Though it’s been a long winter, the maple sap should be flowing — at least on the days above freezing. Maine Maple Sunday is March 23, and Maine and its northern forest neighbors are celebrating the culture and cuisine that is maple sugar season. And while there is actual sweetness in syrup on pancakes, syrup baked into whoopie pies, sugar-on-snow and maple candy, the boiling down to an essential core is a tasty and seasonal apropos symbol this writer cannot pass up any easier than another maple whoopie pie.
The thing about syrup and sap is the ratio. Forty-to-one is often given as the ratio of sap to syrup. You collect 40 gallons of sap, you boil away 39 gallons of water and are left with one gallon of sap. This ratio may hold true in life, as well.
I remember sitting around the kitchen table with my mother and wife discussing some of the challenges life presents. My wife was feeling a bit, shall we say, glass half empty. My mother, the optimist, advised focusing on the moments of joy that really matter. Though not thought of or spoken at the time, the idea of forty-to-one sounds about right — not for the good versus bad or easy versus hard balance, but for the times that really matter when the beauty, wonder, peace and joy of life really shine. You know, the sweet moments.
Here is where the maples extend their symbolic reach even further, at least in my life and I believe in the lives of countless Mainers. The National Survey on Recreation and the Environment tells us that Maine residents participate in outdoor recreation at higher rates than the national average. We hunt, fish, paddle, camp, and more and are, I’d argue, tied closer to the land and water than some communities and regions. What are all these Mainers doing? What are we seeking?
I think we’re looking to boil off the water and get to the syrup. Nature and the outdoors is where so many memories and bonds are forged. The pines, hemlocks, rocky shores and yes — sugar maple stands — are where we seek refuge from the mundane and stressful.
As an example, I recently was in the Moosehead Lake region scouting possible trail locations, and I stopped to switch from skis to snowshoes. In the process of stopping to transition, I rested in the fine crystalline snow. The tranquility and intricate beauty of the powder was like a rich carpet under an intimate cathedral of overhanging alders. A near-silent winter hymn of flakes compressing under my shifting body added to the moment’s stillness. Sheltered from the icy winds that raked my face on the open hillside, this cozy spot beside a still stand of fir and spruce offered a fleeting instance of peace in which hopes, fears, anxiety and even the awareness of thought evaporated like steam lifting off bubbling sap.
I’d add that while tapping trees to make syrup is a late-winter/early-spring event, the sweet core moments we seek in nature are obviously not restricted to this time of year. I can think of many other times of year when a moment is boiled down to an essential and unforgettable experience. A perfect example is one of my favorite mental images.
After a long day at the Fort Popham end of Popham Beach, my family stopped at Popham Beach State Park and walked out on the flat beach at low tide. The low sun bathed Fox Island and streamed across my wife’s bronze yet slightly ruddy back. Her hair was salty, sun bleached and the color of well-seasoned hay bales in a dry loft. My daughter, then not quite 2 years old, lay asleep on her shoulder with the warm sun on her full cheeks. In this quintessential summer moment, something so universal, joyous and right was distilled down from all the boiling, swirling chaos that can typify life. This was a deliciously sweet instant and image that lingers not on the tongue but in the heart. It is also a warm vision with great appeal given the winter we’re trying to pull out of.
I encourage readers to get out with their families and friends and enjoy not just the sights and sounds of spring but also the richness of maple sugaring season (literally and figuratively). Sugaring season presents growing days, warming temperatures, slowly opening waters and a renewed vigor to the animal life around us. It is a great time for sampling nature’s offerings. It can also be a great time to let the breeze carry away the rising steam, leaving only the core sweetness of what matters most in life, that one-fortieth that stirs the heart and gives us our richest joy.
Rex Turner is the outdoor recreation planner for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Bureau of Parks and Lands.