Well, it’s official, this year is the latest start to the sugaring season on this property in over 112 years. The records we found on the walls of the old sugar house go back as far as 1903, giving us a window onto the history of the winters around here at least as far as they relate to tapping maples. The simple story in regards to when it’s time to turn sap into syrup is based on termperature; daytime rises to a minimum of 40 degrees and a return to below freezing at night. That’s a general rule of course and depending upon how well you’ve thinned your sugarbush, it’s alignment with the Sun, the age and vigor of the trees and a few lesser factors like the previous year’s seed production and snowpack, but it’s a good one. The problem is that maples have an internal clock that determines when to begin the process of creating buds by flushing them with sugars and that is set, like most other things on Earth by the Sun at a particular time of year. If the temperatures were to remain cold enough, long enough the biological imperative would still force the expansion of the buds to leaf without benefit of their nutritive requirements, leading to a failure of the tree, perhaps even death. Like a human being who hasn’t eaten until their reserves have been depleted, the body begins to feed on itself. This year our first boil has yet to take place, fully five days later than the longest winter pencilled onto our sugarhouse wall. I hope this does not bode ill for our orchard, but we shall see.
The flow of sap from the maple is based on a process of both positive and negative pressue based on air temperature. The sap flows when the temperatures rise above freezing because the activity of the cells located in the sap wood produce carbon dioxide gas that forces the clear liquid from any wound in the tree. As the temperatures drop again the process ceases creating a negative pressure drawing the fluids back into the cambium, the layer found between the xylem and the phloem where all nutritive functions take place. When using buckets this poses little problem as the sap simply freezes in the hole, but when lines are used the liquid sap remaining in them returns into the tree from negative pressure unless the sytem is on vacuum, whcich we have yet to employ. This sap carries biological contminants found in the lines, bacteria and the like, triggering in the tree a defense that starts to close the wound from inside. From this point production decreases day by day until it actually becomes difficult to remove the tap from the tree, even after as little as three weeks from the initial drilling of the tap hole. The entire process is a race against time, against temperature against the nature of the tree itself. When the snow pack is deep enough — and this year it is — it helps extend the run by a bit, but not much more than that. This year it is clear, whatever climate change we may be experiencing, warming is not the trend. In fact, based on the past thirty years alone, we have had a steadily cooling environment and a shorter season year by year as a result. If everything goes right from this point forward we may yet have some production before the sap “goes buddy” and becomes unpalatable but nowhere near what we would expect in a normal year, perhaps a third at best. From a distance you can see what’s coming, across the bare lacework of trees on the ridges a pale, rose fog has descended as the leaf buds swell. Spring is on its way.
The soils in our part of the state have been built over the course of the last 10,000-12,000 years since the glaciers withdrew during the last serious spate of global warming. The effects of glaciation include the stripping of aeons of soil from the surface of the earth, as if they were bulldozed down to bedrock only to be dumped in the Atlantic. The exposed ledges began the slow process of degredation and breakdown, the forests reemerged and contributed their carbon loads to the mix, the herds of animals and the untold millions of other forms of flora and fauna left their waste and decomposed after death feeding teeming colonies of other life forms within the soil until, after another 10,000 years had passed, a scant carpet of soil has once again covered the landscape. Compared to the soils found in the Mississippi River Valley ours are fresh and young, heavily mineralized and extremely thin. It lies atop a dense mass of glacial moraine and alluvial gravels which makes it porous and prone to rapid percolation. Deeper still, massive glacial aquifers and underground rivers course beneath it all making the region one of the least prone to drought. Combined with its mountainous terrain and dramatic seasonal changes the result is a constant process of erosion that can only be held in check by extensive pasture management or the never ending reforestation that takes place year to year. When the snows melt off and in a sudden manner as they do here the result is mud season, where the frozen soils beneath prevent the absorption of surface water leaving a thick, viscous slurry of decomposed life everywhere.
Today they expect the temperatures to reach 50 degrees, the first time we’ve seen that since October. Some of the big totes are close to full with clear sap and the sugar content this year is higher than in previous seasons for God only knows what reasons. It is already full sunlight out there and there are patches of ground visible on the lower pasture, the knobs and hilltops, but slowly it will spread and connect until we’ll be able to see bare ground once again. While I was out with the chickens yesterday tossing grain to the flock I noticed at my feet thousands of small bright green semi-circles. My eyes aren’t as sharp as they used to be so I had to bend down to get a better view. There, pushing up from the spongey earth, were the emergent leaves of red clover looking for the light once again.
I try to avoid political discussions even when they touch on fundamental realities, like global warming. The people with skin in the game are hypocrites in the extreme; scientists who receive funding from agencies who dictate desired outcomes, popular figures like Al Gore who leaves his carbon footprint across the globe whenever his jet sets down, dictating terms to a class of people he wouldn’t allow to clean his 200,000 kilowatt mansion. You can’t win with people who have already made up their mind and I’m not really concerned with what people think, only with what is. The planet may be warming, but where I live it’s getting colder, year by year and it isn’t the weatherman who lets me know, it’s nature herself. I was driving along the edge of the lake yesterday and as I drove I looked down across the ice turning lavender with the falling Sun, it’s surface dotted with bob houses painted yellow and red, blue and orange. A trio of boys walked in from the center of the lake carrying a stringer of trout. I waved and they waved back, holding the fish up like a trophy. Every year people wager on “ice out”, the exact date when the surface of the lake is free of ice from one side to the other. 1888 was the record, May 14th, but that was the year without a Summer and since then the variation has been kept to a narrow 30 day window. I have no idea when we’ll see water again across the straight where those boys were walking yesterday, but it probably won’t be anytime soon. I do know that we’ll enjoy whatever syrup we do produce in whatever grade we are fortunate enough to get and that between now and then my boots will be covered in mud made of soil that’s come about since the last time a global warming removed the ice sheet from the place where we live today.