Every school day morning for the past few weeks I’ve cycled to work over ice that‘s just starting to melt in the sun, and every afternoon I’ve returned over slush that is just starting to solidify, with irregular solid chunks of ice buried within. So far I’ve managed to avoid any significant injury or equipment damage in the process. It’s hard to get really frustrated with the conditions even, as they are the surest sign of spring that we’ve got here at the moment.
The other happy thought that keeps me going these days is that these are prime conditions for doing maple syrup. Relatively few people outside the northeast United States, where I grew up, seem to be aware of this important cultural activity. Around the world there are products labeled as “Maple (flavored) Syrup”. But few seem to have any clear idea of where the real thing comes from, when and how it is produced.
To get good maple syrup you need to have the right sort of trees growing in the coldest possible area. The trees need to be good and hopelessly dead for some months of the year for the process to work. If they aren’t frozen up solid on the top during the winter, you won’t get any decent syrup making sap out of them. Then once they have suffered enough, and they become desperate enough to make leaves to gather what energy they can during the summer, you need the sort of weather that cruelly teases them for a while. So in the morning they need to feel warm enough in the sun where they start saying to themselves, “Yes! We can live with this!” and they start shooting all sorts of energy-rich sap up into the branches to start making leaves. But then later in the afternoon it starts to get cold again, the trees start to think un-Christian thoughts about the weather again, and they start to suck their sap back down into the roots where it won’t suffer from the solid freeze coming again that night… only to be fooled again the same way the next day.
The earlier in the season you manage to get some sort of inter-venous tap into the tree to collect some of this energy rich life blood of the maple tree, the more pure sugar water it contains. There’s something particularly sweet about the trees’ time of innocence each spring, when they have their first few dozen false alarms about spring having come. Eventually though a woody cynicism starts to set in, and rather than just sugar water the tree starts sending up more of its deeper brown earthy wisdom as to the disappointments this world has to offer. Eventually the sap becomes too dark and woody for commercial syrup production, and the season comes to an end, leaving the trees to make their leaves and do their best to thrive in peace. The sap is then boiled down to the desired thickness, bottled up and stored for special occasions or shipped off to be sold to those who appreciate the finer things in life.
So there are actually an infinite number of grades of syrup to be had from any given patch of maple trees on any given year. Some connoisseurs particularly like the lightest, sweetest, most innocent syrup from the early season; others prefer the darker, more distinctively “mapley” flavor of later season syrups. In Europe and in more southern climates, however, you can’t really shop around much for finer grades and better years of syrup. You take what you can find and you’re thankful for it!
The Finns do something similar to maple syrup from birch sap in the spring, but it’s not as sweet and it has a pretty powerful laxative effect, so it can’t be appreciated as freely as the classic North American confection. I would image it would be rather easy to grow sugar maples in this part of the world, but to the best of my knowledge no one has done it with any noteworthy success; and with all of the problems that have come with other tree species that have been transplanted around the world, it could well be illegal to try. Besides, it takes close to a man’s lifetime before a sugar maple tree even starts to provide a significant amount of tappable sap in the spring. It takes a pretty old forest to really make it worthwhile.
Now buried within this philosophical acceptance of, and sentimental appreciation for, the current time of year, there are far more analogous lessons for life than I can even begin to tease out for you. I’ll just quickly note some of the basic understandings that all this brings to mind for me:
- The sweetest things in life only come through difficulties and disappointments.
- Sometimes naïve hope is worth expressing even if it does end up getting frustrated.
- Not everyone can appreciate it, but the unique character that comes out of repeatedly facing difficulties without giving up –– the darker aspects of what comes out of us –– are part of the unique character that makes us special.
- When you move on to new adventures in life you can’t always take all of the best of your old experiences with you, but you can bring some little taste of them along, enriching the lives of those you meet along the way in the process.
- You need to be careful how you go about replacing things you start to miss.
- Every season has its purpose, its beauties and its rewards.
- When it comes to changing the world for the better, we need to remember that sometimes the process takes longer than what would allow us to appreciate the fruits of our own labors.
- Some of our best intentions may have unpredictable consequences, and sometimes when we are not able to realize our ambitions that might actually turn out to be a good thing.
With those things in mind, let me go on to say to those I know in New England, New York, Michigan and southeastern Canada in particular, count your blessings, friends!
People in other parts of the world have their own special blessings about which you can understand little from where you sit, but your own blessings are something special. Like everyone, you are able to experience some of these blessings due to your own persistence and hard work in life, but there are other aspects which have nothing to do with your merit and everything to do with random factors working in your favor, or your good fortune to be able to harvest what those who came long before you have cultivated. Enjoy your freedom and blessings in tapping into the bounty that surrounds you then, always being careful to protect the trees and keep this wonderful blessing going for those who come after you.
Those too are ideas worth pondering for their broader implications.
And if any of you find it in your hearts to send or bring me some of your early to mid-season syrup, I will do what is in my power to arrange blessings in return on your lives.