Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Short Tale of Trees, Bees, and Treats First, this post will not be the whole story of the maple sap gathering. I've left the converting of the sap to maple syrup, maple candy, and maple sugar for a later post which will follow fairly soon. I was going to include it all in one story, but photo uploading conspired against me and I had to trim the story to fit the photos. So, on to the explanation of the photos we have got. If all works well, they'll be in the proper order. First, a typical maple tree tap of the type we used to gather sap from the trees. A hole was drilled into the tree and the tap inserted. The center of the tap is hollow, forming a tube-like opening through which the sap flows. The hook is to secure the sap pail to the tree. Then toboggans of the type I used to haul the sap cans on while emptying the sap buckets. Now a sap gathering pail attached to a tree, cleaning the sap pails in summer to be ready for the sap harvest, and an example of pails on the trees in the forest in late winter-early spring. Then on to bee matters. First we have a section of a stackable hive showing the removable trays from which honey & comb is gathered. Next, a comb section removed from a hive, a stack of portable hives with the top section tilted to see inside. Now a set of hives showing typical placement in a field, lastly, a stack of hives ready to be placed around the farm fields. We'll start with the trees part of the sweets story. I was much more involved with this aspect of farm work as R ran the "sugar house" each spring, an added task for several weeks that meant longer and harder hours than usual in order to extract a sweet bounty from the farm's multitude of scattered maple trees. The North American sugar maple tree has a unique quality to its yearly life cycle. After leafing out and growing all summer, the tree sends its sap to its roots every fall to protect the tree from freezing and splitting open. Then, after standing dormant all winter, the tree is activated by changing temperatures heralding spring and warmer weather, in which to resume growing. As this happens, toward the last days of winter and early spring, the sap again rises through the tree bringing nutrients to the limbs. Part of this nutrient mix in the maple tree is sugar, which is carried diluted in the sap. This is the bounty sought every spring by producers of maple syrup and all the related tasty treats. The sap is sweet enough to make a tasty treat of a handful of fresh snow when taken straight from the tree. To get this sap, the trees are tapped as described above and pails hung. Then, every day at sunset or soon after, but before temperatures dropped too much, somebody would take several clean milk cans on two toboggans tied in tandem and gather the fresh sap. The somebody in those years being me, of course. Nowaday the bigger syrup producers have tubes running from tree to tree, and then to the sugar house for boiling down. We had literally hundreds of trees we tapped, and gathering by hand was a long and wearing process, repeated daily for three to four weeks every year, depending on how long the sap was running. A normal day would encompass four to five hours every evening of sap gathering. As I was the one going through the woods tree to tree and emptying the pails, F would go along the woods trails with his pride and joy, one of the first snow machines made in the early fifties. Prior to his purchasing it, the gathering was done with horse and sled. As my milk cans got fuller and heavier, I'd work my way out to the trail and exchange them for fresh cans. F would then take the full cans on a sled behind his machine to the sugar house where they were emptied into holding barrels to await boiling. He'd then return to a point further along the trail to await my re-emergence with yet more of the precious liquid. So you won't think I slaved away steadily, I'll admit to taking a short breather every few trees and scooping up a handful of snow, dousing it with sap, and resting while eating my crude sno-cone style treat. I also carried with me extra pails and a "shoulder yoke, such as is seen even now in places, to carry the two pails on a wooden pole-like device across my neck and shoulders back to the toboggan. This was still quite an effort trudging through the snow with my sweet burden. I don't know the specific amount of sap needed to make a gallon of syrup, but it's a lot, as the sugar house had an unquenchable thirst for the stuff once boiling started. It was all we, and the trees, could do to keep up with the demand since the sugar house boiled down sap twenty-four hours a day every day until the gathering was done and the last ounce of sweetness extracted. Then it would be cleaned and left to sit until the next spring, when it all would be repeated. I think I much prefer the modern method of sugar production, almost all sap gathering is automatic. We'll go a little bit more into the sugar house operation in the next post. For now, I'd like to switch gears to another spring ritual, bee hive distribution. Honey gathering was done almost all summer and the bees tended to by F, which meant I had little to do with it. This was fine by me as, although not fearful of being stung, why expose yourself was my feeling then and now. As much as I love honey, I'd go without if it meant I'd have to handle the bee end of the deal. I much prefer to handle the part that involves dipping slices of fresh-picked apples into the stuff and savoring every bite. But, when lifting was involved, usually I was too. Contrary to popular belief, bees do not hibernate during the cold months. They instead go into the center of the hive and, along with consuming the store of honey left for them for the winter, they form a dense pack with their bodies. The heat generated by this pack can reach temperatures up to 80F\27C at the center, thus protecting the bees on the coldest days. Of course, we helped them out a little bit also. Every fall F and I would go around the fields and gather up the stacks of hives and move them to a lean-to type structure that was open on the south side only. In this way, the hives always got the warming benefits of the sun and little of the cold north and west winds. This not only protected the bees, but it reduced the amount of honey they'd need for the winter to generate heat and lessened weathering's detrimental effects on the hives. Then again each spring, F and I would return the hives to the various spots F had decided to place them for the summer. F was very up on bees and crop cross-pollination science. I say science, for it takes a scientific knowledge of things to get one of God's creatures to help grow his plants. Every year he'd figure out the best way to place the hives for maximum effect. The one constant was the four section stack hand carried through the woods to the small blueberry barren and another smaller hive carried in to the big berry thicket. The others were placed in hayfields, gardens, apple orchards, and in the wood lots. Then, throughout the summer, F would gather fresh honey and honeycomb both for us and to sell in his produce store in the small city. This ensured that we always had bee's wax for my aunt to make candles and seal canning jars, and more importantly fresh honey for our toast, for topping hand-cranked ice cream, and as a vegetable and apple dip. This would be alternated with thick maple syrup saved aside for our use after F had taken the rest to sell. Every time I think of how hard life must have been then, I end up dwelling more on the delicious treats that always seemed to be so plentiful. It's then that I'd gladly trade an honest day of hard labor helping run the farm and all its many operations and demands for just one of my aunts meals, followed by pie & ice cream on the big veranda listening to my uncle's Red Sox game on the battery radio. Take care until the next time we can spend a few minutes roaming the corridors of my memory.



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Patricia said...

Well, another interesting episode about how the farm was run, Mike. Good illustrations of the equipment, also. Makes the process understandable.
In the south, there was "Cane Grinding", where stalks of sugar cane were ground up between 2 big, flat stones and that produced a southern sweetener, cane syrup. The energy used was a mule, hitched to a pole sticking out from one side of the top stone, he walked round and round in a circle, and sometimes you still see the old stones and little worn path where the mule walked, and sometimes someone will do a cane grinding at a festival or the like, so people can see the old process.
I don't happen to like cane syrup much, myself, much prefer the flavor of maple syrup, but really old-timers here are very happy if they can get a bottle of the real cane syrup made in the old way.
All the cane production now goes to big companies who make granulated white sugar or brown sugar out of it, sanitized, standardized, and not a whiff of the social event that grindings used to be. Pity.

Mies said...

Hey, don't know much about maple syrup making, even though I clean leaves from 3 huge messy maples every year and there is no "sugar house" just the "sugar shack" where we, I have had a little bit experience with those honey bees, as you already know. Kansas, summer trip, a little girl of about 5. Dad had to visit the neighbor, who was a beekeeper, for his honey every time we'd go. It must have been very impressive for me, since it's the memory foremost in my mind of that trip, other than sitting in a potato cellar waiting out a tornado...Hello Dorothy!!...
Any way, I wish kids now days could see operations such as the gathering and making of maple syrup and especially experience a beekeeper at work. Good informative story once again, thanks.....