude, along with some much-needed gentleness that overlooks imperfections.