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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Cellar Dweller

By Harvey Silverman

I found it amongst a jumble of various odd pieces of this and that as I began to clean up our cellar, which had been accumulating for thirty years things that could not be thrown out. So many things -- a dull chainsaw file, that homemade bootjack -- that were once thought to have value enough to save. So many things -- the old rusted and nicked straight razor, those scraps of fiberglass insulation -- that, coming upon them, made me wonder and try to recall just what we might have been thinking when we had chosen to keep them. So many things that I now found so very easy to discard.

I was soon lost in reverie; the object I had found was a maple tap, used for gathering sap for the production of maple syrup. In the years before we had acquired that tap, the woman with whom I remain in love and I fantasized about the rural life.

It was the decade of the 70s and back to the land was a seductive notion, with such as Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening abetting temptresses. We thought to meld our professional lives with the natural. Spending the better part of a summer with our best friends, prior address New Orleans, current address a log home on a mountainside near Anchorage, Alaska, reinforced our first steps. What a wonderful time as we joined in their transition to the life we each imagined.

Soon enough we were living the life bucolic. An ancient New England farmhouse in a small town, wood heat, garden, acreage, and so many plans. City in upbringing, step by step we learned the ways of the country. Near the house was a tiny sugar bush, a stand of fewer than a dozen sugar maples that seemed to plead to produce syrup.

In an agricultural bulletin I found a listing for used taps and buckets for sale nearby. The seller was a local native of few words who, perhaps happily but it was impossible to tell, sold us a dozen buckets and taps along with the lids and hooks. I bought a copy of The Maple Sugar Book written by those icons of counterculture rural living, Helen and Scott Nearing, and read it carefully and completely.

At the appropriate time, which according to the common wisdom is between Washington's Birthday and town meeting day, we set out through the snow and drilled by hand a hole on the south side of each sugar maple, carefully hammered in a tap, and hung a bucket and placed the lid.

The sap flowed clear and pure in taste with the slightest hint of sweetness. Collecting the sap was a happy labor, the volume of each bucket's contents as much a surprise as what is found when opening a carefully wrapped gift. Subfreezing nights and warm days were necessary for the sap to run, a sunny day warming the tree trunks ideal. We discovered that different trees produced different amounts of sap, making the accumulation in a bucket unpredictable from one tree to the next. We emptied each into a recycled five gallon plastic pail we carried and thence to a larger drum to await the day of boiling.

I found for sale, again using an agricultural bulletin, a pan for boiling sap in the volume appropriate for the hobbyist sugar maker. The location was further away, a pleasant drive through small towns. The seller was a perky young lady, also a transplant to the rural life, who had discovered limits on her time precluded sugar making and who happily sold the pan to us.

One bright day near March's end we went out to our field where remained all that was left of an old cabin; a fieldstone fireplace. I had carried there a quantity of dry pine firewood which would burn hot and fast. The fire lit, the pan raised up on bricks in the hearth, the boiling began.

By day's end we had reduced our sap to syrup, forty gallons to produce one. The work was pleasurable, casual and unhurried as the sap bubbled and slowly, so very slowly, was transformed from crystal clear to amber, from watery to syrupy, from sugary suggestion to maple sweet. We carefully transferred our syrup to pint sized containers, congratulated ourselves, and planned our dessert of maple syrup over vanilla ice cream.

The next year we called upon our experience to improve our operation. We stacked some concrete blocks to create a better boiling area, raised higher to allow a larger fire and longer to expose the entire pan to the flames, added some old stovepipe to improve the draft, and set it nearer the house. We separately sugared off the earliest run of sap which produced a lighter and more delicately flavored syrup and stopped collecting sap when it began to taste "buddy." We obtained some pint-sized lithographed metal maple syrup containers and filled them with our product.

While we had been busy with our country lives our Alaskan friends had been busy with their own. They had learned to can the salmon they caught on fishing trips to wild rivers and we traded with them, syrup for salmon, excited to bring ours to the post office and delighted to receive theirs.

The following year the Alaskans visited during maple season, helped us collect sap, and one glorious day joined by other friends we boiled our sap, placed eggs into the boiling syrup for a hard boiled snack, and celebrated being alive. There is a photograph from that day, the lot of us sitting in somewhat of a circle, the newest members of the next generation among us, steam rising from the pan.

Within a very few years, we left the rural life, first us, then the Alaskans. Life's journey took us to other places. Our pastoral time had been appreciated and well spent, the memories remaining precious.

My reverie ended. I chose not to discard the tap.

First appeared in Farming Magazine.

Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-02-25
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
04:13:29 PM
beautifully written!
07:28:41 PM
Nice job. Very evocative. I'd want to do that...if I was younger
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