National Geographic : 1954 Apr
Sugar Weather in the Green Mountains 471 Maple Sap Runs with Springtime's Warmth-Syrup and Sugar Bring Welcome Dollars to Vermont Farmers BY STEPHEN GREENE With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerRobert F. Sisson FOR 40 years Fred Clark has been boil ing maple sap into syrup and sugar. Like most practitioners of little-known crafts, Fred has to answer many questions. Some of them are intelligent. Others he de scribes privately as "the darndest things I ever heard." In the place of honor in the latter category Fred places the question put by a sightseer who one day invaded his steamy domain, Martin Brown's sugarhouse near Wilmington, Vermont. Watching as Fred boiled the color less sap down to syrup in the evaporator pan, she asked: "How many bushels of maple leaves do you have to crush to make a gallon of syrup?" In such cases Fred patiently obliges with the story of sugaring. The latter term covers the whole process, from sap gathering to finished product. Come Spring, the Sap Flows During the summer months, Nature manu factures sugar in the leaves of the maple. The process is a complicated one, involving the chemical action of water supplied by the soil, carbon dioxide from the air, and the magic green pigment chlorophyll, which occurs in structures called plastids inside the leaf cells. Within the plastids these raw materials un dergo a chemical change, with sunlight pro viding the energy. The result is glucose, a simple sugar, which is later stored in the trunk and roots of the tree as starch. By the time the sap drips from tapholes in the spring, this compound has again been transformed, this time into sucrose. Sap contains from one to six or more percent of this sugar. Water makes up the remainder of the volume, in cluding a fractional percentage of organic acids and other compounds. During New England's early spring the rise in temperature builds up sap pressure by day; subfreezing temperatures at night keep the buds from coming out. This combination of cold nights and warm days is responsible for sap runs, and farmers depend on a fair pro portion of such weather for a good-sized crop. The Indians explained the process in more lyrical fashion. According to a Menominee leg end, Nokomis, the earth, was the first maker of maple syrup. At that time, the fluid flowed in the form of syrup from the holes Nokomis had made in the trees. To her grandson Manabush, hero of many American Indian tales, this procedure did not appear right. "People must work for their syrup," he pro tested, "or they will form bad habits and be come lazy." So Manabush climbed to a maple's crown and sprinkled it with water, like rain, so that the syrup was diluted into sap. And ever since then Americans have had to work for their maple products, hanging buckets, cut ting firewood, and boiling down the sap. Not that they haven't enjoyed it. When the white man first arrived in New England, he found the Indians had a holiday season in which they gathered maple sap in great bark receptacles. Then they cooked it in wooden troughs by dropping in hot stones, causing the water to steam away and turn the sap into syrup. I had always remembered a childhood visit to a Vermont farm during the sugar season. Before I moved to Vermont, I told my friend Reuben Snow that I'd like to help him with sugaring some spring, if he could use an extra hand. He wired his reply in March: "Sugaring is here. Come when you can. Stay as long as you can." Even Shade Trees Are Tapped I packed snow boots and warm clothing and set out for Wilmington, in the southern foot hills of Vermont's Green Mountains. Here almost every farmer hangs a few buckets when he first feels the warm March sun. Trees along Wilmington's streets during this season are often hung with red and white wooden buckets, galvanized iron and tin pails, and even glass jars to catch the precious sap. From early March to the middle of April sugaring occupies the interest of several thou sand Vermont farm families, and Vermonters are justly proud of their celebrated product.