Thursday, 7 April 2016

Ten Trees
March. The view outside the window, now that the snow has mostly gone, is a study in depression - the world is grey and wet and muddy. The sky is overcast - the colour of dirty snow. There is nothing “mud-lusious” or “puddle-wonderful” about it. March is that month that is neither winter or spring. It’s quite simply - dreary. Bleak. Soul-destroying. Many Canadians book escapes to Caribbean islands. Others bury themselves in work, working-out, Netflix or NHL hockey games. Others visit local sugar bushes.  
There are about 16,000 maple-syrup producers in North America. Make that 16,001. This year, my husband and I, who are lucky enough to live on a 100 acres of property which has a few sugar maples, decided to make maple syrup. From scratch. Our woods has a variety of trees - ash, cherry, elm, birch, and one huge old maple tree that’s likely the mother of all the other smaller maples. The tree with the tire swing. I like to believe that we were not the first people to collect its sap.
But I digress. Given the high tech nature of the industry today, we decided to keep it simple. Ten trees. Traditional bucket collection. A basic wood-fired stove.
After some initial purchase and preparation of buckets and hoses and spiles, we were ready. We (he) drilled a hole into each tree, and then inserted a ‘spile’ that essentially “taps” into the sap that is flowing from tree root to upper branches. Hence, the term ‘tapping’, which is also in keeping with the slow, constant drip, drip, tap, tap of the sap into the buckets. Hourly, we checked to see if it was ‘running’ and daily, we were awed by how much sap there was - the buckets were filled to brimming when the days were warm and the night temperature below freezing. Albeit, filled with what is about 98% water - sap contains about 2-5% sugar, along with a host of other good-for-you trace amounts of calcium, potassium and magnesium. You can buy bottled sap - it’s suddenly trendy - and it’s marketed as “maple water”, which seems generally true.
Indigenous People understood the benefits of sap as spring tonic, and they passed the concept to early settlers who celebrated the season because it was a harbinger of spring, after long, lonely snow-bound winters. There is less clear information as to how the process of reducing the sap to syrup came about. However, this is the next step.
So. My husband set up an old wood stove inside cement blocks. It looks primitive, but it works. In no time, we were “boiling down” - which is the process of reducing the sap to syrup. It takes approximately 35-40 litres of sap - which is a fair amount - to produce a litre of syrup. And the process of doing this involves heating the sap so that the water evaporates - nothing else is added - which is why the final product is called “Pure Maple Syrup”. No additives. No preservatives. Liquid gold.
Given our basic operation, and fear of burning the sticky stuff, we decided to finish the reduction process inside the house. Serious syrup producers would likely scoff - but serious syrup producers today use vacuum systems to suck the sap out of the trees, oil- fueled furnaces and reverse osmosis filters. Our operation resembles those images on the “Canadian Pure Maple Syrup” containers where there’s an idyllic log cabin, trees, horses pulling a sled, and a male with a yoke on his back. Granted, making syrup requires a lot of work. And fortitude. After the initial excitement of gathering the sap and the first and second days of “boiling down” - it becomes a ‘labour of love’. The evaporation process is rather like watching a big pot of water steam outside for hours, until deemed almost ready. It takes a certain kind of patience. And faith.
But, back to bringing it inside. We finished each batch on the stove, which meant boiling it for a few final minutes until the bubbles are uniform and slow to form. The aroma of maple filled the house. Suddenly, breathing was like inhaling candy, like smelling purity, like being inside a childhood memory. Like floating on spring.
Canadians get very excited about maple syrup. Visitors from other countries often take home a small sample. It’s quintessential Canadiana in a jar or jug. But the reward of making it from scratch is more difficult to explain. Of course, it has something to do with tasting the stuff - pancakes and maple syrup are synonymous with Easter and hope and spring. We smothered french toast with our own syrup and thought it tasted heavenly: earthy-maple-caramel that’s impossible to describe. And, there is the row of amber- filled jars on the kitchen counter. The first harvest of the season. Rewarding in itself.
But there’s more. Indigenous People called March the “sugar month”. They were right. Making maple syrup - tapping, trekking through the woods, boiling it down - is elemental. Basic. Simple. But that sweetness in our house each evening when we finish another batch is acknowledgement - that it will soon be April, and then May.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


     An hiatus in my blogging life. Suffice it to say that I've been busy. Of course, the word 'busy' is a relative one. Once one becomes accustomed to having 'extra' time, it no longer seems like extra time. Just time that goes flying by, as time and days have an inclination to do. More and more so, lately.

     I dream of drifting on a lake caught inside autumn leaves, of staying still in one silent place and stopping time. Stopping the ravages of time. Stopping the falling away of leaves. But I do have this image from a couple of weekends ago - a long time ago, and not.

Thursday, 26 September 2013


      Yesterday, my father and I visited the O'Hara Cemetery, just north of the village of Madoc. My ancestors on dad's side are mostly buried in the older part of the cemetery, near other stone relics that were once legible gravestones, but are now difficult, if not impossible, to read. I had packed a brush, water, paper, crayons, chalk, and a camera. In the end, the chalk technique worked best on stones with raised writing, while the paper/crayon etching method worked best on writing that is indented. I felt like an explorer.
      We discovered several interesting things, including  my great-great grandparents's burial place, albeit not the marker, and my great-grandfather's actual stone, his name barely legible. In fact, I pulled several limestone markers out of the earth, eager to discover names. I have a genuine reverence for these people, my predecessors, but to be there with my father was also profound. I think he found the experience a validation, of sorts. A confirmation of family history, of roots, of blood.      
       Unfortunately, much can only be imagined, and while my imagination was racing with images of hardship and fortitude, I would love their actual stories. Hence, the importance of markers - they say that we were here once, too, and our lives held narratives that shaped and affected the lives of our children. Some essence of them, genetically and spiritually, is who we are. Perhaps, even, some of their stories. I just have to find them.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013


         I know. Another photo of a sunflower. I like the bee in the middle of this one, the depth of the yellow, the contrast of textures, its affinity with sunlight. It's another glorious September morning, in terms of light and blue sky, but it was a frosty night. There's a fire on in both stoves this morning and it's necessary. I am always surprised at the sudden shift of the seasons - how one day it's summer and then not. The leaves shift, too, ever so imperceptibly. I study the maple tree in the front yard - in a few weeks, it will be sunflower yellow, but for now it is a summer holdout, green and glorious.
         We drove along the highway from Ottawa on Sunday; there are already frequent blasts/bursts of crimson and orange, and in low lying places, blood-red maples reach out of rock and swamp. Autumn is a rally before the end, I think, and it's lovely in its resolve not to be forgotten.

Thursday, 19 September 2013


        I've been spending my extra time doing extra things, such as taking cold, soggy sheets off tomato and basil plants, or stirring tomato sauce (the aroma fills the house with redness), or just foraging through the garden for sneaky zucchini and peas and cucumbers that survived the FIRST FROST.
       Yesterday, I found several yellow zucchini - they have been prolific this season - but decided to leave the ones that have grown to gargantuan sizes. Now that the leaves are withering, they are suddenly. . .  but wait, I have just been interrupted by a loud thump at the window. A partridge, perhaps? They often hit our windows in the fall; they are flying into the light or hopped up on fermented wild grapes. Yup, it left an imprint but was not severely damaged - or worse. Here is what 'worse' looks like:
      This one's in the freezer. Featherless and gutless. I'm not a bird fan, but it's a beautiful bird. Or maybe, it's just that nature's a beautiful thing but we get so caught up in our unnatural, daily lives, that we forget to listen and look. In fact, I feel as if I am just learning to listen and look. I'm enjoying the light these fall mornings - almost fall mornings. I bask in its luminosity, want to fall into it, want to describe how it reveals so many small things. In fact, I think I'll go take some more sunflower pictures. Or maybe, I'll find the perfect tomato. Or a partridge in the apple tree (we don't have a pear tree). Hey, ho.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


            Mornings are lovely things, when there's a visible sunrise. As are moonrises, when there's a visible moon (spell check does not like the word 'moonrise').  This photo was taken by my significant other and I think it's rather good. There's a moon in the lake, or perhaps it's just the reflection of the moon on the lake, but then again, so much depends on one's point of view. Perspective and light.

Monday, 9 September 2013


          Monday. Already, I am looking forward to Friday. It's a modern world work view, I think, this desire to get through the work week as fast as possible in order to luxuriate in TWO WHOLE days to do exciting or relaxing or pleasurable things. This past weekend, we spent a considerable amount of our free time harvesting things from the garden - beans, kale, swiss chard, peas, tomatoes (the tomatoes are an ongoing project for the next few weeks). Not exciting and certainly not relaxing, but gratifying in a way that is difficult to describe. Hey, ho, off to work I go - or I'd best get ready. Never been much of a Monday fan. (Forgot to mention the cabbages which are awe-inspiring. Truly.)