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A Taste of Spring

Story and Illustrations by C. W. Norris-Brown

Winter was almost over the year I turned 15 and decided to try my hand at making maple syrup. By that February, I had built a log shack and waited expectedly for the first signs of spring and the rise of the sap in the trees.

By early March, the sun perched higher in the sky, making evenings longer and casting a soft yellow glow on the tree trunks.

The time for making maple syrup is as short as these first yawns of early spring when the warm sun entices the sap up into the trees. In fact, my father told me that when the buds on the sugar maple trees are as large as a mouse’s ear, the sap would lose its sweetness and boiling the sap to make syrup should end. So there was little time to lose. My father helped me buy a small vat-shaped evaporator and the necessary spouts and buckets. We got firebricks from my Grandfather’s job site and built a small fire pit in my log shack.

One day, the sun on my face felt different. The air gave up its cold edge and the wind gently warmed my cheeks like a soft brush. The snow, once deep and white, had begun to fade into the ground or bubble off in the little brooks that wove among the awakening trees. It was time.

It took hours to boil the sap down to make my own cherished quart of sweet maple syrup. The work in the sugarbush began in the late afternoon and carried on far into the late night hours.

My first job was to pound the little metal spouts into the maple tree trunks. Then I would hang buckets from them for the sweet-tasting sap to drip into. I would put lids on the buckets to keep dirt and bark out of the sap, and then I would just let nature do her job. The sap made a sound like a leaky faucet as it dripped into the empty buckets. When a bucket was full, I would pour the sap into a milk can and haul it on a toboggan to what was now my little sugarhouse. Inside that shack was the evaporator, which I would use to boil the sap over my fire pit.

I pulled my toboggan with its heavy load of sap through the woods slipping and sliding on the wet snow. It was like walking on crushed ice. It was a time of wet gloves and pant cuffs and of hands stung red from the snow and cold sap. Chickadees flitted about wondering what was going on. They welcomed the sun with their little songs while breaths of wind softly hummed above me in the bare tree branches.

Late afternoon was the time to begin to boil the sap in my little shack. I stoked the fire and poured new sap into the evaporator long into the evening hours. Making maple syrup from sap meant lots of boiling and clouds of evaporating steam. Inside the shack, it was like sitting in a sugar-frosted steam bath with a warm fire in my face. My back shivered against the pile of firewood that formed my chair. Outside, I could see the moon and the steam of my breath mixed with the wood smoke escaping through the hemlock tree.

By nine o’clock, I had put out the fire and carried the precious yield of my hard work back to the house. My mother helped me find kettles that I could use to boil the liquid down to a fine point when it would become the finished product for the day: about a quart of maple syrup.

By then, I was more than ready for sleep. Once I fell asleep at the kitchen table while waiting for the sap to thicken and woke up to the smell of smoke from burned syrup. That was a sad day, as it took so much work to gather enough sap to bring to the stovetop.

But all the other mornings I ran downstairs to gloat over the product of so much hard work; on the counter stood a sweet liquid delicacy that was the color of golden sunsets and maple buds. It brought fresh memories of steaming mittens, wet boots, and wood-smoked jackets.

A spoonful of the new maple syrup tasted like a woods beginning to blossom into spring.

Charles W. Norris-Brown of Burlington, Vermont, has a PhD in anthropology and has worked in Asia. He started making art in high school, took classes at Penn. State, and more recently took up art again to write and illustrate children’s books. He has a studio in Shelburne. Please check out his website at http://shelburnepondstudios.wordpress.com/artists/charles-norris-brown/