Field Notes: Maple Trees


Monday was the vernal equinox, and though we had a lovely day on Tuesday, the past few days have been brutal and fierce. The mornings run twenty degrees, but the howling wind sets you back another ten degrees. I usually walk down by the river, but the winds whip down the carved channel of the water, and it takes no prisoners. Tuesday was the kind of spring day I like best: the snow melted in the sun, the sound of dripping is everywhere, no wind, and here and there I would see things that had lost their blanket of snow: tulip bulbs sending leaves out, the daffodil buds still sheathed in a thin membrane—will they unfurl? Or is it too far gone? The chives, bursting forth, a little worse for wear, bent and stunted by the cold snow. I even saw my first robin, hopping on the ground, his dear profile immediately recognizable.

After twelve years of being here, we finally got around to tapping some of the magnificent maple trees on our land. I must say that although I like maple syrup very much, I was a little hesitant to drill holes in our trees. Especially after reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohleben. A friend asked: doesn’t it hurt the trees? I’m sure it does—isn’t it a wound? Isn’t sap just the blood of a tree? Sounds particularly dastardly to bleed something so you can boil it down only to pour it on your morning porridge, doesn’t it? Perspective can be difficult sometimes. Most documents I referred to on this acknowledged the possible damage to a tree, though the wound will heal over. As the  trees leaked into the bucket, I thanked them for their sap, though I wasn’t sure what I could give in return. My continued reverence?

I have a deep love for trees. They ground me. When I am walking, though I notice small things here and there, the trees are really what are with me every moment. They are constant. I form relationships with some. Sometimes I take a moment to visit with certain trees I am particularly drawn to, or sometimes if my mind is racing with things I have to get done, I stop and put my hand on a tree to remind me where I am. There is a double tulip poplar that I love—two huge straight poplars coming out of the same spot, shooting into the sky. And there are trees I remember that are now gone, like the old gnarled beech tree that looked like an elephant, or even the mulberry from ages ago, in my back yard, the one I used to climb and eat berries from all summer long. I feel like trees are the whales of the land, deep and mysterious and knowing. Forests always have a certain depth and mystery to them that I feel can be attributed in a great part to trees.

Some of the trees we tapped have been generous—the ones on the driveway, in particular, probably because they are warmer, the snow has been cleared off their roots and the sap is flowing busily. The trees that are further off, and still under snow, are not as forthcoming. Still, I was able to collect a few gallons, and I spent that spring-like Tuesday boiling it off on my propane grill. Maybe not the best or least expensive choice, but the fire pit is still under a foot of hard snow, so propane it would have to be. I started the sap to boil at 9 a.m. By noon it was starting to turn golden, and smelled absolutely delicious: caramel, vanilla and that telltale maple smell. I tapped only sugar maples, as the reds had already begun to bud, and they say that leads to “buddy” smelling syrup. The sap had boiled off quite a bit of water by about two o’clock. I finished the syrup on the stove top for another hour. The resulting syrup was lighter than I expected, and the yield was higher, though I might have not boiled it down enough. But it was sweeter than I expected as well! I had some for breakfast, on yogurt, and it was truly a treat. Bless those trees!



  1. Julia, my first remembered taste of maple syrup was from in the company of my father, just outside the door of a my Great Uncle’s sugar shack where it had been poured out onto the snow to solidify into chewy candy. It was in a time when horse-drawn sleds were the machinery of choice to use in the springtime bush: buckets were emptied by hand

  2. Bless the trees, indeed. I am fully intrigued by your project and I also understand your ambivalence. If you harvest with care, surely the trees will heal. There are certain trees at home — redwood, fir, oak — on which I lay my hand or my forehead when I am feeling overwhelmed or even simply grateful. They are dear friends.

  3. I spent a few years with a crowd of maple syrup makers in Northern Wisconsin. I think we figured it took 30 gallons to make a gallon of syrup. Lots of hard work and staying up all night cooking outside over a fire. It is solid gold!

  4. I totally get your tree love. It all began with the “airplane tree” and the “John tree” in my youth. Now it’s the three magnificent old oaks in a row here (far apart so they are HUGE) and I just adore them. One in particular. Then there’s the hickory by the end of the driveway. The maple by the swing set (that we do tap). And so many more. ❤

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s