It is nearing the end of February. One of the old timers I talked to the other day talked about starting to “hang out a few pails” to see if the sap is running in the sugar maples. Warming days and cold nights combined with the longer daylight hours triggers the flow of sap into the branches and buds of the tree, pumping the stored plant food from the roots to the top. Though many plants produce sugars, such as sugar cane and flowers, the harvest of the sap of the sugar maple is unique to North America. Once the season starts, the labor is intense and the excitement is catching. Lasting only a few weeks, the making of maple syrup and sugar is one of the most interesting of outdoor enterprises.
The tree at the center of all this activity is the sugar maple, acer saccharum. This tree is native to the north eastern United States and Canada. In fact, it’s leaf is pictured on the flag of Canada. It is known for its beautiful, hard and valuable wood as well as its glorious fall colors which range from orange to crimson. A woods where sugar maples predominate is called a “sugar bush”.
The making of maple sugar and syrup originated with the native Americans of the northeast who taught it to the early pioneers. This production has evolved into special industry. In the past, a hollow metal tube was inserted into the bark of the trees when the sap started to flow. A pail was then attached which would be emptied by hand on a daily basis into a tank mounted on a sleigh pulled by horses through the woods. I recently watched a syrup gathering competition where the horses did their work without reins, starting, stopping, and turning on voice commands while their masters carried buckets and emptied them into the tank on the sleigh. It looked like great fun–and hard work. Today, plastic tubes replace the metal ones. They are connected to a plastic line that carries the sap to a main collection point. This new method is much less labor intense and recovers more sap.
All of the sap is collected in a large vat next to the building where the “sugaring off” occurs called a “sugar house” or a “sugar shack”. The sap is run across a long shallow pan with baffles called an “evaporator” with a fire under it, often fueled by wood. In this way the excess water is boiled off, reducing the sap to a thick syrup or hard sugar form. It takes 35 to 45 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. The quality of the syrup is greatly affected each year by the type of weather. As you know, in the United States and Canada we use the syrup on pancakes and waffles. The sugar is turned into candy. Today, most of the maple syrup we buy in the store is mostly corn syrup with only a small percentage of the real stuff.
The experience of visiting a “sugaring off” is one that stays with you for a long time. Starting with a horse drawn sleigh ride under the towering trees and ending with the arrival at the sugar shack belching great clouds of steam and wood smoke. At the end you get to taste the sweet sugar and candy. Of course, there is still work to be done in the bottling, labeling and marketing of the final product. What an amazing thing that the Lord has created the sugar maple in such a way that its sap, its life giving sap, can be eaten and enjoyed as a sweet treat by man. This happens at a special time when the trees break their winter dormancy to pump new life from the roots into the buds that become the leaves and new growth later in the spring and summer. In itself, that event reveals an all wise and good Creator, Who made even the trees of the woods to provide not only heat and building material, but also, sweet syrup for our enjoyment.
God’s word often speaks of sweetness in the sense of His blessings upon His children. I am reminded of the sweetness of our new life in Christ when we are born again. We are ingrafted by faith as a branch to Him so that His life’s blood, His sap, if you will, courses through our dead spirit so that we are made alive to grow in Him. Then we enjoy the sweetness of His love and fellowship. What a wonderful, blessed and “sweet” experience it is.
Psalms 19, 104:33,34
O the sweetness that flows,
From the foot of Calvary’s tree.
A taste so sweet for him who knows,
The joy of forgiveness full and free.
Coursing through this dead spirit,
Tapped into the well of Jesus’ love,
Flows a sap of sweetest merit,
Raising from death to life above.
Lord, fill me with Your sweetness,
Make me know Your love and grace.
Teach me humble and gentle meekness,
A reflection of my Saviors face.
What wonder fills this soul of mine,
That my God would love me so.
His grace amazing, His mercy sublime,
Sustaining, protecting from every foe.
This great tree a monument stands,
Of the wonder of Your hands.
Let me also a monument be,
Of Your mercy full and free.